Notes from the Field

Searching for the Bluest

September 20th, 2017 by Joaquín E. Chaves-Cedeño, NASA/SSAI

It doesn’t take a lot of technology to see that the ocean is blue. And when it comes to the blueness of the ocean, it doesn’t get much more blue than where I am. I’m sitting on the research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmerthe largest icebreaker that supports the United States Antarctic Program—on an oceanographic expedition across the South Pacific Ocean, my current home, office, and laboratory. On this voyage, however, the Palmer has broken no ice.

Our Global Ocean Ship-based Hydrographic Investigations Program (GO-SHIP) P06 campaign departed Sydney, Australia, on July 3, successfully ending the first leg of this journey on August 16 in Papeete, French Polynesia (Tahiti). This is where our team from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (Scott Freeman, Michael Novak, and I) joined dozens of other scientists, graduate students, marine technicians, officers and crew members, for the second and final leg that will end in the port of Valparaiso, Chile, on September 30.  The GO-SHIP program is part of the long history of international programs that have criss-crossed the major ocean basins, gathering fundamental hydrographic data that support our ever-growing understanding of the global ocean and its role in regulating the Earth’s climate, and of the physical and chemical processes that determine the distribution and abundance of marine life. This latter topic regarding the ecology of the ocean is what brings our Goddard team along for the ride.

The P06 ship track, for the most part, follows along 32.5° of latitude south. That route places our course just south of the center of the South Pacific Gyre—the largest of the five major oceanic gyres, which form part the global system of ocean circulation. The Gyre—on average—holds the clearest, bluest ocean waters of any other ocean basin. This blueness is the macroscopic expression of its dearth of ocean life. We have seen nary a fish nor other ships since we departed Tahiti—this is not a major shipping route. Oceanic gyres are often called the deserts of the sea. On land, desert landscapes are limited in their capacity to support life by the availability of water. Here, lack of water is not the issue. Water, however, is at least the co-conspirator in keeping life from flourishing. Physics, as it turns out, is what holds the key to this barren waterscape.

This map (above) shows the MODIS chlorophyll climatology with the ship track superimposed.

Due to the physics of fluids on a rotating sphere, such as our planet, the upper ocean currents slowly rotate counterclockwise around the edges of the center of the Gyre–as a proper Southern Hemisphere gyre should—and a fraction of that flow is deflected inward, towards its center. With water flowing towards the center from all directions, literally piling up and bulging the surface of the ocean–albeit, by just a few centimeters across thousands of miles–gravity pushes down on this pile of water. This relentless downward push puts a lock on life. The pioneers of life in the ocean, the tiny microscopic plants, known as phytoplankton, which drift in the currents, and grow on a steady mineral diet of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and phosphorus, and a dash of iron—and expel oxygen gas as a by-product, to the great benefit of life on Earth—must obtain most of their material sustenance from the ocean below. Layers of denser water trap the nitrogen and phosphorus-rich water at depth, keeping it too far down, where not enough light can reach it to spark the engine of photosynthesis that allows plants to grow.

Why are we here and where does NASA come into this story? Since the late 1970s, NASA has pursued—experimentally at first, and now as a sustained program—measuring the color of the oceans from Earth-orbiting satellites as a means to quantify the abundance of microscopic plant life. Microbiology from space, in a way. Formally, though, we call it “ocean color remote sensing.”  Whizzing by at altitudes of several hundred miles, atop of the atmosphere, bound to polar orbits that allow satellites to scan the entire surface of the globe every couple of days, carrying instrument payloads of meticulously engineered spectro-radiometers—cameras capable of measuring the quantity and quality, or color, of the light that reaches its sensors. This is where our work aboard the R/V Palmer comes into the story. The data the satellites beam down from orbit do not directly measure how much plant life there is in the ocean. Satellite instruments give us digital signals that relate to the amount of light that reached their sensors. It is up to us to translate—to calibrate—those signals into meaningful, and accurate, measurements of plant life—or temperature, salinity, sediment load, sea level height, wind and sea surface roughness, or any other of the many environmental or geophysical variables satellite sensors can help us detect at the surface of the ocean. To properly calibrate a satellite sensor and validate its data products, we must obtain field measurements of the highest possible quality. That is what our team from NASA Goddard is here to do.

Around midday, typically the time of the ocean color satellite flying over our location, we perform our measurements and collect samples. We measure the optical properties of the water with our instruments to compare what we see from the R/V Palmer to what the satellites measure from their orbit above Earth’s atmosphere. At the same time that we perform our battery of optical measurements, we also collect phytoplankton samples to estimate their abundance, species composition as well as the concentration of chlorophyll-a, the green pigment common to most photosynthesizing organisms like plants, including phytoplankton. By collecting these two types of measurements at once, light and microscopic plant abundance, we are able to build the mathematical relationships that make the validation of the satellite data products possible.

The optical instrument being lowered into the South Pacific Ocean. Credit: Lena Schulze/FSU

Scott Freeman of NASA works with a R/V Nathaniel Palmer crew member to prepare an instrument for deployment over the side of the ship to collect opHcal measurements. Credit: Lena Schulze/FSU

Mike Novack of NASA studies the optical and biological characteristics of seawater samples in the ship’s laboratory. Credit: Joaquin Chavez/NASA

The waters of the South Pacific Gyre are an ideal location for gathering validation quality data, perhaps one the most desirable to do so, because there are few complicating factors and sources of uncertainty that blur the connection we want to establish between the color of the water and phytoplankton life abundance. Our measurements will extend NASA’s ocean chlorophyll-a dataset to some of the lowest values on Earth.  The water here is blue; in fact, it’s the bluest ocean water on Earth.

This false-color image is a composite, assembled from data acquired by the the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite between September 10-17, 2017. Yellow represents areas with the highest chlorophyll concentrations and purples are the lowest. Credit: Norman Kuring/NASA

Phytoplankton Sampling Strategies

February 20th, 2017 by Zrinka Ljubešić

Plankton comes from the greek word planktos, meaning wanderer. It does not define a specific organism, but rather a specific life style. Plankton consist of all organisms dispersed in water that are passively driven by water currents or are subject to passive sinking process. Some of those organisms have an ability to produce oxygen and sugars using sunlight and CO2, just like terrestrial plants do. We call them phytoplankton (greek: phyton -plant ).

Phytoplankton are the wandering meadows of the ocean and an important base of the food web. Most of the phytoplankton are smaller than the width of the single human hair. They are feeding the hungry ocean, and the phytoplankton composition determines the diversity of organisms developing on the higher trophic levels like fish, birds and mammals. It is not only important for organisms living in the ocean, but it is crucial for all life on Earth. Consider the size of the oceans covering our blue planet for a moment – the amount of phytoplankton every second breath that we take the oxygen is produced by phytoplankton.

This is microscopic picture of a diatom called Leptocylindrus, a kind of phytoplankton. Phytoplankton feeds the ocean, and the phytoplankton composition determines the diversity of organisms developing on the higher trophic levels like fish, birds, and mammals. Colleen Durkin

How To Begin?

When it comes to phytoplankton, it is not just the quantity, but also the quality that matters. You may wonder how can researchers sample something that we cannot see that exists in an environment where we cannot be in? How can we catch something that is passively driven by currents and changing all the time? How can we get the insight of the abundance of some particles that are unevenly dispersed in an ocean? Since the discovery of the microscope scientists have been trying to find answers to those questions.

Here, on R/V Falkor we are combining traditional methods of phytoplankton analysis – such as preservation of water for later, onshore analysis under a microscope – with the new, recently developed methods of onboard image analyses. Discrete samples are taken with the Niskin bottles at the specified depth. The sampling depth is chosen according to the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the water column that are measured by the instruments mounted on the rosette, and controlled from the science control room. Once the rosette is on deck, the samples are taken from the Niskin bottles and prepared to be either stored until they return to land, or analyzed on board. The great advantage of the onboard image analysis is that it lends an instantaneous snapshot of the phytoplankton composition and abundance, which allows you to adapt your sampling strategy and use the time spent on the ship in a better, more productive way.

Discrete samples are taken with the Niskin bottles in each CTD cast, at specific depths. The sampling depth is chosen according to the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of the water column. SOI/Mónika Naranjo González

The flow-through system onboard the R/V Falkor allows us for continuous sampling of the surface water for physical, chemical and biological properties, including phytoplankton composition with Imaging Flow Cytobot. This amazing instrument samples from the flow-through system every 20 minutes, and takes images of particles contained in 5 mL (100 drops) of seawater. Therefore, as we steam through the Pacific or as we stop to conduct some other measurements, we are continuously gathering high-spatial information about phytoplankton abundance and composition. The advantage of taking images vs. looking at the cells through the microscope is that you can always go back to your sample if needed. That helps us that help to have comparable results and minimizes the error of phytoplankton counting and taxonomy misidentification.

The Imaging Flow Cytobot is one of the state-of-the-art technologies used on the current expedition. As Falkor sails, a pump runs seawater through the instrument, which takes pictures of all the particles present. SOI/Ivona Cetinić

The Future….

Will the modern methods of high-resolution imaging ever substitute traditional microscopy? I would say – no. While continuous sampling techniques give us amazing insight into the spatial distribution of the phytoplankton and inform best sampling strategies, classical microscopy gives us insight into the detailed morphological characteristics that are needed to be seen from multiple angles to really be understood. The phytoplankton taxonomy is under constant revision and change as the new methodologies develop. With more knowledge and deeper insight, we do find answers to existing questions, but we also encounter more questions that need to be answered. The combination of the traditional and modern methods is the best strategy to understand the secrets of these beautiful oceanic wonders.

The Ocean’s Colors From Space

February 17th, 2017 by Antonio Mannino

A radiometer installed in the bow of Falkor takes color measurements from both seawater and sky. SOI/Kristen Carlson

Earth’s ocean is vast and deep, and we still need to study many things about it. To investigate and quantify biological and chemical processes, for instance, we need to determine the concentration and size of particles (living and non-living organisms) floating in the water, dissolved materials, and the diversity of organisms such as the microscopic photosynthetic phytoplankton. Their study requires both direct measurements by deploying instruments at sea or analyzing water samples, and satellite remote sensing.

Particles and dissolved organic materials scatter and absorb the sunlight that enters the ocean, which alters the ocean’s color. For instance, the first site that we sampled contained low abundances of particles including phytoplankton and dissolved organic materials, which translated to clear blue waters. Higher abundances of phytoplankton result in greener seas because of their chlorophyll pigments.

Sea to Space

Since 1978, NASA has applied satellite remote sensing to study phytoplankton. The image depicts chlorophyll concentrations in the ocean. NASA/Norman Kuring

Since 1978, NASA has applied satellite remote sensing to study phytoplankton though its experimental Coastal Zone Color Scanner. Several other sensors followed from 1997 to the present. By 2022, NASA expects to launch the next generation ocean color satellite sensor for the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, and Ocean Ecosystem (PACE) which is currently being developed. This PACE sensor will provide unprecedented detail on the color spectrum and intensity of the light exiting the ocean’s surface, which will be used to infer a lot of information about our oceans, including the concentration and size of particles and dissolved organic materials, the diversity of phytoplankton, and rates of phytoplankton growth within the ocean’s sunlit surface layer.

To successfully apply the capabilities of the PACE sensor requires the development of relationships between ocean data (such as chlorophyll-a) and how it affects the color and the amount of light that will be measured by the satellite. One of our goals for participating on the Sea to Space Particle Investigation in the northeastern Pacific Ocean aboard Falkor is to collect biological, chemical and optical measurements in order to build these relationships.

To be able to do so, much of our work at sea involves development and evaluation of new methods and measurement capabilities to ensure that the data collected are of sufficient quality for application with satellite remote sensing. For example, to quantify phytoplankton growth rates, we are conducting experiments with phytoplankton and measuring the oxygen produced and carbon dioxide consumed over time.

Only satellite remote sensing can provide the comprehensive data sets across space and time needed to study the state of Earth’s vast ocean. The ocean moderates our weather, provides food, medicine, energy resources, recreation, and many other benefits. Improving our understanding of the ocean will help us better predict how it will change in the future.

Antonio Mannino, Oceanographer, installs a Coulometer in Falkor’s wet lab to measure particle productivity in water samples collected during the expedition. SOI/Mónika Naranjo González

Phytoplankton in Three Phases

February 15th, 2017 by Aimee Neeley

I always knew that one day I wanted to study the ocean, even though I grew up just north of Pittsburgh and had never seen the ocean. After graduating high school, I attended the College of Charleston in South Carolina where my plan from the start was to major in Marine Biology. I began my junior year in college with no idea what I wanted to do with this very broad degree. Then I took the required oceanography course – after that, oceanography and phytoplankton (aquatic plant life that is microscopic) were in my life permanently.

Aimee Neely, Biological Oceanographer, is studying particles using a FlowCam, an instrument that takes pictures of all the particles in the water flowing from a pump located in Falkor’s aft. SOI/Mónika Naranjo González

Phase 1: What Are Phytoplankton?

For an undergraduate project, I measured the response of several species of phytoplankton to different light intensities by measuring the concentration of their photosynthetic pigments, the compounds that collect light for photosynthesis. Pigments can also be used to identify specific groups of phytoplankton. During the second year of my Master’s program for marine biology, I participated in my first research cruise on a Canadian Coast Guard vessel that sailed from Dutch Harbor to Barrow, Alaska. I got my first taste of filtering, which is the collection of particles onto glass fiber pads that can be used for various analyses. Despite my initial bout of sea sickness in a near flat sea state, I was hooked.

In 2007 I pursued a research opportunity at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences where I was ship-bound once a month measuring the sulfur-based compounds made by phytoplankton that are thought to enhance cloud formation when they are outgassed to the atmosphere. For years, what I knew about phytoplankton was based on chemistry and physiology.

Samples filtered by Aimee will be processed back on land to measure different pigments in order to identify the planktonic organisms contained in it. SOI/Mónika Naranjo González

Phase 2: We Can Measure Phytoplankton from Space?

In late 2008, I left the beautiful island of Bermuda (crazy, right?) for Maryland to work at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Before this time, I knew nothing about satellites or ocean color remote sensing. While working at NASA I have learned that everything in the ocean – dissolved compounds, phytoplankton, and particles – absorb and scatter sunlight. Using this information about the color of the light reflecting out of the ocean, we can translate this light into information about what types of phytoplankton are in the water column.

High temporal and spatial resolution observations in the global ocean are just not feasible as we are limited by time and resources. Therefore, we make use of additional tools to fill in the gap for global and regional oceanographic observations. Satellite ocean color observations provide global ocean coverage, reaching time and space beyond our capabilities with research vessels and, therefore, may fill in the data gap where field measurements are limiting.

A satellite image shows Falkor’s track and the colors in ocean water. Colors indicate the amount of chlorophyll, where red is the highest and blue the lowest. SOI/Mónika Naranjo González

Phase 3: Learning How To See Phytoplankton

Ground truthing of these measurements of phytoplankton types through ocean color remote sensing is necessary but challenging. We can use phytoplankton pigments to derive a certain amount of information but the addition of microscopy is ideal, as then we can see which species are in the water. One of the newer technologies in the field is imaging flow cytometry, a technology that combines the best aspects of microscopy, flow cytometry and digital imaging.

Water is fed through the instrument at a specific magnification wherein a camera can be triggered to take a digital image of each particle or phytoplankter that passed by the field of view. Imagine how high spatial resolution of these data will help us to ground truth the phytoplankton type products that we retrieve from satellite imaging. On the RV Falkor, we have two forms of this technology to sample, not only the surface of the ocean, but also at depth. Having never spent much time in front of a microscope myself, I am learning so much from the skilled scientists around me who can look at an image and almost immediately identify to which genus and/or species the phytoplankton belongs. I hope to gain this knowledge as I learn and use this instrumentation.

The Flow Cam is an instrument used by Aimee to identify particles in the water. Water is fed through the instrument at a specific magnification wherein a camera can be triggered to take a digital image of each particle or phytoplankter that passed by the field of view. SOI/Aimee Neeley

Maiden Voyages

February 14th, 2017 by Mónika Naranjo González

Melissa Omand, interdisciplinary physical oceanographer from the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, was confronted with a conflict: it was time for an upgrade to her phone, but creating more technological trash did not feel right. Plus, the camera on her older phone was fantastic. Together with her first graduate student Noah Walcutt, she worked on optimizing better battery life, as well as fabricating an underwater housing and a lighting system for her “outdated” gadget. This to her remains the best part of her job: creating and testing new instruments, as well as repurposing existing ones.

Creating and testing new instruments, as well as repurposing existing tools, are some of Melissa Omand’s favorite aspects of her job. Melissa is a Physical Oceanographer currently sailing on board R/V Falkor. SOI/ Mónika Naranjo González


Melissa and Noah are working with two different novel instruments in this cruise. The first one is a time-lapse camera developed after repurposing her previous mobile. The phone will dangle at the base of a 150 meter wire, deployed as part of the Wirewalker assembly. For three or four days, the camera snaps pictures of the base of a sediment trap which collects falling particles called marine snow. Up until now, Melissa and her colleagues Colleen Durkin and Meg Estapa have been able to identify what kind of particles fall into the traps (and at what time this happens) by analyzing the material preserved in a special gel. They have also learned that particles fall in pulses as opposed to a steady flow. However, they are still not sure about which types of marine snow sink with each pulse, and how these are connected to the phytoplankton community above. They hope the images taken by the camera will provide a new piece to complete the puzzle that is carbon storage in the ocean.

Melissa Omand deploys the sediment traps as part of the Wirewalker, while Oliver Hurdwell observes closely. SOI/ Mónika Naranjo González

Stepping in

A second novel instrument Melissa has brought on board is a holographic camera. Unlike traditional photography, a holographic image is obtained when a laser beam hits an object and either bounces off of it or goes through it, bending the light. More a computer than just a camera, the instrument combines diffraction data with math in order to reconstruct the light’s journey after interacting with the object (in this case, a planktonic organism). Tracing the behaviour of the light provides an enormous amount of information about the object’s characteristics in three dimensions. The result is an image that allows the experts to focus on different planes, and not in just one single depth of field.

This is interesting both because it vastly increases the volume sampled by enabling the scientists to choose where to focus on a picture that has already been taken, and in that it enables a very exciting application: Virtual Reality.

Noah Walcutt examines the holographic camera installed in the CTD rosette. The camera is able to capture around 40 000 images in a single CTD cast. SOI/ Mónika Naranjo González

Numbers, numbers…

Cut a single hair a hundred times and you will get something resembling the size of a few microns. That is the resolution that the holographic camera can capture in a single photo: 16 photos per second, 100 particles per hologram in average, 40 thousand holograms per dip in the ocean. The numbers begin adding up fast, so Melissa knows it is time once again to create something from scratch: their own pathway for data management, processing and analysis. This is why she began working with Ben Knorlein, a computer scientist from the Center for Computation and Visualization from Brown University.

Not only is Ben in charge of designing an efficient way to deal with all of the information yielded by the holographic camera, but he is also the mastermind behind the software that allows scientists to step into the holograms and interact with the particles in a Virtual Reality environment. This has been the first time Ben has ever been at sea. He assists researchers in the deployment and recovery of scientific instrumentation, and more importantly, he is gaining a deeper understanding of what they are looking for, becoming familiar with their thought process and expectations. All of this experience is vital for Ben to improve the software so scientists can have faster access to the information they need to extract from each holographic image.

No other ship could have given the team the opportunity to work efficiently with these images on board. Falkor’sHigh Performance Computer enables Ben to process tens of thousands of images in a single day, generating data immediately. Each day Ben sits at his working station in the Dry Lab, fine tuning parameters and settings to offer Melissa and Noah new options. Once back ashore, this cruise’s intense collaboration will have made the trio tighter than ever, and they will walk away from Falkor carrying invaluable new information, instruments and software.

Ben Knorlein, Computer Scientist, observes Melissa Omand as she reacts to the first Virtual Reality experience created on board Falkor from holographic images of plankton suspended in the water. SOI/ Mónika Naranjo González