Tag Archives: oceanography

Contrast & Cadence

By Kelsey Bisson

For a while the ocean existed to me as an abstraction. I grew up in Ohio and I’d never been. I imagined it to be the deepest, darkest, scariest, most enchanting thing on Earth and even so, I couldn’t quite imagine it exactly — it was just too big, too distant, too different.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how we require things to be different in order to define our realties. Minutes, hours, days, months and years of being alive have allowed us to define what is ‘normal’ because we’ve experienced numerous ever-changing extremes. Extreme events, extreme people, and extreme ideas are so named for their departure from our expectations rather than for their absolute value, and in doing so we require them to inform our personal and collective understanding of the world. Most simply said, when it comes to understanding complexity so called ‘opposites’ are needed.

bisson1With that in mind I’ve been playing around with how the contrast between the sciences and arts might be used to greater understand ocean cycles.  Everywhere on Earth, cycles emerge. These cycles are essentially opposites in motion, creating a contrast between what is now, what was then, and probabilistically what will be.  Cycles are in a lot of places but in some of the coolest ways they exist in nature and in music. For instance you could define a song for its durable cadence and ephemeral choruses, for its high and low tempos, for the sounds themselves or for the space they leave in the silence. Similarly we can identify patterns in nature that range in magnitude, shape, rhythm, chaos, and duration. These patterns and processes build on each other, much like instruments in a peaking crescendo that crests into dissolution. Inevitably these systems or songs will reset, retreating back into the stillness that birthed them only to begin again sometime in the future.bisson2

What if we could take a song and stretch it out so that instead of lasting a few minutes it lasted a year long and (abstractly speaking) occupied all of Earth? What might that look like? What might that sound like?

This intrigues me because 1) it’s fun and weird to think about and 2) because sound signals are much like natural fluctuations that can be taken as the sum of many perturbations that together form what we see/hear/smell/taste/feel.

When we scale up a song we could expect patterns that are congruent to the seasonal cycles observed in phytoplankton around the world’s oceans. Phytoplankton are organisms (similar to plants in some ways) that are diverse, tiny, photosynthetic, numerous, global, and lazy. They can’t control their movement; they float in the ocean’s surface waters and harvest energy from the sun. When conditions are good, phytoplankton bloom, much like a huge garden in the sea. They breathe in CO2 and actually contribute nearly half of the oxygen we breathe. Recently I had some fun trying to visualize this* and here is the result:

Naturally a song is not the same thing as an ocean. Even so, comparing their contrasting scales can be scientifically liberating. What differences might arise when looking at a milliliter of ocean water compared to an entire ocean basin? What if we study it for a day or what about for ten years? As people we tend to work on time scales of hours and at distances of feet to miles — but in contrast—  phytoplankton time and spatial scales are much smaller and their life cycles are far more rapid than ours. Because of this it’s really important to consider them at their own tempo (not ours) in order to get insights about the greater roles they play in controlling climate and feeding the world’s oceans.

 

* More accurately I’m visualizing the export efficiency, or the fraction of export of primary production from the surface ocean to the deep. The higher this is, the more CO2 from our atmosphere is removed where it can be stored in the ocean for centuries to millennia. This has profound implications for climate and is thus of much interest!


kelsey-bisson

Kelsey uses a combination of satellite data, oceanographic data collected from trips at sea, and ecological theory to understand how plankton export carbon into the deep ocean. She is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

email: kelsey.bisson@lifesci.ucsb.edu

Life in the Clean Van

By Maitreyi Nagarkar, CCE LTER

This past April I went on the CCE LTER El Nino Rapid Response cruise, and it was my first ever time on a research cruise. My own research focuses on samples that I collect right off the Scripps Pier in La Jolla, California, so this was a new and exciting experience for me. I would say the most striking parts of being at sea so long were:

  1. Never having any privacy, ever.
  2. Not having a consistent work or sleep schedule – most of the time I was helping with CTD casts that were at 3am!
  3. Getting used to doing everything (brushing your teeth, taking a shower, eating a meal, running on a treadmill…) while the ship is rocking back and forth like crazy. We encountered some rough weather and there was a whole day where I couldn’t go even a few steps without stumbling around! I pretty much spent that day in bed.
  4. Eating amazing food all the time. Wait…I’m being told this is not always the case. But, the chefs on the R/V Sikuliaq were both amazing! They not only made delicious meals, but also kept us supplied with lots of baked goods every day.

I was helping a research group, the Barbeau lab, that studies trace metals in the ocean, specifically iron. “Trace” means that they are only present in the ocean at very low levels, but they can be extremely important in determining what grows and what doesn’t. Here’s how:

As you might know, the whole ocean food web depends on phytoplankton, the microscopic plants of the ocean. They get eaten by zooplankton, which get eaten by larger zooplankton, which are food for fish, and so on. Basically the amount of phytoplankton in the ocean determines how much of everything else can grow. For instance, if you have a pizza party, and you only order one pizza, that limits how many people you can invite!

So what determines how many phytoplankton can grow? Most of the phytoplankton in the ocean are single-celled organisms, and building a cell requires a specific ‘recipe’ of different elements. Here’s another food example – let’s say you are baking with the following recipe for a dozen cookies:

2 cups flour

1.5 cups sugar

0.75 cups butter

2 cups chocolate chips

1 egg

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

0.5 teaspoon baking soda

And let’s say that you have lots of flour, sugar, butter, chocolate chips, eggs, and vanilla (enough for dozens and dozens of cookies!). But, you only have 1 teaspoon of baking soda. If that happens, then you can only make two dozen cookies because you are limited by the amount of baking soda you have.

This same thing can happen to phytoplankton with the elements they need to grow. In the ocean, there are often lots and lots of some of the ‘ingredients’ that cells need to grow, such as Carbon, Nitrogen, and Phosphorous – these would be like the flour, sugar, and butter of the cookie recipe example. But iron, which cells need only a little bit of, is often not present in the ocean in very high quantities – making it a trace metal. So, just like you were only able to make as many cookies as you had enough baking soda, in the ocean you can only have as many phytoplankton cells as you have enough iron to support.

During the cruise, we collected water at different locations in the California Current off southern the coast of California and measured how much iron was in the water. To do this we used a Trace Metal CTD. CTD stands for conductivity (or salinity), temperature, and depth. This is a standard instrument used in oceanographic research that is dropped vertically in the water to measure these water properties, and it is also used to collect seawater at specific depths with the attached niskin bottles.

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Here we are getting the Trace Metal CTD ready to deploy in the water. We have to put the gray niskin bottles on right before we put it in the water because we want to keep them as clean as possible with no metal contamination! I am in the yellow hardhat, grad student Angel Ruacho is in the black hardhat, and our leader, Kathy Barbeau, is in the red hardhat.

Once the CTD is in the water, we send it down to the water depths we are interested in and get water from each of those depths.

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Now the CTD is ready to go in the water. The ropes we are holding are called tag lines, and we use them to stabilize the CTD so it’s not swinging around and getting damaged… or hitting us in the head.

Then, we rush it into the clean van. The van is a large, self-contained labspace that is closed-off from the rest of the ship that we try to keep very clean so that we don’t contaminate our water samples with iron. This can be very challenging when you work on a ship that is made of metal! We even have to take our shoes off when we go in the clean van. Once inside the van, we begin filtering the water to measure the iron, and it can take a long time. It was quite an experience to be in a small, plastic-covered van at 3 in the morning, holding filter tubing while seriously debating with the rest of our research group who to listen to while we worked: Katy Perry or Nine Inch Nails. We also had many a conversation about whether the Jedi or the Sith were the ‘real’ good guys in Star Wars. Clearly, 3am lab work can inspire some fascinating conversations.

We collected water at many different depths in many different locations throughout the cruise. The filtered water was brought back on land for the iron measurements. After all the long, hard work, we end up with something like this:

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This is the data we end up with – it’s called an iron profile.

This is called an iron profile and shows the amount of iron at each water depth in a particular location. Iron usually gets in the ocean by being blown in as dust, so often there is more iron at the very surface and less deeper in the ocean. This is because the iron is getting taken up by phytoplankton! But, even deeper in the ocean, the iron concentration increases again. Why? Because when plankton die, they sink in the water and get eaten or decomposed by bacteria. As this happens, all of the iron they had within them gets released back into the water, increasing the amount of iron in deep ocean waters.

Because we sampled so many different locations on this cruise, we were able to create iron profiles for many different locations in the California Current. It took many long, sleepless hours in the clean van, but now we have lots of information about how much iron there is in different parts of the Southern California Current Ecosystem, and we can start to compare it to the iron data from previous cruises to see if there have been any changes in the amount of iron available to phytoplankton over time or due to the El Nino event specifically.


mnagarkar.pngAuthor: Maitreyi Nagarkar (mnagarkar@ucsd.edu)

Maitreyi is a PhD student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California. In her research, she uses environmental molecular methods to characterize marine microbial communities and investigate cyanobacterial-grazer interactions.

Look at the Filters on that Rack!

I am a biological oceanographer and I study plankton – microscopic floating plants and animals. That means to do my research, I filter seawater – liters and liters of it. Why? Well, in order to study the small plankton in the ocean, you can’t use a net; they’ll slip right through even the smallest net. So, first I collect a lot of seawater with a specialized container called a niskin bottle (basically a tube with opening and closing ends that capture water), then I need to concentrate and separate the plankton from the seawater. To do this, I use an incredibly important piece of oceanography equipment: a filter rack.  To use a filter rack, you pour the seawater sample into specialized screw-on cups, hook the entire the entire system up to a vacuum pump that sucks all the seawater through a thin plastic filter membrane, and catch all the plankton you want to study on the thin filter membranes. I typically filter seawater through filter membranes that catch very small things (less than 1 micron or 1/10000 of a centimeter!) so that I can catch even the tiniest plankton. I then use these filtered samples for lots of different analyses, from genetics to microscopy, to figure out what plankton are there, how many there are, and what they’re doing.

But, filter racks aren’t just use to study plankton. Measurements of chlorophyll (the light-absorbing pigment in plants), nutrients, and trace metals in seawater all require using filter racks. So, to underscore just how important the filter rack is to oceanographic research, here is a selection of the many filter racks I have come across in my research.

Filter racks come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and levels of sophistication, including lovely hand-crafted solid wood creations complete with the artistic stylings of bored graduate students.

White arrows indicate graduate student sharpie art.

Personally, my favorite type of filter rack is the humble pvc-pipe version that many young oceanographers create themselves after a trip to the nearest hardware store. With some pvc pipe, cementing glue, and bright red on/off valves, you can create a custom, spiffy looking filter rack all your own.

PVC filter racks: the humblest form of filter rack.

Filter racks are multi-purpose too – who needs a darkroom when you can toss a blanket or spare garbage bag over the entire filter rack to protect samples filled with light-sensitive plankton?

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Sometimes, it’s not necessary to have an entire rack of filters when just one filter will get the job done.

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It is debatable whether or not watching the seawater filter makes the process go any faster.  

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And when you’re at sea, sometimes you might need to filter with your life vest on inside the lab – just in case.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But most importantly, biological oceanographers need to remember to smile while doing all that filtering because it gets us all the samples we need for our research.

 

 


freibott_authorpicAuthor: Alexandra Freibott (afreibott@ucsd.edu)

Ali is a PhD candidate at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California and studies microbial ecology in the California Current. She is an avid reader and enjoys taking her dog Louie for long walks on the beach during work breaks.

 

 

 

Follow along with the El Nino Research Cruise!

The CCE LTER researchers are heading out on Tuesday for a 3 week long research cruise focused on investigating the effects of El Nino on our study site: the California Current. We are excited to get some sea time and check out what this recent atmospheric phenomenon means for the biology, chemistry, and physics of this productive region.

Keep up to date on our adventures and day-to-day oceanography research by following us on Twitter or checking out the blog website.

CCE_LTER

What do you do at sea for a month without good internet?

For our research in biological oceanography, we often have to go to sea to collect our biological samples or to measure the temperature, salinity, and chemical components of the water at different depths. We often have to go to sea for days, even weeks at a time without coming into port. Going to sea is a very fun and unique part of our jobs, and allows us to answer really unique questions, like “What are the ecological effects on plankton and fish communities when a large El Niño is occurring?” or “How much plastic debris is in the water in the middle of the North Pacific Gyre?” These are questions we can’t answer from land, or from satellite images. But it does lead to one unique problem that we get asked quite often: What do you do to entertain yourself for a MONTH at sea without good INTERNET??

1. Watch a lot of movies.

a. You can’t rely on Netflix or hulu out there at sea, so you better have that series you’re ready to binge-watch stored on your computer or on DVD. I foolishly brought my own DVDs on the R/V Melville the first time, only to walk into the movie room and discover hundreds upon hundreds of DVDs. On shelves in rows three DVDs thick, in binders that were once organized, in binders where there were unlabeled DVDs, in binders where you find the occasional mix CD from a decade past. So needless to say, there are hundreds of DVDs to watch, if you have the patience to find what you’re looking for.

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There are no pictures of us watching movies, so here’s a lovely sunset view from the ship instead.

2. Read books. That’s right, books.

a. This one fully depends on your ability to read without getting seasick, and thus also on the calmness of the sea. But it is actually really nice to disconnect, unplug, and read those books gathering dust on your shelves rather than yet another buzzfeed article. Because buzzfeed is not loading at sea, friend. So stop trying. The R/V Melville and some other vessels even have libraries where you can read the books left behind by past sailors and scientists. Both the library and movie room shelves have brass bars across them to keep the books and DVDs in place on rough seas.

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Library on the R/V Melville.

3. Play cribbage.

a. I had never played cribbage, and had really barely heard of it, before my first cruise. This is an old sailor favorite, and the crew of almost any ship will be playing it after dinner. If you’re nice, they’ll teach you how to play. One of the benefits of playing at sea is that the pegs won’t move in rough weather. Not so with Mah Jong tiles, which was a sailor favorite on one of our cruises due to the ship having just been dry-docked (laid up for service) in Asia. Those tiles are slippery, and moved all over with the roll of the ship. It was quickly abandoned for cribbage.

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Cribbage time!

4. Draw on cups. And foam heads.

a. What? You’ve never done this? This age-old seafaring tradition actually can’t be any older than 1954, when Styrofoam was invented. What we do is draw on Styrofoam cups and heads with sharpies at the sea surface. Then we attach the cups to a CTD rosette, a water sampler, as it goes down on a deep dive. The air in the Styrofoam escapes under the increased pressure at depth, and the now air-free cups shrink. This shrinking is a one-way process, and the cups come back to the surface much much smaller! The deeper the dive, the smaller the cups. These shrunken cups and heads are a triple-threat as a favorite cruise pastime, our favorite cruise souvenir, and the cheapest gift to make for friends and family.

(Top left) Styrofoam  heads and odd scientists, before shrinking. (Bottom left) Shrunken styrofoam cups that went 3500 meters under the sea!(Right) More shrunken sytrofoam heads and cups. 

5. Do science.

a. What we actually spend almost all our time doing is of course not watching movies or playing cribbage, but collecting samples and deploying equipment. Going to sea is amazing because we get to interact with all those preserved animals we have seen back in the lab freezers and in jars of formaldehyde, but we see them in vibrant color, alive and moving. I get to see how that salinity and temperature data is collected, and what all those labs on my hall actually do to get their samples. The best thing to do when your shift ends on a cruise is to volunteer at least once a cruise to help with every other shift to really see what each group does and how they collect their samples. Then when you need that data back in lab, you have a holistic understanding of where it came from, and how the CCE functions together.

(Top) Scientists enjoying the sun on deck during a break. (Bottom left) Setting up scientific equipment in the ship’s lab. (Bottom middle) Deploying an enormous net, called an Oozeki net, that will be dragged behind the boat to catch fish and other exciting creatures from deep in the water. (Bottom right) Sifting through what was caught in a trawl net, including an absurd amount of urchins.  


brandon_authorpicAuthor: Jennifer Brandon

Jenni is a fourth year PhD candidate at Scripps Institution of
Oceanography in San Diego, CA. She quantifies the spatial and temporal distribution of marine microdebris and studies the ecological effects of marine debris.  She loves Duke basketball, Giants baseball, and traveling as much as possible.