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Testing the Waters


Testing the Waters
Research cruise to the subarctic Pacific is a high seas adventure that adds to our understanding of how iron works in the oceans

About the Photo: A rosette package with 24 sample bottles is deployed to measure the structure of the water column. The goal of the research is to better understand how natural fluctuations of iron and other nutrients affect phytoplankton. Research expeditions like this one are constantly breaking new ground and adding to a rapidly growing body of knowledge about how oceans really work.

Testing the Waters

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Like a lot of kids who grew up in the '60s and '70s, I watched the exploits of famed French scientist Jacques Cousteau on television and imagined how cool it would be aboard the Calypso, exploring ocean depths, filming whales and dolphins.

By the time I hit my 40s, it was pretty evident that opportunities for such high seas research and adventure passed me by. All I could do was vicariously experience what such exploration must be like by interviewing University of Maine scientists doing that kind of work. In my job as a UMaine multimedia producer, I was constantly fascinated by their descriptions of research trips to the polar regions, the jungles of the Caribbean or the wilds of Maine. But that's as close as I thought I would ever get.

One of those researchers is Mark Wells, an associate professor of marine sciences at UMaine. Through the years, he and I came to know each other through our daughters, who take dance classes together. Our families got together on occasion when, more often than not, he had just returned from a research cruise or a trip to Antarctica.

I loved hearing his stories about battling the elements to do his work. Half-jokingly, we related how great it would be to document one of these trips on film.

About a year ago, wishful thinking became reality when Mark Wells invited me to join him on a summer 2007 research cruise to the subarctic Pacific. He was leading a team of 22 researchers and students from three universities on a month-long cruise to investigate plant life in that region of the ocean.

Specifically, he was studying why phytoplankton aren't growing as they should.

After discussing it with my colleagues, the decision was made. I would join the cruise and spend about two weeks at sea.

It was enough to make me start humming a few bars of John Denver's Calypso.

We're going where?

Video production in the field is challenging enough when you're on land. But at least on shore, you can find a store where you can buy batteries when you run out or you can have a replacement part shipped in if something breaks. Preparing for this trip gave the term field production a whole new meaning.

I spent months going over equipment lists and talking online to colleagues who had done similar assignments. I packed two of everything (except for the camera), preparing for any conceivable contingency.

Where I was going, FedEx doesn't deliver.

May 17, I caught a flight to Ketchikan, Alaska, where I boarded the R/V Thomas G. Thompson, a 274-foot research vessel owned by the national Office of Naval Research. After hugging the coast for a day, the ship headed to open water, 1,000 miles west of Seattle.

Our destination was an area literally in the middle of nowhere called Ocean Station PAPA. For oceanographers, this is an important region because it has the longest record of offshore oceanographic observations, initiated by the Canadian weather ship sampling program in December 1949.

It wasn't the Bahamas, but, hey, I was game.

Death wish

One of the first items on my packing list was a seasickness remedy. With my long history of motion sickness in cars and on airplanes and short boat trips, I dreaded the inevitable.

"Everyone gets seasick for at least a few days," Wells told me, "but you'll recover. Just rest in your bunk and work when you can."

I wasn't taking any chances; I packed just about every cure I could think of patches, over-the-counter pills, powdered ginger. I also made a mental note of what to do once seasickness hits: Keep eating no matter how bad you feel. Stay hydrated. Stand at the back of the boat and look at the horizon. Get plenty of fresh air.

I thought I was ready. But by the second day, seasickness had me in a strangle hold.

According to on the Web, "seasickness happens when your body, inner ear and eyes all send different signals to the brain, resulting in confusion and queasiness." My description is less scientific. At first, I was afraid I was going to die. Then I feared I wasn't going to die. I spent at least two days incapacitated weak and nauseous, with cold sweats. Getting in and out of my bunk was a major effort.

My savior was Peggy Hughes, a lab technician from the University of California Santa Cruz. She shared her remedy with the caveat that it may cause drowsiness.

I took one pill and promptly slept for a straight 18 hours. But, I was not seasick.

After that, I took a small piece of a pill each day and was fine. I even listened to the horror stories of some research cruise veterans who told of their battles with seasickness. Imagine being so nauseous you can barely stand, yet you're working 16- to 20-hour days in a laboratory while 20-foot waves pound your ship.

My respect for the work these scientists do grew exponentially.

The science

What was the point of going through all this effort to essentially bring a floating chemistry lab, complete with a clean room, to the middle of the Pacific Ocean? It turns out that Ocean Station PAPA is one of three areas in the world with a lot of nutrients in the water, but not nearly as much ocean plant life as you would expect. It's important to find out why, because these single-celled ocean plants phytoplankton are the basis for most life in the ocean and, by extension, life on our planet. These plants are eaten by tiny critters that turn into bait, which ultimately feed everything from shrimp and fish to walruses and whales and, of course, humans.

In addition, phytoplankton play a major role in controlling global climate. Trees and plants take in carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, absorbing huge amounts of this greenhouse gas. In turn, these plants provide the oxygen that sustains life on Earth. At least half of all the photosynthesis on our planet is done by phytoplankton, even though the largest of these plants is about the width of a human hair.

It turns out that a lack of iron, a micronutrient for plant and animals, is a major limitation in phytoplankton growth. Here in the subarctic Pacific, unlike most ocean regions, there's not enough iron and, in some cases, copper, for the plants to use up the plentiful macronutrients of nitrogen and phosphate.

It's as if you threw a bunch of fertilizer on your lawn, but the grass just wasn't growing any better, says Wells.

Looking for answers

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Mark Wells and the other scientists came to conduct experiments. But it's not just a matter of putting samples of ocean water into a bunch of test tubes and beakers on a bench. The very ship on which we sailed is made out of iron, which can quickly change the chemistry of the water. Samples had to be pumped in special ways to avoid being contaminated by the metal "halo" around the ship.

Once on board, the water was carried in plastic tubing directly into a clean room, much like those used in the semiconductor industry. There, water chemistry was analyzed. Scientists then added tiny amounts of iron, copper and other nutrients to see the effects on phytoplankton growth.

The research goal is to better understand how natural fluctuations of iron and other nutrients affect phytoplankton.

The work is exceedingly precise. UMaine Ph.D. student Eric Roy described the measurements they were making as equivalent to trying to detect a single drop of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool. It's labor-intensive work that can go on 24/7.

In the spirit of college all-nighters, the work often is fueled by coffee and chocolate.

While some data were analyzed on board, the number crunching continued once the scientists came ashore. Oceanographic research of this type is more a marathon than a sprint. Mark Wells likens it to working on a very large puzzle without a clue what the final picture will look like. Scientists keep putting together pieces and pushing the knowledge forward.

It can be a frustrating process in a world that looks for easy, quick answers to complex problems.

Serious exploration of the role of iron in this whole process has been going on for two decades. Experiments on the role of iron were proposed as far back as the 1930s, but it was the application of clean room-type techniques that first showed in 1988 that iron limitation existed.

Research expeditions like this are breaking new ground and adding to a rapidly growing body of knowledge about how oceans really work. I heard more than one scientist say that we know far more about planets in our solar system than we do about oceans covering three-fourths of our planet.

Life aboard ship

The ship I called home for two weeks, the R/V Thomas G. Thompson, is one of the newest vessels in the national oceanographic fleet. According to the University of Washington School of Oceanography where it is operated as part of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System, the Thompson carries a crew of 21 and as many as 37 scientists. Its features include a more than 4,000-square-foot laboratory.

I wasn't sure what living on a ship would be like, but I had a sneaking suspicion it wasn't going to be like a Carnival cruise.

My first clue about what I was in for was the high-decibel noise. It's everywhere. Wind, engines, fans, scientific instruments being lowered into the water, pumps. There's no quiet, even in your bunk, where the water about 4 feet from our heads sounded like a huge waterfall. Big waves hitting the hull sounded like cannons, and the motion tossed you into the bulkhead, making a full night's sleep impossible.

I shared a cabin with Bill Caddigan, a middle school science teacher from Bethel, Maine, who provided lessons for his students 4,000 miles away via the Web.

Life was reduced to the basics. There were no bills to pay, phones to answer or any other distractions. Half-hour breakfasts and lunches were at 7:30 and 11:30; the dinner hour started at 5. The food amazing. How the chefs went about preparing three meals a day for 50 people with the ship rocking and rolling, and sauce pans sliding around on a stove was one of the more impressive feats I've ever witnessed.

Veteran crew members make the ship operate smoothly. Many have worked together a long time. They lead a life that is very different from most, spending months at sea followed by long stretches of time off.

Seeding the ocean

Many people wonder about the value of doing the type of basic research conducted on this cruise. What I learned is that understanding the way our planet works is crucial. Oceans are incredibly complex environments that we ask to do astounding tasks provide food, travel and recreation, process waste. Fifty percent of the people on our planet live within 50 miles of an ocean.

A seemingly small event like a change in the amount of iron available to phytoplankton can be a tipping point leading to major changes, such as fisheries collapsing or toxic algal blooms killing sea life and people. Even global warming or cooling.

It's the latter possibilities that recently thrust this research into the news. Scientists have conducted a handful of large-scale iron fertilization experiments to better understand how past ecosystems in these regions would have responded to natural changes in iron inputs. And now private companies are trying to get into the game.

The goal of these companies, backed by venture capitalists, is to use iron fertilization to grow certain types of larger phytoplankton. While all phytoplankton grow by turning carbon dioxide into organic matter, heavier plankton sink when they die, essentially sequestering that CO2 in the deep ocean. Because carbon dioxide at the ocean surface stays near equilibrium with the atmosphere, these private companies propose to seed vast ocean regions with iron and sell carbon reduction credits.

The scientific community has come together to condemn such geoengineering as a means to address global warming. We know so little about these ocean ecosystems that scientists warn iron fertilization may have unintended and damaging consequences. It might stimulate deadly toxic algal blooms similar to those that occur regularly closer to shore. Iron seeding can increase the growth of some phytoplankton species that produce greenhouse gases more potent that carbon dioxide.

Even without these outcomes, there is little evidence that dumping iron will do much of anything to reduce the amount of atmospheric CO2 produced by human activities; it essentially shifts the problem without dealing with its root causes.

Going to sea again?

I returned from my high seas adventure with a large volume of video and photographs to help tell the story of the groundbreaking work of UMaine scientists. I was grateful for the experience and impressed with the passion of these modern scientific explorers to understand the role of a tiny plant that is such an essential building block in Earth's circle of life.

When most people think of marine science, they think of work with whales and dolphins. These researchers argue that the smaller the creatures, the more interesting and important they become.

The question asked by many since I came ashore: Would I do it again? Trips are planned to the Bering Sea, a region chronicled in the Discovery Channel's white-knuckle series Deadliest Catch, about the lives of Alaskan crab fishermen.

I'll skip that one, but I could envision going back to sea some day, now that I have the seasickness thing figured out.

by Ron Lisnet
November-December, 2007

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