Setting a Course for the World’s Largest Plankton Bloom

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The research vessel Atlantis in port. Credit: Michael Starobin/NASA

The research vessel Atlantis in port. Credit: Michael Starobin/NASA

by Stephanie Schollaert Uz / Woods Hole, MA /

Stephanie Schollaert Uz, PhD, is an ocean scientist working in the Ocean Ecology Lab at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Her research interests include the response of ocean biology to physics. She also coordinates communications for the future NASA ocean color satellite PACE, which will be designed to monitor plankton, ocean ecosystems, airborne particles and clouds.

Timing is everything in life. As the second North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study (NAAMES) cruise prepares to get underway tomorrow, a tightly choreographed and synchronized mobilization plan has been in full swing on the research vessel Atlantis.

From ship crew to the science party and the extra helpers in port, everyone is getting the ship ready for its mission to chase and measure the springtime peak in the North Atlantic phytoplankton bloom and the airborne particles they can release to the atmosphere under the right conditions. Their findings will help scientists better understand how these processes influence clouds and climate.

One week ago, Atlantis returned to its home port in Woods Hole, Massachusetts from its previous mission of searching for the merchant ship El Faro that sank last fall. The ship’s crew and scientists have a total of nine days to turn Atlantis from a ship seeking a single black box in the deep ocean to one seeking billions of plankton in the sun-lit surface ocean and airborne particles in the atmosphere.

The research vessel Atlantis in port during the off-load of the submersible Alvin as the ship prepares for its second NAAMES field campaign. Credit: Dick Pittenger/WHOI

The research vessel Atlantis in port during the off-load of the submersible Alvin as the ship prepares for its second NAAMES field campaign. Credit: Dick Pittenger/WHOI

NAAMES Chief Scientist Michael Behrenfeld of Oregon State University compares the transformation with a puzzle: first, the equipment from the last cruise was removed. The deep-diving submersible Alvin needed to be carefully lifted off using a commercial crane.

Next, the ship was loaded with NAAMES equipment, starting with the biggest gear. Cranes moved four shipping containers, which were outfitted as lab space to measure aerosols, onto the ship’s deck, followed by boxes of sophisticated optical instruments, incubators and other equipment needed for detecting phytoplankton, zooplankton, bacteria and viruses as they cycle through life and death. Several instruments also measure chemistry related to biological processes in the ocean.

According to Ken Kostel with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Communications, this cruise requires more equipment than he’s seen on a typical cruise. Many of the science instruments are unusual, such as snorkels on the ship’s forward half that will continuously intake air to be analyzed for its aerosol content. There are also seawater flow-through systems to analyze ocean biology during the peak of the spring bloom and its subsequent decay. Several instruments will be deployed over the side of the ship. Some will profile the ocean down through the mixed layer, and even deeper, as is the case for the Argo floats.

Françoise Morison (left) of the University of Rhode Island and Caitlin Russell, a former intern at the University of Rhode Island, secure incubators to be used for measuring phytoplankton growth rate under various light levels and their consumption by single-celled organisms and viruses. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA

Françoise Morison (left) of the University of Rhode Island and Caitlin Russell, a former intern at the University of Rhode Island, secure incubators to be used for measuring phytoplankton growth rate under various light levels and their consumption by single-celled organisms and viruses. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA

Behrenfeld has been studying rare cloud-free satellite images of the North Atlantic, the last clear view being in mid-April, and noticed an earlier spring bloom than usual this year starting in the subtropical North Atlantic. Because the spring bloom progresses northward, he hopes to catch the end of the bloom peak in the north and monitor its decline as the ship transits southward – very valuable scientific information that has never before been measured in all its complexity.

The main lab on Atlantis where the science party will conduct many analyses while underway, along with measurements taken in several other labs and vans. Credit: Michael Starobin/NASA

While underway, the science party will conduct many analyses in Atlantis’s main lab. Credit: Michael Starobin/NASA

In addition to the science party, the ship’s crew is busy preparing. The captain, Al Lunt, piloted the NAAMES cruise last fall. It will take Atlantis about a week to get to their northernmost station: southeast of Greenland, around 60 degrees north and 40 degrees west. From there, they will steam directly south through six stations, the last being around 40 degrees north and 40 degrees west.

Meanwhile, the ship’s navigator and second mate, Logan Johnsen, is calculating the best transit route using weather and ocean maps from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Prediction Center. Also included are maps of glaciers that the ship would rather avoid. (The Titanic had unlucky timing in that regard and lacked the benefit of modern technology.)

Logan Johnsen, Atlantis navigator and second mate, studies weather and ocean forecast products to plan the best course to the ship’s North Atlantic study site. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA

Logan Johnsen, Atlantis navigator and second mate, studies weather and ocean forecast products to plan the best course to the ship’s North Atlantic study site. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA

At 275 feet long, Atlantis is one of the biggest and most expensive ships in the US Academic Research Fleet, owned by the US Navy and operated by WHOI. A day at sea costs approximately $50,000. Its funding comes from a number of federal agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA and the Office of Naval Research. According to Rose Dufour of NSF, between 75 and 95 percent of its cost is covered by NSF in a typical year.

Aligning a cruise to a location of interest can take several years of planning, preparation and waiting your turn. In the end, whether this well-equipped NASA-funded NAAMES campaign catches the North Atlantic spring bloom will depend on its timing.