Ready to Go to Sea? Heck, Yes!

by Stephanie Schollaert Uz / GREENBELT, MARYLAND /

On January 20, as our nation’s capitol kicks into full inauguration frenzy, I’ll be catching a flight in the pre-dawn hours and heading west to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I have never been more excited to head out to sea! Guilt about leaving my family for a month-long research cruise aside, I have been studying the ocean from a chair for too long and jumped at the chance to participate in this expedition.

Carlie Wiener of the Schmidt Ocean Institute with a Lego model of the research vessel Falkor, the platform for the ‘Sea to Space Particle Investigation’. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz
Carlie Wiener of the Schmidt Ocean Institute with a Lego model of the research vessel Falkor, the platform for the Sea to Space Particle Investigation. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz

I spent the early part of my career at sea plying the North and South Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea: first as a Naval meteorology and oceanography officer and then as an oceanography researcher. More recently, my research has involved the nearly continuous view that satellites afford. Satellites are great because they view the entire ocean, nearly every day! But they only see the surface of the ocean, and sometimes we need to know what’s happening underneath, in the interior of the ocean, or how small-scale dynamics in the ocean are related to the surface signatures that we can detect from satellites. That is why NASA needs measurements collected at sea, and I’m looking forward to getting a close look at all the new in situ instruments in action.

The main goals of this expedition are to observe and characterize ocean phytoplankton (kinds, size, function) and sinking carbon. Measurements we collect about particles in the ocean and atmosphere will be used to tune, or ‘ground-truth,’ ocean color satellite observations. There is a lot of diversity among microscopic phytoplankton, and NASA is designing a satellite to distinguish major kinds. Data from this cruise will contribute toward that effort.

FlowCam microscopic images of diatoms (left), dinoflagellates (center & right). Credit: Harry Nelson/Fluid Imaging Technologies, Inc.
FlowCam microscopic images of diatoms (left), and dinoflagellates (center & right). Credit: Harry Nelson/Fluid Imaging Technologies, Inc.

How have I been preparing for this field campaign? Personally, I began preparing months ago by re-reading “The Never-ending Story” by Michael Ende with my ten-year-old, as the ship is named for the luckdragon Falkor. I visited my dentist and doctor to avoid any distraction in the middle of the ocean by a minor illness, such as a toothache, or a major emergency that could cost the expedition precious days at sea. More recently I have been collecting proper gear for the weather and conditions we expect between the tropics and North Pacific: water-proof overalls and jacket, steel-toed boots. Friends who’ve been to sea more recently also advised packing other details I’d forgotten, like shower shoes. With all the wintertime weather we could get, I’m packing motion-sickness medicine in case of high seas.

My sea bag - no space to store suitcases at sea – packed for the tropics and the foul weather anticipated in the North Pacific. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA
My sea bag – no space to store suitcases at sea – packed for the tropics and the foul weather anticipated in the North Pacific. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA

Professional preparations also started months ago. My scientific contribution to the campaign will include monitoring physical variables (temperatures, currents, sea-surface heights) that indicate dynamical processes bringing nutrients from the depths toward the surface ocean to fertilize phytoplankton blooms. I’ve been talking to colleagues at NASA Goddard, JPL and NOAA who provide continuous near-real-time satellite and computer model information for this region that we can access during the cruise.

When we have cloud-free skies, I will take measurements of atmospheric particles using a hand-held sun photometer loaned to me by the Maritime Aerosol Network group at NASA Goddard. Knowing what’s in the sky is important for correcting satellite measurements of the ocean’s surface – about 90% of the signal satellites receive comes from the atmosphere. These sky measurements may also provide clues about the presence of mineral aerosols that fertilize phytoplankton blooms when they fall out of the air.

Current sea-surface temperatures with the approximate track of the R/V Falkor from Hawaii to the Pacific Northwest. Credit: PO.DAAC/NASA
Current sea-surface temperatures with the approximate track of the R/V Falkor from Hawaii to the Pacific Northwest. Credit: PO.DAAC/NASA

I’m also helping the field campaign with science communication through my role as communications coordinator for the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) Project – NASA’s first hyperspectral ocean color satellite. In conjunction with our hosts at the Schmidt Ocean Institute, we’re planning news stories, blogs and events on social media such as a Facebook Live event on @NASAEarth, February 6, at 2pm EST. Data collected during this field campaign and several others (e.g. CORAL, NAAMES, KORUS-OC) will be used to improve products derived from satellite measurements.

How am I feeling? Ready for this adventure and extremely grateful to the Schmidt Ocean Institute for sponsoring this research, to the scientists who wrote the proposal that was selected for this expedition, especially Ivona Cetinic, the chief scientist, who invited me to participate, and to my family for enabling me to take this month-long trip. Mostly though, I’m grateful to live in a society that values scientific inquiry and exploration. The more we know about Earth and the dynamic processes that support life, the better we can predict and prepare.