Ride, Sally, Ride: Sally Ride Saturdays on EXPORTS

Rainbows brighten up gray skies and are always cause for celebration. Credits: Sasha Kramer


Sasha Kramer is a PhD student in marine science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is currently working aboard the R/V Sally Ride for the EXPORTS field campaign.

I’m the type of person who likes to celebrate the little things. For instance, last week was my half birthday, and you’d better believe I celebrated with some peanut butter and M&M toast for breakfast (thanks Mark and John for stocking the galley with M&Ms!!!). I even did my best to pick out mostly blue M&Ms for an extra special treat. (Eeveryone knows blue M&Ms are the best color, right? This must be a scientific fact).

You might think there are few things to celebrate aboard a research vessel, but I would say that there are abundant opportunities for celebration with the right creative approach. The first cast of our CTD water sampler? The first sighting of the Revelle from the back deck of the Ride? The first successful float deployment? The rare rainbow stretching over the gray North Pacific? The one-hundredth nutrient sample? The one-thousandth nutrient sample?? These are all chances to break out a frozen peppermint patty and party on.

As anyone who has been on a research cruise can tell you, keeping morale up can be a tricky thing. Inevitably, things will go wrong, you will be short on sleep, and you will hit the point of feeling cranky or tired or frustrated or all three at once. Given my propensity for celebration, it is maybe unsurprising that my lab mate (and officemate back at UCSB and now bunkmate on the ship) Kelsey Bisson and I not only represent the Hydro Team on the Sally Ride, we are also the self-appointed official/unofficial morale boosters aboard. We may be filtering 120-plus liters of seawater every day, but we make sure to take breaks to enjoy the little things in life…breakfast on the back deck with a view of the stormy ocean, walkie talkie calls over to the Revelle (hi Nils and Brian!), and lots of chocolate covered almonds.

So how do we plan to boost morale for the rest of the team during these 35 days at sea, you might ask? We have a few things in mind, including those frozen peppermint patties we keep in our lab van on the back deck (and Reese’s peanut butter cups and dark chocolate Hershey’s kisses… as you might imagine, a lot of feeling happy on an otherwise tough day has to do with the availability of good candy). You can find us throwing an impromptu boat-wide rave in our lab van, with the red lights turned on and the glo-sticks we packed from home cracked and glowing. Maybe you’ll spot us sampling from the CTD with our portable (waterproof!) speaker blasting. Whether it’s Paul Simon or Usher, music is also a big part of keeping morale high. For this particular activity, it’s important to read the mood of the CTD cast. CTD stands for Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth which is measured with each water sample collected. Morning optics casts lend themselves well to calmer songs and gentle singalongs (think Vance Joy); evening calibration casts are more of a scene, with bumping bass and wild dance moves (while carefully sampling, of course).

Kelsey Bisson rocks denim on denim on Canada Day, which coincided with the first Sally Ride Saturday of the cruise. Credits: Sasha Kramer

We’ve also instated Sally Ride Saturdays. We have five Saturdays together as a group, and each one represents an opportunity to have some fun together at sea. Our first Sally Ride Saturday, as we cruised through Canadian waters, was Canada Day (complete with denim on denim; see Kelsey for reference). Goth Day fell on our bad weather Saturday: black eyeliner and lipstick and nail polish (and Avril Lavigne) ensued, demonstrated excellently by some of the ladies from Team Thorium. When the wave height increases this drastically, you can’t help but feel a little emo!! Our friends aboard the Sally Ride with us can look forward to upcoming Crazy Hair Day and Technicolor Day—it’s impossible not to crack a smile at various kooky hairstyles or feel your mood brighten at the sight of someone’s electric yellow foul weather gear!

How do we feel about nearly 4.5-meter waves? Very emo, thank you. Credits: Sasha Kramer
The ladies of Team Thorium with their emo on. Take that, waves. Credits: Sasha Kramer

While research cruises can be challenging and tiring at times, we’re also really lucky to be out in the North Pacific together. Sally Ride Saturdays are a way to keep our spirits up when the days feel long and we haven’t seen the sun in 48+ hours (it’s pretty cloudy up here at Station P). We’re all focused on our science, but we are also part of a floating family for five full weeks. A healthy dose of (M&Ms and) fun is all part of the experience. And our friends on land are certainly not restricted from celebrating Sally Ride Saturdays too—in fact, we encourage it! Crank up the ABBA and break out the feather boas! It’s Mamma Mia Day next Saturday! You know we’ll be doing the same around the CTD.

A Majestic Glacier on OMG’s Return to Greenland

Apusiaajik Glacier near Kulusuk, Greenland. Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech
Apusiaajik Glacier near Kulusuk, Greenland. Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech

by Carol Rasmussen / KULUSUK, GREENLAND /

“Incredibly majestic.”

After years of intensive research on Greenland’s glaciers, Josh Willis is standing next to one for the first time in his life. Apusiaajik isn’t one of Greenland’s giants — in fact, its name means “little glacier.” But its marbled blue-and-white wall of ice is tall, long and, as Willis says, majestic.

It’s also melting. From time to time there’s a loud cracking noise, and seconds later, a few refrigerator-sized chunks of ice drop into the ocean. You can’t help wondering when a larger chunk will fall, and how much icy water will hit you when it does. It’s natural for glaciers to lose ice this way, though disconcerting when you’re in the neighborhood. But Apusiaajik is like most of Greenland’s glaciers, it’s out of balance — melting faster than it can be replenished by winter snowfall.

Josh Willis, OMG’s principal investigator, on approachby boat to Apusiaajik glacier in Greenland. Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech
Josh Willis, OMG’s principal investigator, on approach by boat to Apusiaajik glacier in Greenland. Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech

We’re visiting the little glacier on a down day for NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) campaign. It’s close to Kulusuk, a tiny village on Greenland’s east coast that happens to have an airport with a 4,000-foot-long gravel runway. That’s too short for a big jet to take off and land. But for OMG’s converted DC-3, the Kulusuk airport is perfectly located for the mission’s survey flights around southeastern Greenland, studying how ocean water is affecting glaciers like Apusiaajik.

OMG is on its third annual campaign out of a planned five. The goal each year is to blanket Greenland’s continental shelf with probes measuring the seawater’s temperature and salinity. This year, the team has already dropped 89 out of 250 probes, starting at the southern tip of Greenland and working up the east coast. Soon it’ll be time to move north to the next base.

Josh Willis after releasing an ocean probe down the white tube, where it drops from the plane into the ocean. Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech
Josh Willis after releasing an ocean probe down the white tube, where it drops from the plane into the ocean. Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech

Halfway through OMG’s expected lifespan, what have scientists learned, and what do they still hope to find out?

“We’re beginning to see the signs of long-term changes on Greenland’s continental shelf — changes that take years to happen,” Willis says. “We’ve never seen that before.” Daily changes in water temperature come and go, but the OMG scientists are finding that glaciers react more strongly to slow changes in water temperature far below the ocean surface.

Greenland’s continental shelf is shallow, averaging about 1,600 feet (500 meters) deep. But it’s gashed by troughs carved by ancient glaciers, which can be two times deeper than that. These troughs are natural conduits for deep water to get up on the shelf, but it’s not an easy passage. Sills and underwater mountains within the troughs impede the flow and create basins.

Willis gestures at the ice-flecked channel flowing past Apusiaajik. “In a couple of weeks, all this water will be way downstream,” he says. “In the troughs and basins on the shelf, that’s not true. They’re almost like tide pools — the water comes in at high tide and stays there till the tide comes back. In those deep basins, instead of twice per day like the tide, it’s more like once per year and sometimes less. And when warm or cold water gets in, it stays for years.” There’s not always enough variation in the seawater from winter or summer for water to get into the basins each year; it may take a change in a large-scale ocean climate pattern, similar to an El Niño event in the Pacific Ocean, to trigger the change.

For the last two years, the North Atlantic has been moving into a naturally cooler climate phase. Willis is eager to see when and how far the cooler water will move up the West Greenland coast, and how long it will last.

Answering those questions will chip away at the big remaining goal of OMG: quantifying how much glacial ice melt will result from any given change in ocean temperature. If water comes onto the continental shelf that’s a degree Celsius warmer than now, how much will the melt rate increase? What about three degrees?

Ice-filled channel in front of Apusiaajik Glacier. The surface ocean layer is much colder than the deep water below. Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech

“One of the advantages of watching a glacier change year after year after year is that you begin to get an idea of what’s driving the change. If it’s the ocean, I think we’ll be able to quantify that with two more years of OMG data,” Willis says.

“That’s what we set out to do. What I’m really excited about is that it’s beginning to happen.”

Seeing Stars at Sea: The Start of a New Career in Ocean Science


Abigale Wyatt is a PhD student at Princeton currently working on the R/V Sally Ride for EXPORTS.

Abigale Wyatt with crewmates enjoying a sunset aboard the R/V Sally Ride. Credits: Abigale Wyatt

It’s been a little more than two weeks since we first set sail on the R/V Sally Ride for a month-long cruise to study how plankton in the ocean affect the carbon cycle and, ultimately, the climate. We left Seattle at the perfect time to get sunset photos of the city and surrounding hills. Most days, I still can’t believe I’m here.

I’m one of the more junior scientists aboard. I haven’t yet begun classes for a PhD program at Princeton’s geoscience department, and having graduated two years ago with a degree in math (not chemistry, biology, geology, or anything ocean-related), in many ways I’ve felt totally overwhelmed. But having just finished eight years in the US Navy without ever deploying on a ship, I am so excited to finally be at sea that I haven’t been shy about trying to jump in and learn everything.

Fortunately, the first few days were spent transiting, which meant I had little science to do and plenty of time to find my sea legs while learning methods associated with our collections at sea. Sometimes it’s like learning another language: CTD, thorium, pipette, RISO, potassium permanganate, acidify, and niskin, for example. It’s a combination of chemistry terms that sound familiar, technical equipment I’ve never heard of, and science-y-words I thought I understood but have never used in any real context. Coupled with that was the task of trying to develop a casual understanding of the logistics of a complex sampling grid that would be used to get samples for more than 40 scientists, some of whom are the biggest names in the field.

Like I said, somewhat overwhelming.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Cafe Thorium, where 30 two-liter bottles can be filtered at a time. The rig allows scientists to process 1000 samples while at sea. Credits: Abigale Wyatt
Scientist Yuanheng Xion cocks niskin bottles before our test Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth (CTD) cast on a rare cloudless day in the Gulf of Alaska. Credits: Abigale Wyatt
Scientists from the University of Miami, UC Santa Barbara, Sherbrooke University, and the University of North Dakota collect water samples on a typical gray morning. Credits: Abigale Wyatt
A salp hitched a ride to the surface during the Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth (CTD) cast. Credits: Abigale Wyatt

So naturally, I’ve sought out one of my go-to means of comfort: looking up at the night sky. As a major astronomy nerd, I was incredibly excited when I realized our trip would coincide with the annual Perseid meteor shower. I envisioned lying out on the deck after a hard day of science, being lulled by the calming rhythm of the sea while staring at the deep, dark sky, watching meteors streak through my favorite constellations. It was a beautiful mental picture.

Reality was not quite what I had imagined.

One few night, I went out on deck with a scientist from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who is working in my group. As we headed out, I chattered on about what planets were out, how great the Milky Way would look, and which direction we should face to catch the most meteors. In hindsight, I probably should have been more concerned with practical considerations: How wet will the deck be? What’s the cloud cover? What time do we have to work in the morning?

Turns out, boats are wet. Wet and cold. And since we were still moving toward our station, water was sloshing and spraying, with the boat rocking as we steamed ahead. I felt silly for imagining I would lie out and relax on the deck all night. Instead, we stood, necks craning, waves crashing, looking at as much sky as we could see through the clouds. Apparently, the Gulf of Alaska is a pretty cloudy place this time of year, so we were lucky to have even 50 percent visibility. Scorpio was missing its legs and Cassiopeia was totally hidden, but at least Jupiter was big and bright. I pointed out the Northern Cross when we saw it!

Scientists flock to the deck to enjoy the sunset on a clear evening after days without seeing the Sun. Credits: Abigale Wyatt
The Sun sets over the R/V Sally Ride as she carries a fleet of scientists on the EXPORTS cruise in the Gulf of Alaska. Credits: Abigale Wyatt
Sunset bathes the aft deck in orange light, highlighting the boxes of scientific equipment marked with pink duct tape to signify their home on the R/V Sally Ride. Credits: Abigale Wyatt

Our first meteor was super bright, probably one of the brightest I’ve ever seen. It was so fast we both gasped and pointed, then laughed at how excited we were. We saw more, including one with a tail so long it covered a quarter of the sky. While I’ve stargazed a lot since I was a kid, this was such a new experience. Seeing from horizon to horizon made it so much more apparent that we were sitting on top of a single round planet in the middle of this massive universe, tucked away in our quiet galaxy among stars and planets lightyears away.

Even as the R/V Sally Ride steams ahead to the next station, scientists are on deck collecting water from the last Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth (CTD) cast. Credits: Abigale Wyatt
Dr. Claudia Benitez-Nelson (University of South Carolina), my mentor on ship, sampling water at the sunrise Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth CTD cast. Credits: Abigale Wyatt
The Moon rising over the Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth (CTD) instrument on the R/V Sally Ride as we sample water in the gulf of Alaska. Credits: Abigale Wyatt

Since then, clouds have obscured the night skies too much to try again, but the ship is quickly becoming a second home. Several times a day we send out a Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth (CTD) instrument, which is a water-analyzing device equipped with niskin bottles that fill up at depth. In the lab we do some chemistry, including acidifying our samples by decreasing their pH, followed by adding potassium permanganate to allow the water to release particulatesFinally, we count the thorium radiation from our filtered samples using a RISO machine, all so we can tell how carbon is cycled by the ocean. It’s been a lot to learn and, still, everyday there’s more.

From the left, chief scientist Norm Nelson (UCSB), Montserrat Roca Marti (WHOI), Abigale Wyatt (Princeton), and Samantha Clevenger (WHOI). The most novice and most senior scientists enjoying the evening breeze on deck. Credits: Abigale Wyatt

The moments I feel overwhelmed, I just remind myself I’m lucky to be part of this huge project. Our research will help us better understand our oceans, our climate, and our planet.  And while I may be a novice in ocean science, being at the very beginning of my graduate studies, this has certainly been a most stellar way to start!

Starboard Styles: Who, What, Wear

Claudia Benitez Nelson’s look showcases how these boots effortlessly transition from day to night, as she samples from a thorium cast late on August 19. Credits: Kelsey Bisson


Kelsey Bisson is a PhD candidate working with Dave Siegel at UCSB and is graduating this December. Her dissertation seeks to understand carbon flux in the ocean through data syntheses of satellite and field data around the world. She is currently working aboard the R/V Sally Ride for the EXPORTS field campaign.

Let me now say this: Step aside Jimmy Choo; steel-toed boots are having their moment. Indeed, “Every day is a fashion show and the world is the runway,” according to Coco Chanel. The same can be said for life on the R/V Sally Ride, as I’ll try to demonstrate.

Since I hopped aboard to join the hydro team (with Sasha Kramer, my fellow lab mate also working with David Siegel at UCSB), I’ve noticed there’s no shortage of runways on the Ride, from the hallways leading to the main lab, to the starboard side sampling deck, to her majestic bow with infinite views of blue. Those participating in this field campaign have been rocking this summer’s hottest treads and threads (hottest as in pushing 65 degrees Fahrenheit on a good day), and we expect these trends to hit the continent any week now.

Of course, living on a ship for five weeks with hazardous working conditions and tiny closets means that comfort and consistency here is key. But don’t confuse those two C’s with “boring.” Nay, when these sub-arctic silver seas aren’t stealing the show, Dr. Claudia Benitez Nelson’s yellow boots most definitely are.

They’re not just any yellow; they’re the bright, waxy color not unlike that of French’s yellow mustard. We’re left wondering, did the inspiration from this look come from an anticipation of the galley’s carefully curated condiments, OR is this a nod to Marc Jacob’s summer collection showing plastic yellow pieces as a comment on the dissonance between solar power and our longtime reliance on human-made materials? We may never know, but that’s the fun of fashion. She keeps the rest of her look simple, expertly showcasing how bright boots become the exclamation point of an outfit. “Amazon.com,” she says, when I ask where she got these punchy power pedestals.

Research scientists have been accused of being myopic at times, and that could be because we’re obsessed with microbes & their biogeochemical adventures far beyond that of the average Jack and Jill. Naturally, color us guilty as charged, but we also love the big picture. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the impossibly chic monochromatic getups of Drs. Collin Roesler and Xiaodong Zhang.

Collin is sporting an all-black “nekton noir” ensemble, maybe alluding to the expansive dark abyss below us, teeming with life and unknown probabilities that connect us all. (Nekton are all the organisms that swim freely in the ocean, as opposed to plankton, for example.)

Collin Roesler could be walking a show in Milan with this look, but instead she’s just outside the galley delivering goddess goth vibes. Credits: Kelsey Bisson

Xiaodong Zhang’s all-grey getup can only be described as simply celestial, boldly celebrating the fact that we haven’t seen the Sun for days.

Unlike the fate for most of us, Xiaodong Zhang does not let the overpoweringly orange vest dictate his self-expression. His monochromatic ensemble soothes, all the while sampling from the conductivity, temperature, and depth, or CTD, instrument at 7am. Credits: Kelsey Bisson

No, you will not find Louis Vuitton here on R/V Sally Ride. Nor will you find Dr. Jason Graff, a first round draft pick for chief scientist on R/V Roger Revelle, and a narrowly close second to Louis in his personal sense of style.

Jason Graff is styled in a “Kurt Cobain meets the 1960s meets Viking God” get up, pairing a crusty pair of Carhartts with vivid swirls of color. Credits: Kelsey Bisson

But you will find Taylor Crockford and her fierce flannels as she hauls hundreds of liters of seawater throughout our labs every day.

Taylor Crockford sports a striped red flannel, and I recently got time to sit down with her and ask, “Why did you choose this flannel today, of all the flannels you own?” She explained, “Because it’s already salt-encrusted and has full range for my arms to lift things, and it’s thick enough for the walk-in fridge to keep me warm.” In case you’re wondering, it’s LL Bean traditional fit – get yours now before they fly off the shelves! Credits: Kelsey Bisson

And my lab mate Sasha Kramer sporting some sensational stitches you’d half expect were designed by Donatella Versace herself.

Sasha Kramer’s leggings have an undeniably kinetic quality to them, mimicking eddies and mixing as seen from dedicated ocean color NASA satellites in space. She pairs these bad boys with a homogeneous hue to soften the look. This outfit choice was made well, but it’s anything but basic. Credits: Kelsey Bisson

“My mom got me these for my birthday,” she says. Through 20-foot seas, instrument mishaps, whipping winds, fake fire alarms, fake abandon ship alarms, diesel miasmas, and all too real sleep deprivation, I look around at all the hardworking happy fashionistas around me. I can’t help but wonder: Was Tim Gunn thinking of us when he muttered his words to live by, “Make it work”?

This Twilight Zone is Dark, Watery, and, Yes, Also Full of Intrigue

Daily migration of marine life to and from the twilight zone to the ocean surface.


“There is a 5th dimension beyond that which is known to man.  It is the middle ground between light and shadow.  It is an area, which we call, the Twilight Zone.” ~Rod Serling

Like many kids growing up in the 1960’s, I eagerly anticipated every episode of a black-and-white TV series by Rod Serling, expecting to be surprised, maybe even a little scared, of the mysteries of that 5th dimension he called “The Twilight Zone.” Little did I know that decades later as an oceanographer, I’d find myself at sea with over 60 like-minded scientists on a program specifically targeting the mysteries of another twilight zone—the one in the ocean that lies just below the sunlit surface.

The WHOI EXPORTS team showed off their glow-in-the-dark ocean twilight zone t-shirts prior to departure from Seattle in August. Credits: WHOI/Ken Buesseler

What motivates us is the need to learn more about the role of the twilight zone and the animals that live there in regulating Earth’s climate. The story of how they do this actually starts at the surface, where microscopic marine algae, or phytoplankton, turn carbon dioxide in the water into organic matter via photosynthesis, much like plants on land.

This organic matter forms the base of the marine food web, which basically means that these microscopic plants serve as food for tiny marine animals called zooplankton, which are eaten by larger marine organisms and so on up to larger animals, like the fish that humans consume. Many of these animals come up from the twilight zone at night, using the cover of darkness to feed in surface waters and then disappear come daybreak. This is, in fact, the largest animal migration on Earth and happens around the globe every day, and we barely know it happens. 

Phytoplankton in the form of a diatom chain. Credits: University of Rhode Island/Stephanie Anderson

But I am getting ahead of myself, because despite how appropriate Rod Serling’s description of the mysteries of “the middle ground between light and shadow” fits with what we are doing out here, peering with our instruments into the dimly lit depths, his TV show is not the origin of the name of a twilight zone in ocean sciences. In fact, at least as far back as 1915, text books included discussion of the “decrease in the abundance of life from the sunlit surface layers, through the twilight zone, to the zone of darkness,” as was written in College Physiography. 

Getting back to this cruise, most of the carbon either sinks out of the surface ocean directly or is carried by animals back down to the twilight zone in their guts and gets excreted. All of this sinking carbon becomes food for other twilight zone animals, with less and less remaining as you go deeper. This constant rain of organic carbon is known as “marine snow,” which drifts through the twilight zone and into the deep ocean.

Who cares how much organic matter or carbon goes though the twilight zone?  Well, if you are an animal living in the twilight zone, that’s your main food supply. As a human concerned with the potential for rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to disrupt our climate, it’s the quickest way you can get organic carbon to the deep ocean, effectively removing it from contact with the surface ocean and atmosphere for hundreds or thousands of years. 

Simply put, without the ocean storing carbon in the deep sea, the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be much higher than they are today. And the last time they were this high, Earth was a much different place.

The open top of a neutral-buoyancy sediment trap (NBST) showing the opening through which marine snow drifts and is then collected. Credits: UCSB/David Siegel
WHOI marine chemist Ken Buesseler (right) helps deploy a sediment trap from the research vessel Roger Revelle as part of the EXPORTS program. Credits: UCSB/Alyson Santoro

The tools I used to measure this cascade of particles carrying organic carbon to depth on this voyage includes sediment traps—something like a rain gauge that captures in a tube the sinking particles that are slowly settling through the water. A second method my group uses to measure sinking particles takes advantage of a naturally occurring element called thorium-234, which is slightly radioactive and decays with a precise 24.1-day half-life.  This clock allows me to calculate very precisely how much carbon is being carried from the surface through the twilight zone.  

It’s far too early to share my results from this cruise, but the importance and complexity of these links between twilight zone organisms and climate should not be underestimated. Like snowfall on land, organic carbon transport to the depths varies with the seasons and locations in the oceans, but in ways we cannot predict. And it is important for us in our efforts to better understand how quickly climate will change as we keep adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This job is so complex that it takes a village out here aboard two research ships, with autonomous vehicles in the water and support teams on land and satellites above. We work together to study these carbon flows and the living organisms in the twilight zone that create what marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson called the “most stupendous snowfall on earth.”

I don’t know if there are any episodes of The Twilight Zone to watch out here, but I do know there are many deeper mysteries we hope to unravel about the ocean’s twilight zone. 

Ken Buesseler is a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He has been working for decades on the ocean twilight zone and its impact on Earth’s carbon cycle. He is currently on the R/V Roger Revelle as part of the Export Processes in the Ocean from Remote Sensing (EXPORTS) field campaign.

Preparing for Research at Sea: Behind the Scenes

The R/V Roger Revelle (front) and the R/V Sally Ride (back) mobilizing for the EXPORTS field campaign at Pier 91 in Seattle. Credits: University of Rhode Island/Menden-Deuer Lab


Anna Ward is a marine biology undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego within the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. This summer she is working with Dr. Susanne Menden-Deuer (advisor) and Dr. Gayantonia Franze (mentor) at the University of Rhode Island, Graduate School of Oceanography. She intends to pursue a career in oceanography, and has particular interest in microzooplankton motility and understanding how planktonic organisms respond to changes in surrounding environmental conditions. She is also passionate about furthering science communication through nontraditional media platforms and promoting environmental conservation through education.

..some advice for anyone preparing for a research cruise: be flexible, be prepared (well, the best that you can be), and be excited.

“Hey Anna, want to help me make something?” asked Dr. Heather McNair of me one day. I was instantly intrigued. What were we going to make? What was it going to be used for? How were we going to put it all together? So many questions were running through my head, but I was ready to explore and learn.

This summer, I have been working in Dr. Susanne Menden-Deuer’s lab at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography as part of an National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates program called Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship in Oceanography (SURFO). My primary focus was to understand how environmental factors, such as turbulence, affect the way microscopic marine organisms graze on other organisms. While my primary research kept me busy, I wanted to explore other areas of oceanographic research, so I offered to help in the lab any way I could.

Undergraduate Research Fellow Anna Ward measuring plankton abundances in the laboratory. Credits: University of Rhode Island/Menden-Deuer Lab 
Preserved microzooplankton samples settle for microscopy analysis. Credits: University of Rhode Island/Menden-Deuer Lab

Dr. Heather McNair, a postdoctoral fellow in the Menden-Deuer Lab, explained that she was preparing for a research cruise as part of the Export Processes in the Ocean from Remote Sensing, or EXPORTS, field campaign and wanted help making a positive pressure pump, a device used to automate water sampling. I had never even heard of a positive pressure pump before, and now I was supposed to make one?! Enthusiastic and eager to begin, I put my thinking skills to the test. She showed me some of the physical pieces and explained how we wanted our end product to function and look. Okay, sounded pretty self-explanatory, put a few pieces together, and finished product—done.

Except one thing: We did not have all of the pieces, and we needed to create this device using only items available in the lab. Similar to being out at sea, you cannot simply go to the store and get what you need; you have to figure out a way to make it work given the resources available. After a lot of trial and error, we created a device that would work well at sea. Mission accomplished.

Postdoctoral Fellows Dr. Heather McNair (left), Dr. Francoise Morison (middle), and Dr. Ewelina Rubin mobilizing the R/V Roger Revelle for EXPORTS. Credits: University of Rhode Island/Menden-Deuer Lab

Unforeseen and challenging obstacles such as this are common at sea. While it might seem simple, there are many fine details involved in preparing for a cruise. Think about the average science classroom: there are various instruments and glassware, as well as other fundamental components such as water sources, sinks, safety equipment, and more. You have to think about where all of these items will go on the ship, how to secure them for the natural movements of the ship at sea, etc.

Some things are simpler, such as determining how many bottles you need for an experiment, while others are more complex, like transporting a large, expensive instrument across the country that will undergo constant motion and likely rough, stormy seas. While this process is stressful for some, it is truly one of my favorite parts of a research cruise.

Scientific equipment on the dock waiting to be loaded onto the research vessels. Credits: University of Rhode Island/Menden-Deuer Lab

No matter how prepared scientists are, unexpected things always happen at sea, including 12-foot swells sloshing up against the side of the boat. That might not seem like much for an avid surfer, but for research vessels these waves can be felt instantaneously by members. I remember my last research cruise, when we hit a wave a bit larger than I expected. I was performing an experiment and zoom, all of the bottles starting sliding across the table. Here I was trying to catch them while holding my stance. In times like these, I truly appreciated that the tables were screwed into the walls, and the boxes under tables were held in place with ratchet straps.

Wet-lab setup on a prior research cruise containing filtration systems tied down to the tables and carboys and boxes bungeed to the ship for safety during transport. Credits: University of Rhode Island/Menden-Deuer Lab

There are so many components to think about before going to sea in addition to the simple things, like remembering to bring a toothbrush and an extra changes of clothes. Staying organized is key. I cannot imagine trying to pack all of our equipment without the handy packing list we prepared.

But more importantly, some advice for anyone preparing for a research cruise: be flexible, be prepared (well, the best that you can be), and be excited. The thrill and excitement from performing research on a ship is extraordinary, something to truly embrace. Even if those long days and nights packing seem never-ending, just remember it will be worth it and one of the most incredible learning experiences of your life. To everyone aboard the EXPORTS cruise, fair winds and following seas. The packing is done and now you have made it to the best part—researching at sea.

The port in Seattle, Washington, from which the R/V Roger Revelle and the R/V Sally Ride embarked for the northeastern Pacific Ocean. Credits: University of Rhode Island/Menden-Deuer Lab

Just Sit Right Back and You’ll Hear a Tale, a Tale of a Plankton Trip

A mixed phytoplankton community. Credits: University of Rhode Island/Stephanie Anderson

by Dave Siegel / SEATTLE, WASHINGTON /

I am Dave Siegel, a professor of marine science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I have been working for many years to implement  the Export Processes in the Ocean from Remote Sensing (EXPORTS) oceanographic campaign: a coordinated field effort to understand the interactions between life in the sea and Earth’s carbon cycle.

Last Thursday night, I watched “my baby” of a campaign sail away, as the Research Vessel Sally Ride left Pier 91 in Seattle for the northeastern Pacific Ocean.

While I am the science lead for EXPORTS, it’s not just my baby—it is truly a group effort. Two teams of scientists created the EXPORTS science and implementation plans, with a lot of input from the greater oceanographic community. The result is a campaign comprising more than 50 funded NASA and NSF investigators from nearly 30 institutions and many graduate students, postdocs and technicians, all excellently supported by the masters and crews of two Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s research vessels: the R/V Roger Revelle and the R/V Sally Ride.

The R/V Sally Ride, operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, anchored at Pier 91 in Seattle before departing for the northeastern Pacific Ocean on Thursday, Aug. 9. Credits: NASA/Katy Mersmann

EXPORTS aims to develop a predictive understanding of the interactions of life in the sea and Earth’s carbon cycle, which is critical for quantifying the carbon storage capacity of the global ocean. The oceans are Earth’s largest active reservoir, or storage, of carbon and carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and thus helps regulate our planet’s climate. This predictive understanding of the interactions of ocean life and the carbon cycle is especially important as we are seeing that our ocean ecosystems are changing in response to changes in Earth’s physical climate. To do this we need data to test and validate these satellite-based assessments and numerical model predictions.

We are trying to tackle a super hard problem—one I believe to be a true grand challenge in Earth System Science. Our approach is simply to follow the money. For ocean ecosystems, that currency is the energy stored in phytoplankton carbon from photosynthesis. The production of phytoplankton carbon is nearly balanced by its consumption by animals called zooplankton, which in turn provide the energy for the higher trophic levels of the sea, such as fisheries and charismatic megafauna (whales, seals, sharks, and the like).

A mixed phytoplankton community. Credit: University of Rhode Island/Stephanie Anderson

The slight imbalance—roughly 10 percent of phytoplankton production globally—drives an export of organic carbon from the well-lit surface ocean into the dimly-lit twilight zone beneath. Within the twilight zone, microbes and animals of all description consume this exported organic carbon, utilizing their energy for metabolism.  This export of organic carbon from the upper ocean and their consumption within the twilight zone, along with ocean circulation, shape the carbon storage capacity of the global ocean and frame the two major research questions for EXPORTS.

Constructing a field campaign to identify and quantify the flows of organic carbon through the ocean is, of course, a major challenge. Phytoplankton physiologists need to assess phytoplankton growth rates and responses to perturbations in their required nutrients (nitrogen, phosphate, silica & iron). Zooplankton grazing and the carbon cycle impacts of their daily vertical migration to the sunlit layer of the ocean from the twilight zone need to be assessed.

In the hydro lab aboard the R/V Roger Revelle, sampling tubes will collect water samples at varying ocean depths for analysis. Credits: NASA/Katy Mersmann

Sediment traps that catch the rain of sinking particles measure the flux of sinking carbon as well as make detailed geochemical measurements that test how well our measurements of the individual pathways reflect the large-scale mass budgets needed to build and test satellite and computational models. Optical oceanographers make ocean color measurements that link the EXPORTS datasets to NASA satellite data products.  And I feel bad that I left out so many other individual research activities going on, but mentioning each of them would take up another two paragraphs!

For EXPORTS, scientists are deploying robotic explorers, like these from the Applied Physics Lab at the University of Washington. They are traveling with the ships, taking measurements at various depths. Credits: NASA/Michael Starobin

The measurements needed to constrain the various food web and export pathways as well as adequately sample the highly variable ocean environment requires technologists that can overcome these challenges.  For example, the EXPORTS team includes robotics experts who build, deploy, and analyze data from an array of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) that sample ocean properties on time scales ranging from minute to years.

EXPORTS has also taken advantage of recent technological advances such as novel high-throughput microscopes and in situ imaging devices that take individual images of billions of phytoplankton cells as well as zooplankton and other various organic matter.  These images are then analyzed using advanced machine learning techniques to provide unique views of the structure of plankton communities.

Advancements are also available from the biomolecular sciences where metagenomic and bioinformatics approaches provide complementary ways to characterize plankton communities and their metabolism. Lastly, several projects include numerical modelers who will use computational approaches to help answer EXPORTS science questions.

The first EXPORTS field deployment will be to Station P (50N 145W) in the Northeast Subarctic Pacific Ocean. Station P (or PAPA) has been sampled and resampled over many decades—from as far back as 1949, when it served as an ocean weather station. Presently, Station P is the terminus of the Canadian Line P transect ocean research program and is an area of focus for the National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observatories Initiative project.

Last week, the R/V Roger Revelle and the R/V Sally Ride sailed to Station P. Both are floating laboratories that enable our research, but they will have different missions.  The R/V Roger Revelle will make detailed rate measurements and conduct a wide variety of experiments while the R/V Sally Ridewill make spatial surveys around its partner ship to assess the three-dimensionality of these processes.  These ship-based measurements will be supplemented by the array of AUVs.  Both ships and robots will make ocean optical measurements linking the EXPORTS field data to present and future NASA ocean color satellite missions.

Graphic representation of the Northeastern Pacific Ocean deployment for EXPORTS. Credit:

EXPORTS is also planning a second field deployment in the North Atlantic Ocean in the spring of 2020 to provide contrasting data. Furthermore, NASA has supported a group of Pre-EXPORTS projects aimed at mining available, relevant data sources for use in EXPORTS synthesis analyses and to conduct modeling experiments to help plan this and the North Atlantic expeditions.

So I’m the science lead but I’m not sailing. Seems weird, but early in our planning we were worried about the coordination between all of the things going on. My job back home now is to help coordinate activities on the two ships and assist the four co-chief scientists in fouling off whatever curveballs that may come. I’m sure they will provide blog posts soon introducing themselves.

It is been a long time coming and I realized that as the R/V Sally Ride was sailing away. I have been there from the start pushing this along, so I suppose it is “my baby.”  I do want to thank all involved in the planning and implementation, including the program officers at NASA and NSF.

Further information about EXPORTS can be found at the NASA EXPORTS expedition team blog and the EXPORTS website.

Students Study Earth Systems on NASA’s DC-8

Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) participant Arie Feltman-Frank aboard the DC-8 monitoring air pollution on June 25, 2018. Credits: NASA/Megan Schill


My name is Arie and I am a 21-year-old student at the University of Denver studying environmental science. I am one of 28 students selected to participate in NASA’s Student Airborne Research Program, or SARP, an eight-week summer internship program that exposes undergraduate students to all aspects of airborne science campaigns, including data collection techniques and data analysis. Students from diverse STEM backgrounds were placed into four research groups—atmospheric chemistry, ocean remote sensing, land remote sensing, and whole air sampling—and they must complete and present a research project by the end of the summer.

I grew up in Lincolnshire, Illinois, and since a young age I have been fascinated by the scientific processes that influence our planet. I believe that every human has the right to live a meaningful and purposeful life predicated on the existence of certain universal guarantees, such as clean air to breathe, safe food and water to eat and drink, and preserved natural areas. Those values align with SARP and almost all other NASA Earth Science campaigns, as their main objective is to collect accurate and high-quality data about the land, ocean, and atmospheric properties of Earth to understand how our world is changing.

SARP participants, pilots, and flight specialists after their third and longest flight on the DC-8 on June 26, 2018. Credits: NASA/Megan Schill

For this campaign, we were seated in NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory, a unique plane with scientific instruments protruding from the windows. NASA’s DC-8 is not like any traditional commercial airline flight. It was once a commercial airliner but was repurposed by NASA’s Earth Science Division and is now one of the best research aircraft in the world for conducting airborne science. Prior to my flight, the aircraft completed flights for NASA’s Atmospheric Tomography Mission (ATom), an around-the-world airborne science campaign dedicated to studying the impact of human-produced air pollution on greenhouse gases and on chemically reactive gases in the atmosphere.

On this particular flight, we had instruments that measured the presence and relative concentrations of important atmospheric gases over regions in southern and central California, including the San Joaquin Valley. I could hear the faint crescendo of the aircraft’s engine and full-blast air conditioning system through my noise-canceling headphones. The scientists, flight engineers, and pilot talked over the on-board communication system. I listened intently to the scientists as they updated the crew on their instruments.

SARP participants Sujay Rajkumar and Kiersten Johnson on board the DC-8 operating Whole Air Sampling instrumentduring a science flight on June 26, 2018. Credits: NASA/Megan Schill

The aircraft flight path and maneuvers depend on the goals of a particular scientific mission. On this six-hour flight, we undertook spirals, loops, and Meteorological Measurement System (MMS) maneuvers, which are important for understanding the aerodynamics of the aircraft and its effects on measurements such as pressure, winds, and air flow. We also flew in turbulent conditions at various elevations and over diverse environmental gradients.

Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) participant Dallas McKinney, a meteorology major at Western Kentucky University, aboard the DC-8 experiencing the cockpit during a June 26, 2018 science flight. Credits: NASA/Megan Schill

That being said, it may come as no surprise that my DC-8 flight was as turbulent as it was long; I actually ended up getting pretty motion sick on the mission. Getting sick is a sacrifice some make to collect the necessary data. Despite not feeling well, I was surrounded by passionate students, scientists, engineers, and flight specialists all cumulatively working to advance one of NASA’s core missions: to understand and protect our home planet.

I am excited to see all of the diverse and interesting projects that SARP 2018 will embark and present on at the end of the summer. I couldn’t ask to be in a better place or time here at NASA working with and being mentored by some of the best minds in the field.