A New Deputy Gearing up for a New Deployment

Linette Boisvert, deputy project scientist for Operation IceBridge, “hanging out” in the belly of NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory. Credits: Linette Boisvert

Hi all, you may remember me, Linette Boisvert, from previous blogs such as “Team Sea Ice or Team Land Ice?” and “Sick Sacks for Science,” where I gave a visiting scientist’s perspective on test flights for NASA’s Operation IceBridge Arctic Spring campaign. Well now I am back, but this time as the deputy project scientist for IceBridge. Yes, a lot has changed since my last blog.

The location of Punta Arenas, Chile. Credits: Google Maps

Beginning the second week of October, I will be flying down to Punta Arenas, Chile, (basically the other end of the Earth!) on NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory to help lead IceBridge’s Antarctic Fall campaign. As I have never been to Chile, seen Antarctic sea ice in person (this is kind of a big deal), or flown on the DC-8 or met the crew, I took a short trip to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center located in the California desert town of Palmdale, where the DC-8 is based.

Once on center, I entered the massive hangar that houses multiple planes. This hangar was originally used to make B-52 bombers before it was acquired by NASA, and it is so massive that scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean were even filmed inside. (They had to bring in a very large pool.) But there it was, dwarfed by the large hangar: the DC-8. It will be my mobile “office” for the month of October, when we’ll do 12-hour flights from Punta Arenas, flying over the Antarctic sea ice and land ice and back again, taking measurements with lasers and radars. We do this every fall to monitor changes in the ice thickness.

The hangar at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, with the DC-8 in the background. Credits: Linette Boisvert
NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory. Credits: Linette Boisvert
A mostly empty DC-8 interior. Credits: Linette Boisvert

Now, this plane is a whole different beast than the NASA P-3 that I am accustomed to. It can seat up to 44 people with instruments aboard, compared to the 20 people that the P-3 can carry. The DC-8 has first class seats that recline and also has THREE bathrooms, and they’re like commercial airline bathrooms and not like composting toilets—what luxury! But when I first stepped onto the plane, it was basically empty. Seats were scattered around, there were containers about. I thought: “Are we really going to be able to fly this in a few weeks?” You see, I had arrived at the beginning of what we can “install,” and clearly there was a lot of work to be done. So naturally I was ready to lend a hand in any way that I could.

The desert around Palmdale and some Joshua trees. Credits: Linette Boisvert

My first task was to help Mission Scientist John Sonntag, “The man, the myth, the legend” (as he is often called), with a ground Global Positioning System (GPS) survey. This basically means we would spend hours outside in the desert heat and sun, looking a little silly, pushing a cart around with a GPS antennae attached. We would be doing this at multiple specific locations around the parking lot and the runway. Now you might be wondering why we are torturing ourselves. For science and the mission of course! We need highly accurate GPS locations of easy-to-spot points from digital imagery so that we can geolocate our digital imagery and calibrate our camera during the test flights. Our instruments need to be calibrated so we can know the exact locations of our data when we fly and take measurements.

Our GPS ground survey antennae and cart just after sunrise. Credits: Linette Boisvert

So now that is cleared up you might be wondering, okay, why do you have this antennae jerry rigged to this cart? I learned that GPS antennas are finicky, and the antennae need to be pointed unobstructed to the sky to receive signals from the multiple satellites orbiting overhead. Thus, it cannot be blocked by anything from above, such as your head, lampposts, or trees because if any contact with the satellites is lost during the survey, it would have to be done all over again. The other option would be to carry this around with the antennae above your head the whole time, so having the choice, I think I will take the cart.

GPS ground survey on the runway with John Sonntag. NASA’s SOFIA plane is in the background. Credits: Linette Boisvert
GPS ground survey in the dessert brush. NASA SOFIA plane in the background. Credits: Linette Boisvert
GPS ground survey team John Sonntag and Linette Boisvert. Credits: John Sonntag

Well, it turns out we had to eventually abandon the cart, because some of our survey points were located in the desert brush, and our little cart was not made for off-roading. We tried. As we were trudging through the desert carrying the antennae above our heads, John told me all about rattlesnakes and what I should be on the lookout for. Great, with my luck we would come upon one. But alas, we didn’t run into any of our reptilian friends and were able to complete our surveys, albeit a bit parched, sunburnt, and sweaty.

Now while we were surveying in the desert, the Airborne Topographic Mapper (ATM) team, the “Dream Team,” as I call them, were hard at work in the hangar installing their GPS ground station ATM T-6 and T-7 lasers

The ATM T-7 laser. Credits: Linette Boisvert

onto the belly of the DC-8, as well as their racks, which hold all of their computers and servers on the interior. They worked diligently for four long days, and at the end of the fourth day, they were finally ready to install ATM T-7. This baby weighs about 200 lbs and to me looked to be too big to fit into the door in the belly of the plane, so I knew I had to witness this!


The laser was wheeled out to the plane, where it was then put onto a forklift, lifted up, and gingerly slid into the belly of the plane. It was a tight fit, and I was nervous to say the least, but it all worked out in the end. Phew! Next week the radar instrument teams will begin their install.

The ATM T-7 installation into the belly of the DC-8. Credits: Linette Boisvert

Before I left on my last day, I took a few quiet moments in the DC-8. Compared to when I arrived, the plane looked almost put together. I was in shock with how quickly and seamlessly the crew and the ATM team worked together. The seats were nearly all set up, and the ATM and navigation racks were installed. I felt a sigh of relief knowing that I would be working with a group of scientists and engineers who worked hard, and that no matter what unexpected issues or problems arose on this upcoming campaign, we would all be able to work together to fix the problem and continue to collect valuable science data of the Antarctic ice. Lets just say I couldn’t be more proud and honored to be a part of this IceBridge team.

A nearly completely installed DC-8 plane. Credits: Linette Boisvert

I also want to note that I am also very content to not be partaking in the DC-8 test flights next week over the desert, where they can be very turbulent, because I am not looking forward to having to test out any more “sick sacks.”

Oh, The Places We’ll Go: Tales From a Traveling Scientist

Golden hour looks good on the CTD, too! Credits: Alex Niebergall

Alex Niebergall is a PhD student in Earth and Ocean Sciences at Duke University and worked aboard the R/V Sally Ride in the North Pacific in August and September.

Before I joined the science crew aboard the R/V Sally Ride and set sail for the middle of the Pacific Ocean for my first ever research cruise, I can honestly say I did not know what to expect. Would it be an adventure? I hoped so. Would it be long hours in the lab? Undoubtedly. Would it be like stepping into National Talk-Like-A-Pirate-Day for an entire month? Maybe not. What I did know is that the research cruise meant 34 days on the open ocean doing what I love, and that was the only enticement I needed to sign up!

Scientists and crew aboard the Sally Ride watches the sunset as the ship leaves port in Seattle. Credits: Alex Niebergall

For me, it has always been about the ocean. Don’t get me wrong, I love science. I know this because my time as a researcher has taken me to far more windowless labs in the basements of old science buildings than remote, dream-like field locations, and I have enjoyed every second of this work too! But even this windowless basement science ties back to Earth, the environment, and most importantly (in my eyes) the ocean. Throughout elementary and high school, I was drawn to science and math because they gave me new ways to look at the world around me. Suddenly, every baseball game was a math problem—the velocity of the pitch, the angle of impact, the parabolic motion of the ball as it headed into the outfield (why no… I’ve never been very good at sports, how did you guess?).

As an avid outdoorswoman, science unlocked even more secrets. Physics and geology courses taught me about wave motion and erosion. Biology, ecology, genetics, and evolution classes allowed me to go to tide pooling and appreciate the radial symmetry of an ochre sea star while understanding its predatory role in the intertidal ecosystem. A firm grasp of chemistry allowed me to look at the ocean on a much smaller scale—a system of salinity gradients, dissolved nutrients, and pH balance. (Not to mention that chemistry makes cooking more interesting!) These subjects were interesting because I saw them every day around me, connected and continuously in flux, influencing each other in every way and giving me a new appreciation for all the activities and places I already loved.

Oh the places we’ll go…

In truth, science has taken me to some of the coolest places I could possibly imagine. As an undergrad, I went to field sites in the depths of the Northern California wilderness that look so wild and untouched they could be the set for the next Jurassic Park movie. I’ve been to redwood forests studying ecosystem dynamics. Science training took me to the underwater kelp jungles of Monterey Bay, California, and offshore Oregon where I learned, among other things, that measuring baby sea stars (sometimes the size of my thumb nail) becomes infinitely more challenging in a surge that forces you 8 feet in either direction. I also learned that sea creatures (specifically sea otters and trigger fish) have the ability and the instinct to irreparably damage science equipment, but THAT is a story for another time! Research took me to the underwater paradise that is the coral reefs of Indonesia, where night diving with bioluminescent dinoflagellates meant that the water around me perfectly mirrored the stars that sparkled out of the darkness overhead.

Alex Niebergall helps with Winkler titrations by mixing reagents with water samples to fix the dissolved oxygen. Credits: Collin Roesler
Alex Niebergall samples water from the morning optics cast. Credits: Abigale Wyatt

Now as a brand new graduate student in Earth and ocean science, I found myself living on a floating laboratory in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with a view of the waves as far as the eye can see in a blue hue that is unlike anything I ever saw in my life. My group’s project aboard the ship was focused on quantifying how the plankton communities in the ocean influence carbon export by estimating the net community production at the ocean’s surface. We did this by measuring biological oxygen concentrations in the surface water and pairing these data with genetic analyses of the microbial community. These measurements allowed us to infer how much carbon was being taken up by biological processes and thus, taken out of the atmosphere.

With this project, those same subjects I learned to love in the tenth grade—chemistry, ecology, genetics, math—tied together (with the help and expertise of many, many other dedicated scientists) to give us a comprehensive view of what is happening in the ocean and how it affects our planet’s climate.

Yuanheng Xiong watches the sunrise from the back deck of the R/V Sally Ride. Credits: Alex Niebergall

To some, the idea of being a floating speck in the middle of the ocean may seem isolating (or at the very least, nausea-inducing). To me, it is the coolest place I’ve ever been. The view reminds me that I am a small part of something big, not just as a junior scientist in the immense scientific undertaking that is the EXPORTS project, but also as one small human in the middle of an enormous planet that we have the privilege to explore, admire, question, and hopefully understand. Today, I am a happy, and very lucky, scientist because I was on this wild adventure, working alongside some of the most inspirational and dedicated scientists I have ever met.

But tomorrow? Tomorrow I am eagerly waiting to see where science will take me next.

Diagnosing Diatoms: Do Anemic Diatoms Alter North Pacific Food Webs?

by Kris Gomes and Travis Mellett / NORTHEASTERN PACIFIC OCEAN /

The focus of our team is on a group of phytoplankton called diatoms, which are the floating, single-celled plants of the ocean. These organisms, through photosynthesis, use the energy from sunlight and the carbon dioxide we exhale and other sources to create food. Thus, they act as the base of a food web that sustains other animals in the ocean. Iron also plays an important role in the nutrition of these organisms.  When iron is too low, diatom growth can be reduced and their photosynthesis less efficient, resulting in low diatom abundance and decreased energy transfer further up the marine food web. In the part of the Pacific Ocean sampled by the Export Processes in the Ocean from Remote Sensing, or EXPORTS, program, iron is at some of the lowest levels in the global ocean and not at levels that can support high diatom growth. That being said, diatoms persist in this nutritionally challenged system, which drives the main goal of our EXPORTS experiments: to understand the impact that nutrients, such as iron, have on the role of diatoms in ocean carbon export.

To help us better understand this nutrient/carbon export relationship, we are performing large incubation experiments and following rates of nutrient use using natural diatom communities that we fertilize with precise amounts of nutrients to simulate natural changes that can occur in the environment. These experiments will improve our understanding of how these changes in nutrient availability affect diatom growth, diatom photosynthetic efficiency, and carbon production, as well as whether diatom species composition shifts or their gene expression alters in response to nutrient amendments.

In addition, we are also using radioactive isotopes of carbon and silica to track changes in diatom nutrient uptake rates and their metabolic activity.  Working with the rest of the EXPORTS science team, we will evaluate how shifts in diatom nutrient physiology drive diatoms through different food web pathways that lead to the export of diatom carbon to the deep sea.

In order to understand the growth rates and functions of diatoms in their natural environment, it is also important to study them in their natural conditions, which can be challenging when you are roaming the ocean in a large metal ship.  To ensure that our experiments are free from contamination, we take special measures to guarantee that we are collecting iron-clean samples, which is where our trace metal experts come into play.

On this cruise, there are three main techniques (a trace metal trifecta) we use to collect iron-clean water and the diatoms in this water:

One: Trace metal clean rosette system.

This is the bread and butter of collecting clean water samples from depth. We send the bottles down open, and close them at specific depths to bring that water back to the surface for measurements. These are standard sampling devices on all research ships, but ours is special in that we have swapped the nasty metal parts out for clean plastic parts, and the metal wire replaced with a stronger and metal-free Kevlar wire.

Bottles loaded on the trace metal clean rosette system. The shower caps protect the openings from any contaminating particles that may be floating around the deck. Credits: Travis Mellett

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A short montage of the rosette system deployment and recovery from the stern of the ship. Credits: Travis Mellett and Salvatore Caprara

Two: Clean sampling spaces

One of the biggest problems we have with keeping samples clean is dust, which is absolutely riddled with iron and is everywhere aboard the ship. To avoid this, we create spaces where we pump only the finest of filtered air in to fill our delicate lungs and keep dust out of our samples.  On the ship we have two places dedicated to clean sampling. The first is out in the trace metal van at the back of the ship where our rosette bottles live and are sampled from hot off of a rosette cast.

The trace metal van is very close to the rosette, facing its back to the deck, where bottles are loaded and unloaded just before a cast is made. Credits: Travis Mellett

The second place we trace metal chemists feel comfortable enough to let loose and open our sample bottles is in our bubble in the main lab. The space is our clean, plastic fort we have constructed (and decorated) and pumped with clean filtered air (to puff the bubble) so we can still work in the main lab while avoiding the mess of our dusty and rusty neighbors.

Travis Mellett stands in front of the trace metal clean filter rigs collecting samples to analyze dissolved iron concentrations, which are placed under a hanging double filter air unit. Pete Morton stares longingly through the vinyl window that allows for visual communication with the outer bubble world. Credits: Bethany Jenkins
We use colored sharpies to allow others (and ourselves) to decorate the outside of the bubble and bring a little flair to the white space in the main lab. Credits: Kris Gomes

Three: Trace metal surface tow-fish

The fish allows us to collect clean surface seawater by swimming out away from the dirty wake of the ship and sipping up that delicious iron-clean seawater through a plastic tube that we have hooked to a Teflon pump, bringing it right into our bubble.

The trace metal team unleashing the tow fish for a morning of grazing on iron-clean seawater. Credits: Bethany Jenkins

Diatom Incubations at Sea

After collecting the diatom communities, we conduct a variety of experiments.  After fertilizing them with nutrients, we need to allow them time to grow and adapt to their new conditions, while maintaining otherwise natural conditions. To accomplish this, we use large deck board incubators, which are continually filled with flowing sea water collected from the surface to keep them at natural temperatures. The incubators are also wrapped in dark screening to help simulate light levels found within the water column where we collected each sample.

Twenty-liter bottles appear weightless in the incubator on the back deck at sunset. Credits: Alyson Santoro

We monitor the response of the diatoms by measuring how fast they take up the nutrients under natural and fertilized conditions.  In some experiments we use radioisotopes of silicon and carbon to do this, and we collect the samples in a special van dedicated to radioisotope use. In other experiments we look at how diatom physiology responds to fertilization by measuring what genes diatoms are turning on and off as they encounter different conditions. For these experiments, bottles that have been growing in the incubators are brought inside to the bubble to be harvested and ultimately filtered in the ship’s main lab. Water from the bottles is passed through a series of filters using peristaltic pumps to collect the larger diatoms as well as any other smaller organisms that are in the water. These filters are flash-frozen in liquid nitrogen, acting as a cellular snapshot, freezing the metabolic status of each cell in place for future analysis.

Work in the van is done under red light, which is nearly invisible to diatom photosynthetic systems, to prevent the diatoms from changing while we collect them by filtration. Credits: Mark Brzezinski
The filter rigs are used to sample genetic information from the experiments. Credits: Bethany Jenkins
The incubation bottle fertilized with iron is visibly different from other bottles, indicating it is filled with lots of happy diatoms. Credits: Salvatore Caprara

This combination of field and laboratory work, bridging chemistry and biology, will provide data that will improve our understanding of why diatoms follow specific pathways through the food web of the upper ocean, providing a predictive understanding of the processes that lead to carbon export by diatoms, which are one piece of the biological puzzle pumping carbon to the deep ocean twilight zone.

The team, from left to right: Travis Mellett (USF), Mark Brzezinski (UCSB), Pete Morton (UF), Salvatore Caparara (USF), Bethany Jenkins (URI), and Kris Gomes (URI). Credits: NASA

Getting Particles in the Northeastern Pacific: An Unexpected Honeymoon

On your mark: Muntsa Roca Martí ready to start the deployment of six pumps in the Northeast Pacific Ocean. Credits: Abigale Wyatt

by Montserrat Roca Martí / NORTHEAST PACIFIC OCEAN /

I am Montserrat Roca Martí, but I like to be called Muntsa, which is a Catalan name. I come from Barcelona, Catalonia, where I finished my PhD one year ago.

These last several weeks have been hectic and at the same time very exciting, as they included a wedding (my own, to be precise) and a big move from Barcelona to Falmouth, Massachusetts, where I am now a Postdoctoral Investigator at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). However, I didn’t spend much time in my new office. Instead, I spent most of my time getting equipment ready and packing over one hundred items of all shapes and sizes before leaving for Seattle in August.

Some Café Thorium team members, from right to left: Blaire Umhau, Abigale Wyatt, Sam Clevenger and Muntsa Roca Martí in their working van. Credits: Monserrat Roca Martí

All this activity is devoted to the Export Processes in the Ocean from Remote Sensing (EXPORTS) expedition in the Northeast Pacific. The primary goal of this project is to understand how carbon is converted from inorganic matter (carbon dioxide) to organic matter by phytoplankton. This forest of tiny photosynthetic organisms, mostly algae, represent the primary way the ocean is able to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, regulating Earth’s climate.

So here I am at 50ºN 145ºW aboard the R/V Sally Ride. I never would have imagined that I’d be spending my honeymoon in open ocean waters with 40 people, none of whom are my husband!

I belong to Café Thorium, a team comprised of amazing people who love espresso and also studying thorium in the ocean. We are interested in thorium—a radioactive, metallic chemical element—because it provides very valuable information about the transport of other elements, such as carbon, from the ocean surface to depth as particles sink. My main role in this expedition is to collect particles from different depths down to 500 meters in order to determine their composition and concentration in water. To do that, we use in-situ pumps, which are like underwater vacuum cleaners equipped with filter heads that we lower into the ocean to specific depths and turn them on. These heads contain filters of different pore sizes through which thousands of liters of seawater pass during four to five hours of intense pumping.

Steve Pike (Spike) and Claudia Benitez-Nelson preparing the pumps to be deployed. Credits: Montserrat Roca Martí

This operation requires strong and skillful people to lift nine heavy pumps and attach them to the wire that will transport them to the desired depths. Fortunately, two of our team, Spike and Claudia, are very experienced and have done this complex endeavor hundreds of times.

Large filtration pumps equipped with filter heads that will collect marine particles from 1000s of liters of seawater. Credits: Monserrat Roca Martí
Examples of our precious samples from down to 500 meters depth. Credits: Monserrat Roca Martí

When pumps are back on deck, we have to remove the filters as quickly as possible before the organic particles degrade. This is Rock & Roll time for Blaire and me. We sub-sample as many as 50 filters so we and others can measure a variety of parameters, including microbial activity, pigments and carbon. Only then can we safely store our precious samples until further analyses back at WHOI and a few other institutions. So far, we have collected over 500 samples from more than 77 cubic meters of water (more than 20,000 gallons) and counting! This is how I am spending my honeymoon!

On Finding Things in the Ocean

Crew members aboard the R/V Revelle retrieve a neutrally buoyant sediment trap from the ocean. Credits: Alyson Santoro


Meg Estapa is an assistant professor at Skidmore College and leads the EXPORTS sediment trap team.  Her current work focuses on the optical properties of sinking particles and how these can serve as proxy measurements to help us better characterize the spatial and temporal scales of the biological pump. She is currently working aboard the R/V Roger Revelle.

One of the unusual things about the EXPORTS field campaign is the number of independently drifting instruments that we are using. These instruments include profiling floats, gliders, self-ballasted and moored sediment traps, and wave-powered profilers. Untethered from the ships, they multiply the observations we can make directly from the R/Vs Revelle and Ride. My team on the Revelle is responsible for all of the sediment traps and the wave-powered profiler (also known as the WireWalker). Right now we have seven different sampling devices to keep track of that are drifting out there in the ocean! Needless to say, in addition to our science, much of our mental energy at sea is taken up by one very important operational task: finding our equipment in the ocean.

Our sediment traps consist of cylindrical, rain gauge-like devices that capture sinking particles as they drift slowly downward over periods of days. They are attached either to a profiling float that carries them down to drift at depth (a neutrally buoyant sediment trap or NBST) or to an array of trap frames that dangle like a string of beads from a floating buoy at the surface (a surface-tethered trap or STT). None of the traps are connected physically to the R/V Revelle—we release them to drift on their own and then come back to retrieve them three to five days later. The ocean flows at speeds of a few kilometers per day, so the sediment traps won’t stay where we left them.

The buoy for the Surface Tethered Trap array carries a number of aids to finding the array and bringing it back on board.  Credits: Alyson Santoro. Annotations:  Meg Estapa

Recovering sediment traps requires us to engage in a carefully choreographed dance that begins with the deceptively simple-sounding task of locating the positions of our equipment in the ocean. All together there are usually 14 robots and sediment traps in the water out here at Ocean Station Papa, each with its own pattern of dives and resurfacings. These assets are spread out over a box that is roughly 30 nautical miles on a side (that is, 56 kilometers on a side, giving an area of over 3,000 square kilometers!). Visually spotting one of those tiny objects floating on the ocean’s surface is like finding a needle in a haystack.

To improve the odds of recovering our sediment traps, we rely on a collection of old and new technologies. The most important of these are GPS receivers that acquire precise location information, which is then transmitted via satellite back to computers on land. A second satellite connection allows us to access that location data over the Internet from the Revelle.  Some of our traps—the ones that have buoys at the surface—also send their GPS positions to the ship directly using radio transmitting beacons.  All of our traps have bright, flashing strobe lights that are highly visible at night, and some even have two! Finally, the buoy marking our drifting trap array carries an oldie but goodie: a metal radar reflector that bounces radio waves back to the antenna on the Revelle to be seen as a bright “blip” on the bridge’s radar screen.

When the time arrives to pick up a sediment trap, following the trail of GPS fix “breadcrumbs” is usually sufficient to bring the Revelle to within a mile or two of the recovery target. But a device drifting at the surface moves fast, and it takes a few minutes for GPS fixes to be relayed to us on the ship, so we’ll never find our target exactly at its last GPS fix. Especially for our smallest devices, the neutrally-buoyant sediment traps (NBST), the last and sometimes trickiest link is putting our eyes on the trap in the water.  Only the top of the NBST pokes out of the water when it’s awaiting a pickup—about the size of a yellow-and-gray soccer ball, with 25 feet of floating yellow rope streaming out beside it.

On a clear day it is just possible to spot an NBST from a mile away, and at night their flashing strobe lights are visible from a distance of perhaps two miles.  But the cloudy, misty weather out here is less than ideal.  On a typical trap recovery night, a visitor to the bridge of the Revelle would find a line of scientists and crew arrayed along the forward windows in near pitch darkness, hoping to be the first to catch a glimpse of the blinking strobe out on the water. The first exclamation of “I see it!” always produces a bit of an adrenaline rush for me! Following some expert ship handling to bring the Revelle right alongside the NBST, its precious cargo of samples and data is about to come back aboard.

MOCNESS Monsters: Creatures of the Deep Sea

Chief Scientist, Deb Steinberg holding a deep-sea shrimp. Credit: Chandler Countryman
Chief Scientist, Deb Steinberg holding a deep-sea shrimp. Credit: Chandler Countryman

By Chandler Countryman / NORTHWEST PACIFIC OCEAN /

Chandler Countryman is a graduate student at the University of Georgia, studying the vertical transport of organic matter from the surface to the deep ocean.

The Multiple Opening/Closing Net and Environmental Sensing System, or MOCNESS, is used to look at zooplankton, sea creatures ranging in size from microscopic to several inches. We’re interested in learning what types are present in the water column, how many there are, and at what depth they are found. As you go down in the water column the community of planktonic animals change, and the depth at which each type of zooplankton is found can change throughout the day, depending on the species. This is referred to as “diel vertical migration” and allows animals to swim to shallower depths during the night to feed and then retreat to deeper depths during the day in order to avoid being eaten by visual predators.

The MOCNESS is a one-meter square frame with ten individual nets and each one can be opened at different desirable depths. The zooplankton team aboard the R/V Roger Revelle, led by Dr. Debbie Steinberg of the College of William & Mary, has sent the MOCNESS down to 1000 meters ten times so far during the EXPORTS cruise, five times during the day and five times during the night. The day/night pairs allow us to look at this diel vertical migration behavior.

Deb Steinberg next to the MOCNESS frame. In this photo, you can see the bottom net is open, and you can see the mechanism that hold together the rest of the 9 nets until they are opened electronically. Credit: Chandler Countryman
Deb Steinberg next to the MOCNESS frame. In this photo, you can see the bottom net is open, and you can see the mechanism that hold together the rest of the 9 nets until they are opened electronically. Credit: Chandler Countryman
The Zooplankton Team getting ready to deploy the MOCNESS on deck (minus Joe, who runs the computer portion of the MOCNESS). From left to right: Andrea Miccoli, Karen Stamieszkin, Brendon Mendenhall (Restech), Deb Steinberg (Chief Scientist), and Chandler Countryman. Credit: Chandler Countryman
The Zooplankton Team getting ready to deploy the MOCNESS on deck (minus Joe, who runs the computer portion of the MOCNESS). From left to right: Andrea Miccoli, Karen Stamieszkin, Brendon Mendenhall (Restech), Deb Steinberg (Chief Scientist), and Chandler Countryman. Credit: Chandler Countryman

In addition to our beloved epipelagic (surface) and mesopelagic (intermediate depth) zooplankton species, we have also caught several neat, deep-sea animals.

The Anglerfish

Common name: Spikehead dreamer, Scientific name: Bertella idiomorpha

A side view of the anglerfish. You can see her lure and her small, black beady eye. Credit: Chandler Countryman
A side view of the anglerfish. You can see her lure and her small, black beady eye. Credit: Chandler Countryman

This beautiful fish was caught in our net that stays open from 0-1000 meters, so the exact depth in which it was caught is unknown. In general, this species of anglerfish can be found anywhere between 805 meters and 3475 meters deep.

Most anglerfish are quite small and the maximum length recorded for this species is 10.2 cm (SL). It is dark-grey in color with a large head that has sharp teeth in its wide mouth. The most characteristic feature of this fish—and the reason for its name—is its lure (esca), which glows with the help of bioluminescent bacteria.

The lure attracts small animals like crustaceans and fish and is only found on females. The males are much smaller than the females and start out as free-swimmers until encountering a female, at which point they dig their teeth into the female, and inject enzymes that break down skin, fusing themselves into the female. Once the male is fused with the female, its bloodstream is actually connected to hers, and then the males loses all organs except for his testes.

Scientists waiting in line to go into the bathroom and look at the glowing lure. The bathroom has no windows and is therefore perfect for this. Credit: Chandler Countryman
Scientists waiting in line to go into the bathroom and look at the glowing lure. The bathroom has no windows and is therefore perfect for this. Credit: Chandler Countryman

This form of symbiosis is considered an adaptation to the low encounter rate experienced between individuals in the deep sea. The male gets nutrition from the female, and in return the female has available sperm for multiple spawning events.

The female that we caught was still alive when she was brought on deck and we were able to film her swimming for a bit and to see the glow of her lure by going into a dark room—which in this case was the bathroom.

The Viperfish

Common name: Pacific viperfish, Scientific name: Chauliodus macouni

Viperfish caught in the MOCNESS. Notice its photophores running along the side. Credit: Chandler Countryman
Viperfish caught in the MOCNESS. Notice its photophores running along the side. Credit: Chandler Countryman

This gnarly-looking predatory fish is a vertical migrator that lives between 200 and 5000 meters deep during the day and swims up to less than 200 meters at night to feed. This species can reach a length of about 30 centimeters (1 foot) and is black/dark brown in color with photophores along its side, which are thought to be used as camouflage from predation below them in the water by making them blend in with the light from above. It is also possible that these photophores can attract prey or be used in mating.

An up-close photo of the large, translucent teeth. Credit: Chandler
An up-close photo of the large, translucent teeth. Credit: Chandler

The most striking feature of the viperfish is its teeth, which are so large that they can’t fit inside its mouth and instead curve up towards the eye. Instead of being used for chewing, these teeth are used to impale its prey by swimming into it at fast speeds. The viperfish mostly eats crustaceans, arrow worms, and small fish. It has several adaptations to survive a low prey encounter rate in the deep ocean, including a hinged skull that allows it to swallow large prey, a large stomach that allows it to stock up on prey while it is abundant, and a low metabolic rate, which allows it to go several days without food.

The Lanternfish

Common name: Lanternfish, Scientific name: Family Myctophidae

Lanternfish caught in the MOCNESS. Credit: Chandler Countryman
Lanternfish caught in the MOCNESS. Credit: Chandler Countryman

Myctophids are very common in the world’s oceans and can make up to 65 percent of the fish biomass in the deep sea. Most lanternfish are smaller than 15 centimeters (5.9 inches) and are diel vertical migrators that live between 300 and 1500 meters during the day and swim up to between 10 and 100 meters during the night to avoid predators and also to follow their food source, which consists mostly of vertically migrating zooplankton. These fish also possess photophores along their body, which can be used for camouflage just like the ones found on the viperfish. However, the photophores in lanternfish differ greatly between species, which indicates that it may also be used for communication and mating.

The Helmet Jelly

Common name: Helmet jellyfish, Scientific name: Periphylla periphylla

Periphylla jellyfish in a beaker. Look closely and you can see the clear “helmet.” Credit: Chandler Countryman
Periphylla jellyfish in a beaker. Look closely and you can see the clear “helmet.” Credit: Chandler Countryman

This deep-sea jelly is a vertical migrator that can be found between 500 and 1000 meters and avoids too much light because its red-brown pigment becomes lethal with light exposure. The umbrella can be up to 35 centimeters (~14 inches) in height and 25 centimeters (~10 inches) in diameter and is completely clear, showing the red/orange stomach inside of it. It has 12 orange tentacles that can be more than 50 centimeters (~20 inches) long, which have stinging cells on them to attack their prey. This jellyfish can actually use bioluminescence to produce flashes of bright light in order to protect itself from predation by confusing its predators. A helmet jelly’s body is 90 percent water.

Other neat critters

We have caught many more creatures including deep-sea shrimp, other jellies, squid, ctenophores and many more!

Large deep-sea jellies caught in the MOCNESS. Credit: Chandler Countryman
Large deep-sea jellies caught in the MOCNESS. Credit: Chandler Countryman
Large deep-sea jellies caught in the MOCNESS. Credit: Chandler Countryman
Large deep-sea jellies caught in the MOCNESS. Credit: Chandler Countryman
Squid caught in the MOCNESS. Credit: Chandler Countryman
Squid caught in the MOCNESS. Credit: Chandler Countryman

“We Came Here to Work”: OMG in the Field

Kulusuk, Greenland. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Kulusuk, Greenland. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Iceberg off the coast of Greenland. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Iceberg, Greenland. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Sled puppy, Greenland. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Sled dog puppy, Greenland. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

By Carol Rasmussen / KULUSUK, GREENLAND /

Kulusuk Island is breathtakingly beautiful — a spectacular mountain backdrop, quaint village, turquoise icebergs, even adorable sled-dog puppies. But Oceans Melting Greenland Project Manager Steve Dinardo didn’t choose it as a base because of the scenery. “We came here to work,” he says.

Kulusuk is ideally located for surveying East Greenland, which the locals call the wild side of the island — even more remote and unpopulated than the west coast. But the weather changes quickly, and the little airport doesn’t have a hangar to protect the research plane. If you have any trouble here, you could be stuck for quite a while. Every day in the field is expensive, and winter is just around the corner.

So the five OMG team members push themselves to get as much done as possible each day.

To begin with, they fly as many hours as they legally can to collect data. After the plane lands, there are still hours of work ahead. The plane is fueled and checked over for the next flight, Steve looks at multiple weather forecasting models to create a forecast for Kulusuk and the probe-drop areas, and Principal Investigator Josh Willis comes up with science priorities to match the weather. Both may end up revising their plans multiple times before the next morning’s fly/no fly decision.

Left to right: Steve Dinardo (NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory), OMG project manager; Scott Farley and Andy Ferguson (Airtec, Inc.), pilots; Glenn Warren (Airtec, Inc.), aircraft engineer; Josh Willis (JPL), OMG principal investigator. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Left to right: Steve Dinardo (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory), OMG project manager; Scott Farley and Andy Ferguson (Airtec, Inc.), pilots; Glenn Warren (Airtec, Inc.), aircraft engineer; Josh Willis (JPL), OMG principal investigator. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Add to this list trying to stay in touch with family at home, answering a few pressing emails, eating, showering and so on. No wonder that some days, the team gets no more than a few glimpses of the incredible landscape out of plane and hotel windows.

“It’s more of an adventure in retrospect,” Josh summarized. “While you’re there, you have your head down and you’re working as hard as you can. When you get a day off, you sleep.”

The team has already had the one mandatory day off that it will get in Kulusuk. As far as I could tell, everyone filled it almost as full as the work days. At dinner, several team members did mention a nap, but they also spent some of their precious free time out in the Arctic landscape. Jakob Ipsen, manager of the Hotel Kulusuk, found a villager to take senior pilot Andy Ferguson fishing and another who took four of us to see a nearby glacier. Later, Jakob drove a few team members to the highest point on the island to watch the sunset.

Sunset over Kulusuk, Greenland. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Sunset over Kulusuk, Greenland. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The next morning, it was back to business. Steve gave a favorable weather forecast at 7 a.m., and the team took off for another eight-hour research flight about an hour later. They flew north to Scoresby Sund and dropped another 10 probes in key fjords, for a total of 99 drops in five days. Only 150 more to go.

Steve Dinardo gives the weather forecast during breakfast each morning. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Steve Dinardo gives the weather forecast during breakfast each morning. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Inner Space of the Subarctic Pacific Ocean

 Instead of stars, this is an image of marine bacteria and flagellates, a swimming microscopic organism in the shape of a whip. Credit: Craig Carlson
Instead of stars, this is an image of marine bacteria and flagellates, a swimming microscopic organism in the shape of a whip. Credit: Craig Carlson

By Craig Carlson and Brandon Stephens / NORTHEAST PACIFIC OCEAN /

Brandon Stephens is a post-doc fellow working with Craig Carlson, a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. Their research focuses on the role marine microbes play in the cycling of elements through oceanic dissolved organic matter, which in turn plays a role in the fate of carbon produced in the ocean. They are working aboard the R/V Roger Revelle for the EXPORTS field campaign.

When one thinks of a NASA mission, thoughts of outer space, stars and other astronomic bodies come to mind. The image above could easily be mistaken for one of stars and planets or a nearby galaxy in deep space captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. But really, it’s microscopic life in the ocean.

With the EXPORTS mission, NASA turns it focus, quite literally, from outer space to Earth’s inner space of the subarctic Pacific Ocean. Using ocean optical sensors, microscopes and molecular tools (rather than telescopes), scientists on board the Research Vessel Roger Revelle have been examining microbial life hundreds to thousands of meters below the ocean’s surface.

R/V Roger Revelle left Seattle on Aug. 10, 2018. The ship will follow the R/V Sally Ride to the open ocean, where they will conduct complementary research at sea. Credits: NASA/Michael Starobin
R/V Roger Revelle left Seattle on Aug. 10, 2018. The ship will follow the R/V Sally Ride to the open ocean, where they will conduct complementary research at sea. Credits: NASA/Michael Starobin

The microbes that make up the “constellations” represent the some of the Earth’s most abundant organisms: marine bacterioplankton. There are several hundred thousand to one million bacteria in every drop (one milliliter) of ocean water. When scaled to the total volume of the ocean (i.e. ~ 1.5 billion km3), there are approximately 120,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1.2 x 1029) bacterioplankton cells in the global ocean, or ~ 95% of the all the living biomass in the sea. In other words, the total marine bacterioplankton biomass is greater than all of the ocean’s zooplankton, shellfish, fish and whales summed together.

The majority of this unseen marine bacterioplankton grow very fast, dividing every couple of days. To meet their metabolic demands, bacterioplankton must consume vast amounts of organic compounds like carbohydrates and proteins and recycle inorganic nutrients like carbon dioxide, nitrate and phosphate every day. Though each of these microbes live on the timescales of days and work on spatial scales of nanometers (a billionth of a meter), their sheer numbers and high growth rates mean they affect ocean chemistry on the scales of ecosystems. These marine microbes are the true drivers of large scale biogeochemical cycles in oceanic systems as we are witnessing in the subarctic Pacific Ocean.

With EXPORTS, we are examining the intricate mechanisms of the oceanic biological “carbon pump”. The carbon pump describes how photosynthically fixed carbon (usually from atmospheric carbon dioxide that has dissolved in the ocean) is processed and reprocessed through the ocean’s planktonic food web in the surface layers of the ocean. Ultimately a portion of the carbon is exported out of the suface by sinking and mixing to the deep ocean hundreds to thousands of meters below.

This filtration system allows the EXPORTS science team to test multiple water samples. The campaign is making detailed measurements of phytoplankton and other material found at various depths of the open ocean. Credits: NASA/Michael Starobin
This filtration system allows the EXPORTS science team to test multiple water samples. The campaign is making detailed measurements of phytoplankton and other material found at various depths of the open ocean. Credits: NASA/Michael Starobin

How exactly the ocean absorbs and retains carbon largely depends in part on the growth of microbes but also where in the water column (between the ocean surface and abyss) they intercept and consume sinking organic particles or dissolved organic matter. For carbon, and other associated elements, to be stored for long periods of time in the ocean, it first must travese the portion of the ocean’s water column that extends between ~one hundred and one thousand meter depths. This zone is referred to by oceanographers as the ocean’s twilight zone. The twilight zone is so named not only because there is little to no light but also because the chemical budgets and biological processes that occur in this zone are not well understood. If microbes recycle the organic matter too close to the surface, the carbon escapes long-term storage. But if the sinking or mixed organic matter gets deep enough, then that carbon is removed from interaction with the atmosphere for decades to millennia.

Our project is designed to investigate marine microbes and their interaction with organic compounds throughout the water column of the subarctic Pacific Ocean. We are conducting experiments at sea that combine tools from ecology, molecular biology, and marine chemistry to investigate how bacterioplankton consume the organic substrates available to them. By examining microbial behavior, we will learn more about how the ocean’s “inner space” functions and how biology helps govern the movement of carbon within Earth’s systems.