NOAA Teacher at Sea
Onboard NOAA Ship Albatross IV
August 14 – 25, 2005
Mission: Ecosystem Productivity Survey
Geographical Area: Northeast U.S.
Date: August 15, 2005
Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 40° 01’ N
Longitude: 71° 37’ W
Wind direction: SSW (207)
Wind speed: 14 knots
Air temperature: 24° C
Sea water temperature: 24.8° C
Sea level pressure: 1015 millibars
Cloud cover: Hazy
Question of the Day: There is some variation in the depth to which sunlight penetrates. What factors could account for this?
Yesterday’s Answer: Because phytoplankton use photosynthesis to make their own food, they live near the surface of the ocean where they can absorb sunlight. Enough sunlight for photosynthesis penetrates to about 10 meters below the surface.
Science and Technology Log
“Phytoplankton are incredibly small. Each one is a single cell or a chain of identical cells. One teaspoon of seawater can hold a million phytoplankton.” (from Sea Soup: Phytoplankton by Mary M. Cerullo) They are so small that pictures of them must be taken through a microscope that magnifies them hundreds times. There are thousands of different kinds of phytoplankton, and new species are being discovered all the time. In fact, some kinds of phytoplankton were thought to be dust specks on microscope slides, until researchers built microscopes that are more powerful and discovered that those specks were really living organisms. Even though phytoplankton are plants, they don’t look like plants on land. They don’t have roots, stems, or leaves. “Instead they resemble spiky balls, tiny harpoons, links on a bracelet, spaceships, and many other shapes that defy description.” (Cerullo)
Why should we care about something that most of us will never see? First, phytoplankton are the base of the ocean food web, and all other living organisms in the ocean depend on them. Many ocean animals (including zooplankton) eat them, and are in turn eaten by larger animals. Without phytoplankton, the ocean food web would collapse. A special kind of phytoplankton called zooxanthellae helps to build coral reefs, one of the largest structures on earth. Corals are animals, but they need the help of the zooxanthellae to survive. The zooxanthellae live with the corals, providing food and oxygen, helping the corals take in minerals, and giving the corals their beautiful colors. Many people are worried about global warming, often called the greenhouse effect. This phenomenon is mostly due to the release of excess carbon dioxide into the air, which traps heat in the upper atmosphere. Every year, phytoplankton use nearly half of the carbon dioxide, slowing down global warming. Phytoplankton also help replace the ozone layer, which protects us from the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun. The remains of ancient phytoplankton provide us with oil and natural gas to use for energy. When they died, their remains sank to the bottom of the ocean, were covered with layers of mud, and over millions of years changed into oil deposits. “Products made from phytoplankton also filter swimming pools, distill fruit juice, wine, and beer, put the polish in toothpaste, and keep dynamite from exploding too soon. But perhaps most important, phytoplankton help us to breathe. About half of the world’s oxygen comes from phytoplankton. That means every other breath you take is thanks to phytoplankton.” (Cerullo)
As you can see, keeping the ocean environment healthy for phytoplankton is very important. Whenever you enjoy your warm house on a cold day, enjoy pictures of corals, eat fish, brush your teeth, or just breathe, you have phytoplankton to thank!
Now that we have been at sea for almost two days, I am adjusting to the watch schedule, which is different from normal life on land. My watches are from 6:00 a.m. to noon and from 6 p.m. to midnight. I try to get four or five ours of sleep between midnight and 6:00 a.m., and a shorter nap in the afternoon. Sometimes there is time to rest even on watch, while we are traveling to the next station. It’s a good time to catch up on reading, or wander around and ask questions about ship operations. About halfway through the cruise, Julie and I will swap watch schedules so that we can each experience what happens at other times of the day. Meals are excellent; usually better than I eat at home, since someone else is doing the cooking! The weather continues to be warm and muggy, but this morning is a little cooler. The crew is keeping an eye on Tropical Storm Irene, which does not look like a threat to our mission. Best of all, I have not been seasick, and probably won’t be unless we hit some rough seas. Today we discovered a stowaway in the wet lab. As the fume hood was being repaired, a bat flew out and perched on the ceiling (See picture #6). Definitely not a shipboard critter! Our chief scientist, Jerry, caught it in a paper cup and released it. We were close enough to land that the little guy should make it safely to a more hospitable habitat. Until tomorrow.