NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
August 22-31, 2018
Mission: Summer Ecosystem Monitoring Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean
Date: August 22, 2018
Weather Data from the Bridge
- Latitude: 991 N
- Longitude: 590 W
- Water Temperature: 22.3◦C
- Wind Speed: 1 knots
- Wind Direction: WSW
- Air Temperature: 23.3◦C
- Atmospheric Pressure: 66 millibars
- Sky: Mostly Cloudy
Science and Technology Log
Haven’t you always dreamed of having your own Imaging Flow Cyto Bot (IFCB)? What an interesting scientific instrument that I am lucky enough to be taking care of while on this cruise! Before we even left the dock, Jessica Lindsey (volunteer from the Maine Maritime Academy) and I were trained by Emily Peacock, research associate at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, on how to run this amazing piece of equipment!
The IFCB is a computer, microscope, camera, and water flow controller all in one. Emily describes it as “plumbing combined with electronics”. It uses a water intake system from the ship to run a constant flow of water into extremely tiny hoses. As the water flows through these hoses, a laser beam of light shoots at every tiny particle that is in the water. The tiny particles in the water, mainly phytoplankton (microscopic drifting plants), react to the sudden burst of light. The phytoplankton scatters the light and also can react by fluorescing (reacting to one wavelength of light by giving off a different wavelength). The computer detects this scattering and fluorescing to determine where the phytoplankton is in the water flow. The microscope focuses in on each phytoplankton cell and the camera takes a picture! Scientists simply get the IFCB going and at the end of the day they have hundreds of pictures of plankton! Isn’t that incredible?!
Here I am learning how to use the IFCB! It is SO COOL!
One thing I’ve learned about this particular cruise is that it’s all about plankton! We are collecting samples and data for scientists at the University of Rhode Island, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and NOAA’s own Narragansett Lab, just to name a few. What are all of these scientists studying? Plankton! Why? Plankton is the microscopic lifeblood of the ocean. The word plankton comes from a Greek word, oikos, meaning “drifter.” Plankton refers to all the living things of the ocean that are drifting with the currents. They are present throughout the water column and consist of two types: phytoplankton and zooplankton. Can you guess the difference? Phytoplankton is like a plant. It has chlorophyll and does photosynthesis. Zooplankton is an animal. There are many zooplankton species that hunt, hide, and do other things that larger animals do. Most plankton is microscopic or close to it. Phytoplankton does at least half of all the photosynthesis in the WORLD. So you can think that every other breath you take contains oxygen created by phytoplankton.
Both types of plankton are the base of the marine food chain. If major changes happen in the community of plankton in the sea, these changes will impact the entire food chain all the way up to the apex predators (top predators). So, as you can see, plankton is SUPER important. If plankton populations are healthy, it indicates that much of the rest of the ecosystem is healthy too.
Some scientists use equipment, like the IFCB, to study samples of phytoplankton.
Associate Researcher Emily showing us the program that allows you to see pictures of the phytoplankton sampled.
We also are collecting zooplankton in nets (called “bongo” nets) and preserving samples for scientists to analyze in the lab. More on that to come soon!
My students have been learning that scientists always start an experiment with a question.
Scientists on this mission are not exactly leading an experiment, but they are responsible for monitoring. The monitoring of an ecosystem tells us WHAT is happening there. Scientists from all over the world can then use the monitoring data that we find to research and experiment WHY things are happening the way they are. This is where the scientific method will come in and an experiment will start with a question.
For example, through the plankton samples that we take on this monitoring mission, scientists may notice a change in the amount of larval hake (tiny baby hake fish). They can then ask the question, “Why are larval hake populations decreasing?” which may lead them to a hypothesis such as, “larval hake populations are decreasing due to climate change”. They can test this hypothesis by comparing the plankton data to other types of data (such as pH and water temperature) in the same areas over time. Thus, an experiment!
So our job now is to collect the important data that can help scientists understand what’s happening and think of ways to investigate “why” and “how”.
Bottom line, I really love plankton. And you should too. That breath you just took? Thank plankton.
Pictures of glorious plankton!
Scientist Spotlight – John Loch – Seabird Observer
Enough about plankton! During all of this plankton excitement, I have also spent some time on the fly bridge (the top level of the deck of the ship), asking questions to our two seabird observers, John and Chris. Their job is to stand watch all day, looking for and identifying seabirds, marine mammals, sea turtles, and any notable (large) animals. Here’s a little interview with John Loch, Seabird Observer:
John observing seabirds from the fly bridge
Me – Why is your job so important?
John – My job is to monitor seabird populations to help detect changes in numbers or distribution of species. We estimate a 300 square meter area around the ship and record all birds seen within that area. We enter our data into a computer, noting species, life stage, number seen, and direction of flight. Over time, we may notice trends in numbers and distribution which is important to understand this ecosystem.
Me – What do you enjoy most about your job?
John – I enjoy seeing anything new or rare.
Me – How could scientists use your monitoring data to lead an investigation (using the scientific method)?
John – Our data has shown, for example, that some populations of birds, such as the gannet, have steadily declined over the last 20 years. Researchers can ask “Why are gannet populations declining?” and can use oceanographic data in combination with bird observation data to come up with a hypothesis to test.
I was excited to get underway this afternoon! Although many of us slept on the ship last night, we have been on the dock until 2:30 this afternoon, when we finally watched the crew release the lines and the ship cruise through the harbor and out to sea!
A view of the bow as we head out to sea!!
We began our day with a scientist meeting where Harvey Walsh, our Chief Scientist, explained our route and the “stations” where we would be slowing down or stopping the ship to take our data. He explained our 3am-3pm/3pm-3am shifts that we alternate so that whenever a station is reached, day or night, data can be collected. I’m lucky to intersect these shifts and work “on watch” from 8am-8pm! This means that I will support and assist scientist in their data collection during this time, and generally be present and available.
Chief Scientist Harvey explaining our route on the Northeast Shelf.
We also heard from Libby, our Operations Officer, who explained our state rooms, bathrooms, shared spaces, and general “do’s and don’ts” of the ship.
Libby, our Field Operations Officer, explaining the safety procedures of Gordon Gunter
I have to say I am pleasantly surprised by our living quarters aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter. I have my own state room with a shared bathroom, small closet, sink, and even a desk. It is quite spacious! I’m also excited about the food options on board, but more about that later!
The view from my state room…not bad!
Tonight is our first night out at sea! Luckily, I’m not feeling seasick, but rocking and rolling as I type this does feel pretty strange! Everyone says we’ll get used to it and it will feel normal in no time.
I am so excited for our first morning and sunrise out at sea! Stay tuned!
Did You Know?
Phytoplankton come in all different colors, just like the flowers in your garden. Since they are so tiny, we don’t see the colors unless there is a lot of plankton all together. They also contain more than one color in their cells, similar to leaves that change from green to brown, red, or orange.
Colorful phytoplankton, photo courtesy of NOAA
Question of the Day
Do you think the amount and type of plankton in an area can affect how many sharks live there? Why?
Do sharks rely on plankton? Photo courtesy of NOAA