Cara Nelson: Chemistry on the High Seas, September 19, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cara Nelson

Aboard USFWS R/V Tiglax

September 11-25, 2019


Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research project

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently sampling along the Seward line.

Date: September 19, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Time: 18:30
Latitude: 59º53.587’ N
Longitude: 149º33.398’ E
Wind: South 15 knots
Air Temperature: 15.5ºC (60ºF)
Air Pressure: 998 millibars
Partly cloudy skies


Science and Technology Log

A major component of the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) project is the collection and analysis of physical parameters in the Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) and how these abiotic (non-living) factors interact with and impact the biological community.  A variety of physical oceanographic research is occurring during the day shift on R/V Tiglax, one of which includes looking at metals in the ocean water. 

Mette Kaufmann is the onboard research professional working on the collection of trace metals from the surface water.  Specifically, Mette is working to sample and process iron species for Dr. Ana Aguilar-Islas who is the principal investigator for iron biogeochemistry on the LTER study.  One might ask, why is there such a focus or interest in iron in the surface ocean water?  In the past few decades it has become evident through research that iron is major player in the productivity of the ocean ecosystem.  Prior to this, nitrogen was assumed to be the most important nutrient and limiting factor in phytoplankton growth and production.  It is now known that iron influx from surface and atmospheric sources is the major limiting factor in our coastal and offshore ecosystems. 

Glacier runoff from the Kenai peninsula and the Copper River plume carry this iron into the ocean and allow for a rich spring bloom of phytoplankton over the continental shelf.  Sampling the iron levels at different locations helps paint a picture as to the overall availability, transport and use of iron in the NGA.  For example, one question the researchers are examining is, do fall storms bring up iron to the surface from deeper water?  Additionally, copper samples are being collected for analysis on this cruise, as a factor that can potentially suppress photosynthesis at higher levels.  

As I mentioned in my second blog, there is a tool for every job and for iron sampling, it is the “iron fish.”  The iron fish looks a bit like a rusty torpedo being dragged next to the boat with a simple plastic hose attached to it.  However, looks can be deceiving, as this piece of equipment is quite high tech.

iron fish
The iron fish weight resting on the zodiac.

The actual sampling piece of the iron fish is the white tubing that can be seen in the picture below.  The tip of the tubing has a red cap and is attached to the weight.  This tubing is treated with acid and has an inner lining of Teflon to assure for a “clean” catch of metals.

iron fish tubing coil
The iron fish tubing coiled up with the red-capped collection tip attached to the weight.

As we transit between stations the iron fish is towed at 1-3 meters of depth off the starboard side of the boat.  The pump, which runs off of the boats air supply, send the water through the tubing and into the “van” on the mid deck.  This van is a small connex that is used for trace metal processing.  Inside the van, the water samples are processed through a 0.4-micron filter to remove any particulates and then stored in acid for analysis back in the metals laboratory at UAF. 

The iron fish being towed while underway and sending samples into the van on the deck.
Annie Kandell
Annie Kandell, a graduate student under Dr. Aguilar-Islas, works to process the water samples in the van clean room to avoid contamination.


Personal Log

As we started our shift on Tuesday evening heading into Wednesday morning, we knew a gale was approaching.  We wanted to squeeze in as many sampling stations as we could before the weather chased us away.  It was challenging to manage both the Methot and Multinet in the high seas and building wind, but also a lot of fun.  We were handling the waves crashing over the back deck and rushing across us as we sampled and measured and getting really good at pouring off the cod-ends with the rise and fall of the boat in the swell.  Unfortunately, by our third station of five, the wind and waves were putting such a strain on the winch that the Multinet couldn’t get an accurate reading or sample.  The winch began to not respond and the decision was made to call it for the night, even though it was only 2:30am.  We strapped things down and proceeded to make a run for shelter back in Resurrection Bay. 

I awoke on Wednesday at around 11am expecting it to be raining sideways and blowing still, but was surprised again by partly cloudy skies and a much calmer sea state.  I was pleasantly surprised to hear that we were going to take the afternoon for an excursion to Bear Glacier.  We all donned our mustang coats and took three groups in the zodiac to head to shore.  We were diverted due to rough breakers to a separate beach away from the glacier but all of us were happy to be ashore. 

group photo
The night shift and part of the day shift preparing to go ashore.

We had about 4 hours to hike around and explore the shoreline.  One of the drawbacks of the beauty of the amazing rocky shoreline along the Gulf of Alaska is that it is littered with human trash.  The trash entering from around the Pacific circulates through the ocean driven by the currents.  Some of the water gets caught up in the counterclockwise gyre of the Gulf of Alaska current and then gets deposited on land by the storms.  Just a few steps onto the shore and plastic water bottles are visible everywhere. What is less visible is the plastics that are broken up into small pieces or micro-plastics that then invade the entire water column.  These plastics get ingested by marine organisms, such as seabirds, and can cause death from starvation, as their stomachs are clogged with debris.  It makes you appreciate our impact on the oceans and the dire need for a shift in our plastic use and disposal.

plastic on beach
Can you spot the 6 plastic bottles just in this one picture?

Aside from the trash, the beach held other treasures and the walk in the fresh air and sunshine was greatly appreciated.

Mermaid's purse
An empty egg case for a Skate, also known as a Mermaid’s Purse.
algae on shore
Beautiful colors of red, green and brown algae decorate the rocky shore.

I did have an interesting case of what the seasoned crew calls “dock rock.”  This is when you are used to the motion of the sea and everything on land seems to be moving like the ocean.  It didn’t make me land sick but it did throw me off a bit.  I wonder how long I will sway when I return!

R/V Tiglax
A view of our current home, R/V Tiglax from the shore.

We boarded the ship in time for another fabulous dinner and prepared to head back out to the Seward line for another night of sampling.


Did You Know?

Dr. Thomas C. Royer is a physical oceanographer who was the first to begin water sampling along the GAK (Seward) line almost 40 years ago.  His research led to the discovery of significant coast currents in the Northern Gulf of Alaska that are driven by freshwater input.  It was this knowledge of coastal currents that assisted with the prediction of oil spill trajectories during the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  His groundbreaking work was the start of the Long Term Ecological Research study that I am assisting with today!

Catherine Fuller: Searching for Water in the Ocean, July 9, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Catherine Fuller

Aboard R/V Sikuliaq

June 29 – July 18, 2019


Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER)

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska

Date: July 9, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 57° 47.549 N
Longitude: 147° 30.222
Wave Height: 0-1 with swell of 4 ft
Wind Speed: 1.7 knots
Wind Direction: 170 degrees
Visibility: 5 nm
Air Temperature:  13.1 °C
Barometric Pressure: 1014.4 mb
Sky: Overcast


Science and Technology Log

Ana’s Work: 

iron fish deployment
Dr. Aguilar-Islas oversees the iron fish deployment.
iron fish on deck
The “iron fish” on deck…
iron fish in water
..and in its habitat.

Dr. Ana Aguilar-Islas and her team of Annie, Kelsey, and Carrie are studying how the different sources of iron in the Gulf of Alaska influence its chemical structure.  Iron is considered a micronutrient, because it is a nutrient that is needed in lower quantities than silicate, phosphate and nitrate, which are macronutrients. Iron is essential for phytoplankton.  Iron does not easily remain dissolved in ocean water, but has a tendency to precipitate and become a particle.  It is essential for many functions within phytoplankton, including gene function and photosynthesis, so the presence or absence of iron in the water is an indicator of the viability of the ecosystem. 

Testing phytoplankton in both an iron-limited environment and an iron-rich one allows scientists to pinpoint the effect that iron has.  The water in the Gulf of Alaska is notable for having more iron, leading to larger zooplankton as compared to areas, such as Hawaii, where the lack of macronutrients in the water means that they’re much smaller.  The Copper River plume was an example of a naturally occurring source of iron although its decrease is exponential the farther you move from the plume. 

In order to test samples without any contamination from being in an iron ship, Ana’s team created a “bubble” room or a clean space to do testing.  Her samples come directly from the “iron fish,” a collection instrument that is towed along the starboard side of the ship, and a pump on deck sends water through a tube that is carefully strung from the “fish” through the hallways and into the “bubble.”  The team is testing water samples for dissolved iron, particulate iron, and ligands (naturally occurring structures that bind iron and allow it to stay dissolved in seawater).  Both the filtered (any plankton filtered out) and unfiltered samples that Ana’s team collects are also used by other teams to provide context for their own experiments, especially testing the behavior of phytoplankton populations in iron-rich and iron-poor water.

looking in the bubble
The bubble from the outside.
Annie at the bubble
Annie spends many hours patiently taking water samples in the bubble.


The Search for “Perfect” Water

After completing our comprehensive zig-zagging study through the Copper River plume, it was decided to continue on a path south to find HNLC (high nitrate low chlorophyll) water.  We’re specifically looking for water with a salinity over 32.4 psu and nitrates over 3 micromoles. Water like this would be low in iron.  Normally, the lack of iron is a factor that limits photosynthesis,.  However, in areas with these numbers, phytoplankton communities have evolved to survive in an iron-deprived environment. 

What Clay, Suzanne and Ana hope to do is to introduce both Copper River iron-rich water and commercially available iron into samples of these communities to see if a “bloom” or a sudden growth in population will occur.  It’s been a long search so far, taking us through an offshore eddy, watching salinity numbers slowly creep up as we leave the plume’s fresh water influence behind us.  To pass the time, my cribbage board came out and I’ve lost to Pete, Seth and Ana (although I beat Seth once).  To help Suzanne and Ana find their water, Seth stitched together a composite satellite picture of the chlorophyll in the Gulf from images taken over the last few weeks.  This showed an eddy south of the Copper River plume that provided a possible location for the right sampling of water.

Our initial target was 58 degrees N, 146 degrees W, however, we’re continuing on the journey south to see if we can find the right spot.  For a long time, we were towing the Acrobat behind us, trying to get additional readings, however, our speed with the Acrobat is limited to a maximum of 7 kts.  Early this morning, the Acrobat was pulled in and we’re now cruising at about 10 kts.  We’re supposed to move over to the GAK (Seward) line of waypoints after this, but the joke is that we’ll reach GAK 125, i.e. Honolulu, before we find water that fits the parameters we need.

After careful monitoring of our position and the information screens in the computer lab, it seems that our target water is between 57 degrees 21 minutes N between 145 degrees 42.8 minutes W and 145 degrees 39.9 W.  Finding the perfect water is complicated by the number of anomalies in the sea surface. We’re having the bridge go through specific maneuvers to take us back and forth through the target patch of water. As we move through what seems reasonable, Ana’s iron fish will be deployed to start bringing in  “perfect” water samples. 

Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies
These anomalies represent changes in sea surface temperature, and in turn in the chemical composition of the water. On the map, you can see the lines we’re surveying from left to right: Kodiak, Seward (GAK) and Middleton.
our course
Our zigzag course: the bridge asked if we were making course lines with an Etch-a-Sketch!

Since last night, there has been at least one person stationed in the computer lab with eyes on the underway data display to monitor the salinity and nitrate levels.  Today, with Dr. Strom, Clay and myself there, we jump every time the nitrate value does.  Once our target patch is isolated, Dr. Strom directs the bridge to zigzag the ship through it to find maximum nitrate values and then radios the iron fish team. It’s 2.1….it’s 2.7…quick! Collect samples!  It’s a crazy system, but for now it’s getting us the best results we can, considering the fluidity and changeability of the ocean. 

I’m not sure what the bridge thinks about our maneuvers, and we’re all imagining what they’re saying! They have been very patient and willing to go along with requests; they’re pretty used to the demands of scientists in search of specific answers.  We’re finding our highest values to be about 3.2 micromoles, and it seems that we’ve also narrowed down the “sweet spot.” In addition, a group of fin whales is moving through the area and is making regular appearances as we trace and retrace our path. At one point, Eric, the captain came down to chat and helpfully volunteered to look up the definition of “zig” and “zag” so that we would have our terminology correct.  Is zig the upward progression or the downward one?

Most of the science done on board is carefully planned and prepared for.  Methodologies are clean and precise in order to produce specific and incontestable results.  Sometimes, however, science requires taking advantage of the situation at hand to find optimum data.  Science can be messy and inexact, too, if the end result is finding the perfect drops of water in the ocean.


Personal Log

We are now over the 50% point in our trip.  It is a bit ironic that as the science team and the crew get to know each better and develop friendships, both sides are also looking ahead to the end of the trip.  It’s been fun to get to know the crew and to discover the personalities that make this ship run so smoothly. 

Our weather has been notably calm so far, with today’s nearly flat seas being the smoothest to date.  We have fog every day; every day the sea surface temperature is higher than the air temperature.  What might that be an indication of? Russ seems to think it’s a fairly unusual pattern.  Even though today’s temperature is in the mid-50s, the stillness and reflected light off the surface of the ocean almost make it seem warmer.  It looks like we can continue to expect fairly calm seas for the next few days, too.  Every day someone posts a weather forecast in the mess hall, and every day the forecast is similar.    

fog bank on the horizon
Seeing fog banks on the horizon is a daily occurrence.

We continue to eat remarkably well.  Today’s lunch was spaghetti or zoodles with eggplant parmigiana, shrimp, and hot veggies.  This week already, we’ve had pecan pies and oatmeal raisin cookies for dessert and apple and berry turnovers for breakfast.  The food is definitely one of the benefits of being on this ship!


Did You Know?

The fresh water measured in the Copper River plume equates to a quarter of the yearly excess melt from area glaciers.  The question then is, where does the other three-quarters go?


What do you want kids to know about your research?

Ana: There are nutrients in the water that sea creatures need: large nutrients and small ones.  The small ones are important because they’re needed more often, like vitamins being a more regular part of your diet than hamburgers.


Sea Creatures seen today:

fin whales
A small group of fin whales came near us several times during our zigzag maneuvers.

Maggie Prevenas, May 8, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Maggie Prevenas
Onboard US Coast Guard Ship Healy
April 20 – May 15, 2007

Mission: Bering Sea Ecosystem Survey
Geographic Region: Alaska
Date: May 8, 2007

Science Log

I’ve been feeling a little sad these past few days because the Healy 0701 mission is coming to a close. There’s been so much data taken, so many measurements done, and more than a few hypotheses tested.  So WHAT has been learned?

The CTD was lowered and fired over 200 times in rough water

The CTD was lowered and fired over 200 times in rough water

This research here, this Bering Sea Ecosystem Study, has been some of the first research done with SEASONAL ice during this time of the year. SEASONAL ice is ice that melts and then reforms each year. The algae blooms occur because the seasonal ice melts, creating a stable freshwater layer, a place for the algae to grow.  The algae take up nutrients, which act as a fertilizer, and explode in numbers. The nutrients are quickly used up. The bloom for that year is over.

Rob tested the water for iron, getting baseline data to see if it is a limiting factor in Bering Sea productivity.

Rob tested the water for iron, getting baseline data to see if it is a limiting factor in Bering Sea productivity.

In areas of the Bering Sea that we visited that were really shallow, like around Nunivak Island, the ice has melted and the nutrients have been used. The bloom is over.

Nancy Kachel collected many samples from the CTD during this research mission.

Nancy Kachel collected many samples from the CTD during this research mission.

What has been a surprise to some of the scientists is that the very productive algae blooms occur at the ice edge, not so much under the ice.

When phytoplankton reproduce very quickly they can actually turn the color of the seawater green. Photo from Ray Sambrotto.

When phytoplankton reproduce very quickly they can actually turn the color of the seawater green.

The algae need sunlight, and the sunlight just doesn’t seem to penetrate ice. Algae explode in large numbers when the ice, under which they have been growing, melts away.

Although this seems to be a small observation, it is actually HUGE!  Or at least it was for me. Look at areas of the Arctic that do not have the seasonal ice.  The flow of energy in that ecosystem is different. The energy transfer from sunlight through the high Arctic permanent ice to the algae that populate the Arctic Ocean is different. Same thing with the Antarctic permanent ice.

This is one of the deepest drops that the CTD made. Over 3000 meters!

This is one of the deepest drops that the CTD made. Over 3000 meters!

If the Arctic or Antarctic holds more seasonal ice, i.e. starts melting, the model of how energy is transferred in the polar region will change. Knowing how seasonal ice acts as a medium to facilitate algal blooms will be very important. Right now is a critical time to research this key component.

TAS Maggie observing the sea ice

TAS Maggie observing the sea ice

I learned a huge amount about ice. I made ice observations many, many times. The scientists on this mission to help them interpret their data will use that information.

The science community has named this an International Polar Year (IPY). What I am doing, in trailing along with scientists, is acting to translate and understand the Bering Sea Ecosystem Study, and to act to educate others about cutting edge scientific research of climactic change. I think I can begin to start telling you the story.