Ragupathy Kannan: From Arkansas to the Atlantic, August 1, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Ragupathy Kannan

Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter

August 14 – 30, 2019


Mission: Summer Ecosystem Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean

Date: August 1, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

I’ll update this when I get on board.


Greetings from land-locked Arkansas!

I am thrilled at the chance to embark on an adventure of a lifetime. In the latter half of August, I will be aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter assisting scientists on a Summer Ecosystem Monitoring Survey of the Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf Ecosystem.  I am particularly excited about surveying for marine mammals and sea turtles, although a lot of our work will involve monitoring spatial distribution of plankton.  I cannot wait to learn novel techniques and measurements that I can later incorporate into my classes at the University of Arkansas—Fort Smith. 

While aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter I will blog about my experiences.  My students will follow my blogs and hopefully learn a lot from them.  I hope to make my blog postings fun and informative at the same time.  I will cater to a broad audience, from biology majors and non-majors (college students), to even some school children who are keen on following me and exploring potential science careers.  So don’t be offended if I define basic terms or explain concepts you may have learned decades ago!    

Science and Technology log

I will be embarking on an Ecosystem Monitoring mission.  As my ecology students should know, the term ecosystem refers to a community of organisms along with their physical (or abiotic) environment.  And a community is a group of organisms living and interacting in an area.  To monitor the Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf ecosystem, we will take extensive data on various components, both biotic (biological) and abiotic (physical).  Such measurements are important because they alert us of possible changes in our environment and what that could mean to our well being and that of other life forms.  In effect, we keep a finger on the pulse of our planet.

What is continental shelf?  It’s the relatively shallow (generally up to about 100m or 330 feet depth) area of seabed around land.  Much of this was exposed during glacial periods when water was locked up as ice. This zone teems with life because of its shallow nature, which allows light to penetrate and photosynthesis to occur.  It is therefore vital for the fisheries industry in which many coastal human communities depend on for livelihood.

The Project Instructions document we were all sent (by the Chief Scientist, Dr. Harvey Walsh) indicates that the principal objective of the survey is to assess the “hydrographic, planktonic, and pelagic components” of the ecosystem.  Hydrography (Ancient Greek–hydor, “water” and graphō, “to write”) is a branch of the applied sciences that deals with measurements and descriptions of the physical features of water, like ocean currents and temperature.  Plankton (Greek—errant or wanderer) are organisms, both plants and animals, in the water that drift in the currents (most of them are microscopic).  Pelagic (Greek—of the sea) means oceanic, or belonging to the open seas.

I will be part of an elite multi-disciplinary team, meaning, we will have experts from various disciplines of science. We will be measuring the distribution of water currents and water properties, plankton, sea turtles, sea birds, and marine mammals.  Much of my career I have focused on ecology and behavior of vertebrates, especially birds.  The chance to learn hands-on and in-depth on aspects like water chemistry and plankton biology challenges and excites me.  It gets me out of my comfort zone and has the potential to make me a better-rounded biologist.  After all, I regularly teach the impacts of global warming and ocean acidification on coral reef organisms.  Can there be a better way to hone my teaching skills than actually do these studies hands-on, in the company of world’s leading experts, in a state-of-the-art research ship?

Since much of the survey focuses on measuring plankton distribution and abundance, it begs the question: 

Why are plankton important?

plankton
The wonderfully diverse, beautiful plankton. From planktonchronicles.org

Well, consider this.  Phytoplankton, the plant-like photosynthetic drifters, produce half of all oxygen on earth.  That’s about the same as ALL oxygen produced by land plants!  So that alone should convince you why they are vital. 

But there is more.  Their productivity (meaning, photosynthetic activity that converts sun’s energy into fuel) forms the energetic foundation of the food pyramid, and most of life in sea depends on it. 

So, you take away plankton, and much of oceanic life will collapse.  No fish, no whales, no sea turtles, no sea birds.  Ultimately it will affect all life on earth, including humans. 

The disturbing news is, plankton are in trouble.  Phytoplankton have declined 40% since the 1950s.  Since the beginning of the industrial age, they have dwindled about 1% a year.  There seems a connection between warming waters and this decline.  In the North Atlantic, the melting of Greenland ice has changed the physics and chemistry of ocean waters.  This has resulted in a decline in ocean circulation and its upwelling of nutrients that the phytoplankton depend on. 

So as you read this and take breaths of air, contemplate this: that oxygen you just took in probably came from phytoplankton.  That’s why we need to start with measuring them to monitor our planet’s health.  Our future depends on their well-being!

So I will be blogging quite a bit on these minuscule creatures—what kinds there are out there, how they appear, how to measure their abundance, and so on.  Stay tuned.

Personal Log

For nearly 40 years, I have been mainly a terrestrial ecologist.  I love taking people outdoors and making them into naturalists and field biologists.  My forays into the oceanic realm have been limited.  I once went on a sea birding cruise, which I described in this article.

birding in Trinidad
Here I am leading a birding outing in Trinidad

Earlier, in my college days, I did a number of “turtle walks” – 10 km walks along the beach in my hometown of Chennai, India, to collect Olive Ridley Seaturtle eggs and relocating them to a protected hatchery.  Since 2009, I have taught a tropical biology course in Trinidad, West Indies, where I take the class to a remote beach to observe massive Leatherback Seaturtles nest. A letter of mine on this appeared in the September 2009 issue of National Geographic (below).

National Geographic Note
National Geographic Note by Ragupathy Kannan

Kannan and sea turtle
Here I am with my tropical biology class and a nesting Leatherback Sea Turtle in Trinidad–note the translucent spot on top of head, believed to let light in and help them navigate

So, my exposure to the other 70% of the earth’s surface, the ocean, has been rather limited.  I hope that this NOAA program helps in my quest to fill that void.

My home for two weeks – NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter

NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter. From http://www.omao.gov.

This is an ultramodern oceanographic research vessel whose main mission is to study marine mammals and other living resources.   “Bigeye” 25 x 150 binoculars are used by scientists to scan for marine mammals.  This includes a scale to enable distance measurement. A hydrophone array is towed to hear and record marine mammal sounds 24 hours a day. 

She was once USNS Relentless, designed to assist the US Navy in collecting underwater acoustical data in support of Cold War anti-submarine warfare operations. After the end of the Cold War, she was transferred to NOAA. In 2010, NOAA used this ship to define the subsurface plume near the BP Deepwater Horizon site. 

I am honored to be assigned to this vessel. I hope you will join me and enjoy and learn from my adventure out in the seas in this amazing ship.