Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Science Continues During the Pandemic

Researchers with the SOCCOM project scramble to save their season and plan for the next.

by Melissa T. Miller

The COVID-19 pandemic affected four SOCCOM (Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling) expeditions that were underway between December and April. The team was still able to safely deploy all of the planned autonomous floats, which add to a dataset crucial to understanding climate change.
The SOCCOM program relies on research cruises already going to the Southern Ocean in that hemisphere’s summer months. Planning can take place year-round, but the field season must be done when there is less ice, generally between October and April. The floats travel with the currents, moving up and down the water column to collect data with a suite of onboard sensors. Then they surface and transmit the data to researchers on land. 
Using ships of opportunity requires extensive cooperation and coordination even under normal circumstances. That all the floats were safely deployed under the ever-changing conditions of a global pandemic is a testament to the team’s planning but also to the flexibility and dedication of everyone involved, especially the scientists and crew members in the field.
Deployment of a SOCCOM float from R/V Mirai.
Dr. Lynne Talley, a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO), is the project lead of this international multidisciplinary program. “We have amazingly good relationships with the agencies who run these ships,” she says. “And the captains were amenable.”

When Wuhan, China went on lockdown on January 23, 2020, SIO technician Melissa Miller had been at sea for a month and was still two weeks from arriving in Singapore. Dr. Isa Rosso, an assistant project scientist at SIO, left port in Punta Arenas, Chile just a few days later on a two-month research cruise. Both expeditions were able to fulfill their science missions, including the deployment of SOCCOM floats, but traveling home from foreign ports was a serious concern.
The final two cruises of the season were scheduled for March, when the situation in the United States was becoming serious and changing by the hour. Dr. George Matsumoto of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) was in Fremantle to board an Australian ship. Channing Prend and Susan Becker, an SIO graduate student and staff member, respectively, traveled to Cape Town, South Africa for a NOAA GO-SHIP cruise. Neither cruise ended up fulfilling their larger science missions, but the SOCCOM floats were deployed. 
The experiences of SOCCOM’s sailing technicians vary depending on the timing, but also on the organization of the ship’s operators and the countries involved in their travel plans. In these unprecedented times, communication was crucial not only to the mission’s success but also to the physical and emotional health of the scientists.

Racing the Clock Aboard the Mirai

Melissa Miller left the U.S. in mid-December, a completely different time. She traveled care-free in Europe before heading to Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean to meet the ship. A planned six-day vacation in the end port of Singapore seemed a long way off, but she was already looking forward to it. 
Miller oversaw deployments of eight SOCCOM floats from the Japanese research vessel (R/V) Mirai. She had no internet access, only an email account. English-language news updates were available a few times a week and steadily became dominated with updates about a new and unknown virus in China. Then came the news that it was spreading and that countries were closing their borders.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the people around me had been talking about the virus for weeks,” says Miller. “But I had no idea since I don’t understand much Japanese and wasn’t seeking out the news. My dad mentioned it in an email and that was the first I’d heard of it.”
Once in Singapore, scientists and crew who planned to return to the ship were required to wear a mask when they were outside. This included Miller when she was on deck to deal with the offload of samples and gear. The ship and crew were continuing to the ship’s home port in Japan. The other scientists all had flights out of Singapore within a day or two. 
“I kept the mask that the ship gave me and wore it as I disembarked through the cruise ship terminal,” says Miller. “I remember how weird it felt to wear one when not everyone was. It was my first experience with that conflict between paranoia and caution. Now it’s just part of every day life - what a difference a few months have made.”
In the days before her flight home, a few countries closed their borders to people coming from Singapore, which at the time had the highest infection rate outside of China. Miller worried that the United States would be next, in which case her flight home would be cancelled. 
Singapore implemented a rapid response plan, cancelling events that draw a crowd and installing cameras and sensors that take everyone’s temperature before they enter an enclosed space. Without the normal crowds of travelers coming from China, Miller played tourist in a practical ghost town. 
Though she stressed about new travel restrictions, none came and she flew home without incident on February 16. Miller diligently took her temperature every day for two weeks and made sure people knew she had just returned from Singapore in case they wanted to limit contact. But for the most part, she enjoyed a few weeks without worrying too much about the virus. 
“Since I had to be vigilant starting in early February, I feel like I’ve been dealing with the virus a month longer than everyone else I know,” says Miller. “I bought flour and yeast and hand sanitizer before they were out of stock. I stopped shaking hands at meetings. Other than that, I had a pretty normal re-entry period. I saw friends, went to a few bars and restaurants and for that I’m extremely grateful.” 
Within a few weeks, it was a different reality. Going to sea for the past ten years has given her a lot of experience in self-isolation, something everyone is learning to cope with now. Miller shared that insight in an article on Scientific American’s blog
You can also read Miller’s blog posts from the ship, which don’t mention the coronavirus, instead chronicling the deployments of SOCCOM floats and also the culinary and cultural experience of being on a foreign ship.

The science party of R/V Mirai. SOCCOM technician Melissa Miller is in red.

Unexpected Endings on the Palmer

Dr. Isa Rosso is also a seasoned sea-going scientist. She has been Co-Chief Scientist on previous expeditions and knows the amount of planning that goes into every moment aboard a research cruise. And that interruptions to those plans are inevitable - weather delays, engine trouble, and shifting ice all have to be accommodated. But no one was prepared for just how much changed while the ship was in the Southern Ocean between January and March. 
The R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer is an icebreaker in the U.S. Antarctic Program’s fleet and has deployed SOCCOM floats on multiple occasions. This particular cruise was focused on Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier and included programs to collect sediment cores and seawater samples as well as attach sensors to seals.
After a few weeks exploring Patagonia’s national parks, a vacation she wouldn't have been able to take if she'd planned it after the cruise instead of before, Rosso left port on the Palmer. The first six weeks of the expedition were relatively normal - if you consider rescuing a Norwegian fishing vessel and discovering a new island normal. Rosso settled in to life onboard as science operations went well and five SOCCOM floats were successfully deployed. 
As the virus continued to spread, Rosso, who is Italian, heard the news about her home country going on lockdown. Only being able to email friends and family and not be there to help was extremely difficult.
With the end of the cruise in sight, the uncertainty about the ship returning to port in Punta Arenas, Chile increased. It was decided that the ten British scientists onboard would be dropped off at the U.K.’s Antarctic base, Rothera, so that their travel arrangements would be taken care of. 
“That was pretty sad,” says Rosso. “After so long, you get so close to each other. You see your friends go into a Zodiac and then you see them waving and it breaks your heart. All of a sudden, the ship is silent. There’s this level of balance that has been disrupted.”
The Palmer was also diverted to evacuate people from a U.S. Antarctic station. The ship was supposed to pick personnel up later in the season, but the pandemic meant that no schedule guarantees could be made and the scientists weren't cleared to stay over winter. With only a few days notice, twelve scientists had to pack up their experiments and move onboard the ship, their Antarctic research plans cut short. 
“That was one of the weirdest things that could have happened,” says Rosso. “A couple of days [after the British scientists left] you have this bunch of new people. They are a group, they have their own dynamics. And for us, it was like ‘who are these people?’”
A gorgeous stretch of scenery as the Palmer transited through the Gerlache Strait helped Rosso withstand the unexpected departure of cruise friends. A few days later, the ship arrived back in Punta Arenas, which was itself on the verge of shutting down due to the virus. 

Rosso describes cruising through the Gerlache Strait as one of the most memorable experiences of her life. 

Rosso usually takes a run upon reaching port, an impossible luxury at sea. But that wasn’t an option this time. Instead, the only opportunity to leave the ship was so Chilean health officials could take everyone’s temperature.
“I was looking from the portholes and saw a few people on the pier with masks and gloves and all of a sudden it hit me. All of a sudden it was a reality,” says Rosso.
The scientists had to depart on what they were told may be the last flight out of Punta Arenas. Rosso made sandwiches and filled leftover sample vials with hand sanitizer for the group to take with them. When they arrived at the airport, the airline told Rosso that she wouldn’t be allowed into the U.S. using her visa. But the scientists had been told when leaving the ship that they wouldn’t be allowed to return. Rosso was trapped in limbo.
Fortunately, the ship’s agents were able to assure the airline that the U.S. was letting visa holders in, but Rosso still worried about it through her next two connections - unable to relax until she was through customs and immigration in Miami. She arrived home on April 1 to a city already weeks in to stay at home orders. 
Adjusting to normal life after months at sea is always a challenge, and this time Rosso wasn’t able to follow her tried and true steps to acclimate.
“Usually I come back from a cruise and the first thing I do after I’m over the jet lag is go to the gym,” she says. “So even if I decide to stay home from work for a week to get adjusted, I have that routine. But not anymore - that was an extremely tough moment.”
The Palmer was recalled to the U.S., ending its season early. Thanks to the ship’s crew and technicians, the SOCCOM samples and equipment were able to ride the ship back and were transferred to SIO for storage until the analytical labs reopen to process them. Rosso, now working from home, is able to reflect positively on the experience, though it was stressful at the time.
“I think that in situations like this you really see how people are ready to help. That’s really cool, that’s really beautiful.”
To read Rosso's and other scientist’s insight from the Palmer, and see more pictures, check out the blog posts from the cruise

Rosso (far left) and the American scientists from Palmer in the Punta Arenas airport.

Cancellation of the Investigator

Dr. George Matsumoto was looking forward to his first expedition as a SOCCOM representative. He is an educator at MBARI and runs the popular Adopt A Float program that connects SOCCOM floats with classrooms around the world. On top of outreach projects, this time he was also in charge of deploying two floats and collecting seawater samples during a 12-day cruise. The science mission included training sessions onboard the Australian ship for students from around the country, with Matsumoto contributing lessons about SOCCOM floats and science communication.
Matsumoto left California on March 5, just before advice and restrictions began changing on a seemingly hourly basis. Joining R/V Investigator in Western Australia, he met up with the other scientists, educators, and students. While getting oriented, they were told that a few crew members were sick and had been tested for COVID-19. The ship had to remain in port until the results came back. Matsumoto, stressing about the delay, tried to keep busy.
“Facing an indefinite period at the dock, the trainers decided to take advantage of the time and continue with the training that we had planned and work with the students onboard,” says Matsumoto. “Day by day, we waited for results and did what we could to maintain our training schedule.”
It took four days to learn that the crew members all tested negative. By then, one of the scientists wasn’t feeling well and was sent off to get tested. Not able to continue delaying, the decision was made to cancel the cruise and get the ship back to its home port of Hobart, Tasmania. Though disappointed, Matsumoto was able to complete most of his planned training sessions before heading home on March 14. Though only nine days had passed, the virus and associated travel restrictions had intensified.
“The trip home was stressful as there were no PPE guidelines in place yet. I filled out a flyer about how I was feeling, but it was never collected. Once I got home, MBARI had closed which made the 14-day self-quarantine that I was going to undertake simple.”
The ship’s crew stepped up to deploy the two SOCCOM floats during the transit. Having an enthusiastic and helpful crew is always an asset. They have to accommodate changes and uncertainty and make sure everything is done safely on any normal expedition. This was an extreme case and they did an admirable job taking over when the scientists couldn’t be there.

Matsumoto (far right) and scientists aboard the Investigator. 

Sailing Home on the Brown

The GO-SHIP cruise A13.5 was overshadowed by the coronavirus from start to finish. The plan was to board the NOAA research vessel Ronald H. Brown on March 19 and spend 45 days at sea, ending in the Cape Verde islands off the northwestern coast of Africa. Despite the timing, SOCCOM representative Channing Prend was excited to be heading out on his first research cruise. Susan Becker, who has participated on many SOCCOM cruises, was also onboard.
Prend prepares to deploy a SOCCOM float from the Brown.
Though there were relatively few cases of the virus, the busy port city of Cape Town, South Africa began to shut down operations while the ship was being loaded. Ten of the twenty seven scientists who were supposed to be onboard weren’t able to travel due to university and agency restrictions. The rest scrambled to make a plan so that the science mission could still be accomplished - it would mean more work for everyone but people were ready to step up. 
The plans changed every day, and eventually NOAA recalled the ship to the port of Norfolk, Virginia. At first, the scientists were told they could still do an adjusted schedule, getting some of the intended projects done. A day later, that changed and they were directed to head straight to the U.S. But first, the ship had to stay within a four day’s radius of Cape Town for a week in case anyone onboard got sick.
“Given that everyone on board was healthy, I would have rather stayed at sea and completed the full transect before steaming home,” says Prend. “It was undoubtedly safer on the ship than it is here [at home in San Diego], so I wasn't in a big rush to get back.”  
The bulk of the science mission had to be scrapped, but the decision was made to prioritize the SOCCOM floats. Talley had to change the locations of deployments based on the ship’s restrictions, taking into account ocean currents and depths. Usually she has weeks to make the calculations, but this time she had to come up with an entirely new plan overnight. The team rallied and deployed six SOCCOM floats and collected water samples.
Then came a three-week transit across the Atlantic Ocean, including an equator crossing. Surface water samples were taken while underway, keeping the scientists busy and on shifts to run analyses. Making the most of time aboard the ship was all the scientists could do. They got daily updates about the virus along with the crew. 
Plans for the ship’s arrival and everyone’s travel home from Norfolk continued to change throughout the journey. Becker and Prend had to fly across the U.S., returning home over a month in to San Diego’s stay at home orders, which began only a few days after they left in March.
“It seems that everyone is trying to make the best of this unprecedented situation,” says Prend. “That didn't really come through when we were at sea and all we saw were sensationalized news stories. My impression now that I'm back is that people are adaptable and resilient.”
Prend’s blog posts, unlike those from earlier cruises, are full of mentions of the coronavirus. He also did a wonderful job of explaining the scientific impacts of the SOCCOM float program. Prend wrote an article for the SIO website about resilience in the face of the pandemic.

What’s Next?

Shipments usually start going out in September for the upcoming SOCCOM season, and the team is already hard at work planning. But there are many factors involved and much more uncertainty than usual as every institution determines reopening procedures. Ship schedules are in flux as cancelled cruises jockey for a spot later in the year. SOCCOM relies on already-planned expeditions and Talley hopes that the strong relationships she’s cultivated in the community will lead to a successful season.
Another factor is float production. Many of the sensors have to be ordered from Seabird Scientific, which has been closed for months and may have a backlog once they reopen. The floats are built and tested at MBARI and the University of Washington, both of which have been closed since March. Months of work in those labs has gone undone and the short Southern Ocean season, dictated by ice coverage, can’t be delayed.
“Everyone is expecting a big impact,” says a pragmatic Talley. “The next season is all up in the air. We’re just going to see what we can do. Whatever floats we can scrape together, we’ll deploy.”
International cooperation and multidisciplinary teams are necessary for all scientific pursuits, but it’s going to take a redoubling of those efforts to secure a safe and successful season. The SOCCOM team is prepared to put in the work.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Musings from the R/V Ron Brown (March-April 2020)

The R/V Ron Brown left port in Cape Town on March 21, 2020 and is heading back to
the United States. Most recent posts will be at the top.


April 14, 2020

After a long transit home, we’re just a few days away from port in Virginia. In certain ways, being at sea has prepared me for going into quarantine. I’m certainly familiar with life confined to small spaces. The social isolation, however, will be very new. Since everyone on the ship is healthy, we don’t have to worry about social distancing. I will miss the many conversations about science and life with all on board, which have been the highlight of the cruise.

A few weeks ago, we had a barbecue outside on the ship’s fantail to celebrate crossing the equator. The air was thick with moisture, but everyone was in high spirits. Some people were playing cornhole. Others were splashing around in an inflatable kiddie pool. I remember observing the whole scene from a picnic table and realizing: once I’m back on land, it could be weeks or even months before I’m at a gathering with this many people. It was a sobering thought.
The view from the fantail of the R/V Ron Brown
I’m sitting at that same picnic table now, as I write this, enjoying the late afternoon sun. The ocean extends to the edges of the horizon in every direction. I have (somewhat surprisingly) not gotten tired of this view. The seascapes have been varied, ranging from the heaving washed out gray waves of a storm, to gentle blue ripples that scatter morning light. On breezy days like today, I often find myself watching the wind blow across the sea surface and imagining the waves that are being generated beneath it, which mix the upper ocean. Or trying to visualize the complex topography on the seafloor, and how the deep currents are navigating it.

Sometimes I think about the SOCCOM floats, and picture what interesting processes they are observing, wherever they might be. Out here, the immensity of the ocean is perceptible, which makes it even more amazing to me that these tiny floats are changing our understanding of the climate system.
The blog author just before the final SOCCOM float deployment several weeks ago.
Thank you all for listening to my thoughts and reflections over the past few weeks. Being at sea during a global pandemic has been a strange and memorable experience. I hope that amidst all the uncertainty in the world, you’ve learned a bit about the SOCCOM floats and why the data they are collecting is so important. As I said in my first post, we need science now more than ever. Stay safe everyone!

- Channing


April 11, 2020

The ocean regulates the climate system by absorbing nearly one-third of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Once dissolved, CO2 causes chemical reactions that lower the pH of seawater, a measure of its acidity. This means that the ocean is becoming more acidic as it takes up the excess carbon emitted by burning fossil fuels, shifting the carbonate equation and causing a phenomenon known as ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is bad news for millions of tiny organisms, like the pteropod below, whose shells’ get corroded in these conditions. Therefore, monitoring pH levels in the ocean, for example by using the pH sensors on the SOCCOM floats, is necessary to determine how climate change will impact marine ecosystems.
Unhealthy pteropod with dissolving shell ridges showing the
effects of ocean acidification (NOAA Fisheries Collection)

In addition to telling us about ocean acidification, the pH of seawater can also reveal important information about the carbon cycle. Since pH levels are directly related to ocean carbon uptake through known chemical reactions, they can be used to calculate the amount of dissolved CO2 in seawater. This, in turn, allows scientists to estimate air-sea carbon fluxes, as described in a recent paper led by University of Washington professor Alison Gray. The Southern Ocean is typically thought to play an outsized role in the global ocean carbon uptake, but Alison’s study showed that it may not be absorbing as much CO2 as we thought. In fact, certain regions even released carbon into the atmosphere, acting as a source rather than sink for atmospheric CO2.

Much of this previously undetected ocean carbon release occurred in winter in the icy regions close to Antarctica, highlighting (as we’ve seen before) the importance of year-round sampling and expanded data coverage. Accurately quantifying air-sea carbon exchange, through studies like Alison’s, is essential to improve global climate models. Furthermore, combining information from all the different float sensors can help us untangle the complex set of physical, chemical, and biological processes that control the fluxes of carbon between the ocean and atmosphere.

While I’ve focused each post in this series on a particular sensor, the temperature, salinity, bio-optical properties, nitrate, oxygen, and pH of the ocean are all connected. In fact, we’ve seen that some of the most groundbreaking science happens when we consider how these properties interact and influence each other. Another key theme has been the unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution provided by the float array. The Southern Ocean is inaccessible, and numerous scientific discoveries resulted simply from having measurements during winter and in ice-covered regions. Only by continuing to observe these remote places can we hope to understand and predict how the climate will change in the future.
Map of the SOCCOM float array as of March 29, 2020,
including the 6 floats we deployed on this cruise! (SOCCOM)

And that is the power of SOCCOM! The new insights gained from this novel dataset are changing our understanding of the Southern Ocean and its impact on global biogeochemical cycles. Furthermore, the SOCCOM project has a team of world-renowned climate modelers using those findings to inform models and improve future climate projections. The breadth of work being done is truly remarkable, and the studies I’ve featured in this series are just the tip of the iceberg (more than 100 publications have already resulted from this program!). And as the size of the float array increases, so too will the number of questions that we’re able to answer about the ocean and its role in the climate system.

- Channing


April 8, 2020

In the last two posts, we talked about phytoplankton, microscopic algae that play a key role in marine ecosystems and the global climate. You’ve heard about how phytoplankton absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) through photosynthesis, but they also produce oxygen (O2) through this process. In fact, phytoplankton photosynthesis is responsible for roughly half of the oxygen in our atmosphere, which makes earth habitable. So be sure to thank these tiny organisms the next time you take a breath!

Oxygen is also central to the carbon cycle and can be used by scientists to partition ocean and land carbon sinks from atmospheric data. This is because terrestrial carbon uptake, by trees and other land plants, leaves an imprint on atmospheric oxygen levels in a known ratio based on the chemical reaction that takes place during photosynthesis. Ocean carbon uptake, on the other hand, occurs independently from air-sea oxygen exchange and thus does not affect atmospheric O2. The different influences of these processes can be used to separate the total global carbon uptake into land and ocean components from measurements of atmospheric O2 and CO2. The largest source of uncertainty in this calculation, however, is air-sea oxygen fluxes, which are poorly constrained due to lack of observations. Therefore, oxygen concentrations in seawater, which can be measured using the oxygen sensor on the SOCCOM floats, contain essential information about the climate system.
Schematic of the global carbon cycle showing both land
and ocean sinks (NASA Earth Observatory)
To illustrate how the SOCCOM float array can lead to new insights about the oxygen cycle, I’ll summarize some results from a recent paper led by University of Hawaii professor Seth Bushinsky. Seth’s study used float measurements to calculate air-sea oxygen fluxes, which revealed that the Southern Ocean is a larger oxygen sink than was thought based on sparse ship data. Most of this previously undetected ocean oxygen uptake occurred in winter in the regions closer to the pole (south of the about 60°S), where sea ice cover is common. It is extremely difficult to access these icy regions, particularly in winter, so this discovery relied on the SOCCOM floats’ ability to sample year-round and in hard-to-reach areas.

Using the float temperature and salinity data, Seth determined that this wintertime oxygen uptake was driven by ventilation, the process by which surface waters are transported into the ocean interior and away from their source region. These results highlight the value of the SOCCOM dataset, both by increasing the number of ocean oxygen measurements and by allowing us to relate that information to specific physical drivers. The improved estimates of ocean oxygen uptake, stemming from the float data, can reduce the uncertainty in the quantification of ocean and land carbon sinks from atmospheric O2 and CO2 measurements. This, in turn, will help reconcile differences between observations and models of the global climate.
Map showing location of SOCCOM float profiles (left) compared to all previously
available data collected by ships (right) (Bushinsky et al., 2017)
And that is the power of oxygen! This key element supporting life on our planet also provides important constraints on the carbon cycle due to the coupling of CO2 and O2 via photosynthesis (as well as respiration and combustion). SOCCOM floats equipped with oxygen sensors can help us refine estimates of air-sea oxygen fluxes, and in doing so, better understand the relative importance of ocean and land carbon sinks. Since ocean uptake of carbon and oxygen are independent, however, other methods must be used to calculate air-sea CO2 fluxes directly. But I’ll talk more about that in the next post.

- Channing


April 5, 2020

Last time, we talked about phytoplankton, microscopic algae that form the base of marine food webs and absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. I previously referred to “forests” of phytoplankton in the ocean, but there are also “deserts”, expansive regions of sea with very little life. Why do phytoplankton thrive in certain places but not in others? Like plants, they need sunlight to grow. But they also require certain nutrients, including nitrate, phosphate, and iron, which they convert into proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. These nutrients are just like the ones contained in plant fertilizer that you might use in your garden, and without them, phytoplankton cannot survive. Therefore, measuring nutrient concentrations in seawater, for example by using the nitrate sensor on the SOCCOM floats, can help determine what controls patterns of biological productivity in the ocean.

Microscope image of diatoms, a major phytoplankton group
in the Southern Ocean (Wikimedia Commons

I mentioned before that phytoplankton sequester carbon in sediments when they die and sink to the seafloor. But that is not the fate of all phytoplankton, many get eaten by krill, copepods, and other organisms higher up on the food chain. In fact, only a fraction of the carbon produced by phytoplankton during photosynthesis gets stored in the ocean abyss where it is effectively removed from the atmosphere. To diagnose the impact of biological productivity on atmospheric CO2 levels, we need to know the amount of carbon that actually gets exported to the deep ocean. Since this is difficult to measure, scientists can estimate it using a number of different techniques, one of which relies on changes in nitrate. In a recent paper led by Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute scientist Ken Johnson, this method was applied to the nitrate measurements from the SOCCOM floats in order to quantify the biological contribution to Southern Ocean carbon uptake.

How do you get from nitrate to carbon storage? This method relies on the strong seasonality in phytoplankton growth, which peaks in spring and summer (just like flowers and other land plants across much of the US). For each float, Ken calculated the decrease in nitrate in the sunlit upper ocean over the course of a growing season, and then assumed that those changes were due to consumption by phytoplankton. The amount of nitrate utilized can then be converted to the amount of carbon produced by phytoplankton using the known ratio between nitrogen and carbon in their cells. In other words, based on the elemental composition of phytoplankton, we can infer the total annual carbon export to the deep ocean at a given location just by knowing the change in the near-surface nutrient inventory.

This innovative method requires year-round sampling of nitrate, which was scarce in the Southern Ocean before SOCCOM floats existed. The results from the full float dataset show that carbon sequestration by phytoplankton varies spatially, and is highest between 40° and 50°S. This is consistent with past studies, which required decades of data due to limited wintertime measurements. The SOCCOM floats now enable us, for the first time, to resolve this key process annually in locations around the Southern Ocean.
Floats used to estimate biologically-driven carbon export in Ken’s paper.
There are many more floats now than when the paper was published! (Johnson et al., 2017).

And that is the power of nitrate! This essential nutrient supporting all marine life can also help quantify carbon export to the deep sea associated with biological productivity. Taking advantage of the unprecedented spatial and temporal coverage provided by the SOCCOM float array, through studies like Ken’s, can lead to new insights about the impact of phytoplankton photosynthesis on atmospheric CO2 concentrations. This, in turn, improves models of the global climate system. Furthermore, this information can be combined with other parameters measured by the floats, such as oxygen, to provide even further constraints on the carbon cycle. But I’ll talk more about that in the next post.

- Channing


April 2, 2020

It is well known that expansive rainforests like the Amazon absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Similarly, the ocean has “forests” of microscopic algae called phytoplankton that take up atmospheric CO2 just like trees and other land plants. When these organisms die and sink to the seafloor, the carbon in their cells gets stored in deep-sea sediments. Therefore, determining the distribution of phytoplankton in the ocean can provide important constraints on the global carbon cycle.

Like flowers and other land plants, phytoplankton go through periods of rapid growth in spring called blooms. Blooms occur as a result of higher light levels and enhanced stratification, which increases the available nutrient concentrations near the surface where phytoplankton grow. Large green patches of ocean, marking regions with abundant phytoplankton, are even visible from space, and change the way the surrounding seawater reflects and absorbs sunlight. Scientists can exploit this fact to estimate phytoplankton biomass from optical measurements taken by satellites or by the bio-optical sensors on the SOCCOM floats.

To illustrate the importance of bio-optical data, as well as the science made possible by the SOCCOM float array, I’ll summarize some results from a recent paper that I led as part of my PhD thesis at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In this study, we examined the drivers of the Scotia Sea phytoplankton bloom, which is the earliest and largest spring bloom in the open Southern Ocean. This can be seen from maps of satellite chlorophyll, a proxy for phytoplankton biomass calculated from optical measurements, which show high values in the Scotia Sea (outlined in red) while the rest of the Southern Ocean remains low.
October (spring in the southern hemisphere) satellite chlorophyll in the Southern Ocean showing
the signature of the Scotia Sea phytoplankton bloom. Image created by Channing Prend.

Although long-term satellite data clearly indicate that the bloom occurs in the same location around the same time each year, it’s difficult to know why since the satellites only measure surface properties and do not provide information about the physical processes that regulate phytoplankton growth. Therefore, SOCCOM floats, which simultaneously record physical and biological data throughout the upper 2000 meters of the water column, were essential in discovering what initiates and sustains the Scotia Sea bloom. Two floats, which captured the 2016 and 2017 bloom cycles in this region, revealed a close link between biological productivity and seafloor topography. The highest chlorophyll values were measured when the floats were trapped in a recirculating eddy that formed over an undersea mountain called Pine Bank. This is due to enhanced mixing when the current flows over the seamount, which supplies essential nutrients (in this case iron) from great depths to the sunlit upper ocean where phytoplankton can grow.
Schematic showing how vertical mixing at topography can deliver nutrients (in this case iron or Fe)
to the upper ocean and support phytoplankton growth. Image created by Channing Prend.

Although this result is specific to the local topography in the Scotia Sea, several other phytoplankton blooms in the Southern Ocean are located close to topographic features, suggesting that this process may be important in other regions as well. Since phytoplankton abundance varies considerably in space and time, understanding what controls bloom location, timing, and magnitude, through studies like this, is necessary to model Southern Ocean food webs and biological effects on atmospheric CO2 levels.

And that is the power of bio-optical data! The information about phytoplankton biomass inferred from these measurements, combined with the physical parameters recorded by the floats, helped introduce a new conceptual framework for a bloom system that scientists had known about for decades. This highlights one of the unique aspects of the SOCCOM data: its' ability to relate changes in biogeochemical properties directly to their physical drivers. These results also demonstrate, as we saw in the previous post, how just a few floats in the right place at the right time can lead to new dynamical understanding of phenomena observed by satellites. In the remaining posts, we’ll see how the entire float dataset taken together can be leveraged to uncover new insights about global biogeochemical cycles.

- Channing


March 30, 2020

This is the first post in a series about the different sensors on the SOCCOM floats and some of the recent scientific advancements that have been made using these data. We’re starting off with Conductivity Temperature Depth (CTD) sensors, which measure the temperature, salinity, and pressure (approximately equivalent to depth) of the water. These are the fundamental physical parameters in the ocean because they determine the density of seawater. Colder water is denser since the water molecules contract together at lower temperatures. Higher salinity water is denser since there is more stuff (salt) packed into it. Under high pressure (i.e. deeper) water gets compressed and thus denser. Changes in the temperature or salinity of seawater lead to gradients in density, which drive the currents in the deep ocean.

To illustrate the importance of temperature and salinity, as well as the science made possible by the SOCCOM float array, I’ll summarize some results from a recent paper led by University of Washington graduate student Ethan Campbell. Ethan’s study looked at the formation of polynyas, large holes in the winter sea ice, which formed over an undersea mountain called Maud Rise in 2016 and 2017. These were the largest such events to occur in the region since the 1970s (the holes in the ice were nearly the size of the state of South Carolina!), and scientists were stumped as to what caused the polynyas’ reappearance.
Satellite image of the 2017 polynya at Maud Rise (NASA Earth Observatory)

Collecting data within a polynya is extremely hard due to the remoteness of the formation regions and harsh weather. Therefore, SOCCOM floats provide an important source of information in ice-covered areas that are difficult to access by ship. In these icy locations, fresh water overlies warm, salty water. The cold surface water creates a barrier that prevents the ice from melting. During the polynya years, observations collected by SOCCOM floats show that the surface waters over Maud Rise were saltier and thus denser than usual. As a result, the density difference between the surface and deep ocean was small, allowing the water column to mix more readily. This led to an anomalously large heat transfer to the surface that melted the ice. Particularly strong storms during the polynya years also helped upwell warm water, establishing a feedback loop that prevented ice from re-forming and sustained the hole in the ice.
Schematic of the global overturning circulation, which is driven, in part,
by gradients in density due to temperature and salinity changes
(Robert Simmon via Wikimedia Commons)

Although the polynya formation is a local process, it could have large impacts on the climate system. For example, deep waters over Maud Rise are enriched in carbon (because they haven’t been in contact with the atmosphere for hundreds of years or more). This sequestered carbon can be released back into the atmosphere when the water gets drawn up by the polynya. By acting as a direct conduit between the surface and deep ocean, these holes in the ice can alter the exchange of properties at the air-sea interface. Therefore, accurately describing the dynamics of these systems, through studies like Ethan’s, is critical to improving future climate predictions.

And that is the power of temperature and salinity! These key ocean properties, measured by a few strategically placed SOCCOM floats, helped solve a decades-long puzzle about the drivers of open-ocean polynya events. Furthermore, the physical processes recorded by the floats can be linked to changes in ocean biogeochemistry using the properties measured by the other sensors. But I’ll talk more about that in future posts.

- Channing


March 27, 2020 

Our final floats have been deployed! These were Floaty McFloatface, named by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in homage to the infamous Boaty McBoatface, and Sylvia Whirl, named by the Scripps Polar Center in honor of the legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle and in reference to the Southern Ocean’s active eddy field.
Floaty McFloatface ready to join the fleet of SOCCOM floats collecting data
in the Southern Ocean. - photo by Channing Prend

Shortly after being deployed, the floats will sink down to 1000 meters depth (that’s more than half a mile below the surface!) where they’ll live for the next few years, drifting with the ocean currents. Every 10 days they will go down to 2000 meters and then rise up to the surface, collecting data as they go (which they will send back to us via satellite). Floaty McFloatface and Sylvia Whirl are the newest additions to a fleet of more than 150 SOCCOM floats measuring the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the Southern Ocean.
The blog author enjoying sunrise over the Atlantic before deploying Sylvia Whirl
(photo by Susan Becker)

In a series of posts, I’ll talk about the different sensors on the floats, what they measure, and some of the scientific breakthroughs that have already been made using this data. So stay tuned! In the meantime, I hope everyone back on land is staying safe and adjusting to the changes to daily life. I’m thinking of you all from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!

- Channing


March 26, 2020

It’s been a busy few days. Because of the ship’s orders to return to the US, all of our float deployments are occurring within the span of 3 days. Knight Drifter from Buckingham Brown and Nichols School and See Turtles from Winston Campus Elementary have both taken the plunge into the cold Southern Ocean waters.

The floats were deployed into calm seas. We have left behind the sea birds and dolphins near the coast. Here it seems desolate, empty. But we are only seeing the surface. Thousands of meters below us is an even more foreign world, where strong currents traverse undersea mountain ranges, and internal waves the size of skyscrapers break and mix the waters close to the seafloor. These are the forces that Knight Drifter and See Turtles will reckon with as they drift around collecting data.

The blog author standing proudly with Knight Drifter just before deployment. photo by Molly Martin.

See Turtles ready to begin its journey around the Southern Ocean. Photo by Channing Prend>

Now that the floats have been deployed, where will they go? This turns out to be a difficult question to answer since the ocean is immense, chaotic, and constantly in motion. Honestly, we don’t know exactly where the floats will travel; they are at the mercy of the waves and currents now. But we can predict where they are likely to go based on our knowledge of ocean circulation and statistics from floats that moved through this region in the past. Ultimately, only time will tell where the currents carry Knight Drifter and See Turtles. I’m excited to see where they end up though, because this information will help us determine the pathways by which the ocean transports heat, nutrients, and carbon around the world.

- Channing 


March 24, 2020

When I left home several weeks ago, I couldn’t have imagined the magnitude of the global pandemic that I would soon watch unfold from port in Cape Town and from the deck of the R/V Ron Brown. With all the uncertainty in the world right now, our ship has understandably been recalled to the US. Before heading home, we’ll be taking a slight detour to deploy six SOCCOM floats, the only portion of our initial science plan that will see completion.

There have been numerous times when I’ve wondered whether it’s appropriate to be conducting fieldwork under these circumstances. It seems frivolous to worry about float deployments given the challenges facing those back on land, and I feel guilty for being somewhat sheltered from the barrage of news (by the ship’s limited bandwidth). But I have come to think that now, more than ever, our society needs science and science-based policy. The data collected by these floats will provide new insights about the ocean and climate, and in doing so, ultimately contribute to a better world. When viewed through this lens, our science mission takes on a whole new urgency. And on a personal level, I am grateful for the sense of purpose that this has afforded me amidst all the turmoil.
Bobcat's Be-bopping Bobber on the deck of the R/V Ron Brown before deployment. Photo by Channing Prend
Gloria's Gulper takes the plunge into the cold Southern Ocean waters. Photo by Channing Prend

So today, a team of scientists worked together to deploy two SOCCOM floats: the Bobcat’s Be-bopping Bobber from Louisa County Middle School and Gloria’s Gulper from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. It was not easy. We were battling large waves and high winds. Our boat was bobbing up and down in the swell like a toy sailboat, completely dwarfed by the immensity and sheer power of the ocean. Once the floats were in the water, we quickly lost sight of them. The storm seemed to have blurred the boundary between sea and sky. But as we sailed on to our next station, I had the distinct feeling that we’d done something important, not in spite of everything going on in the world right now, but because of it.

- Channing Prend


Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Reports from the RV Nathaniel B. Palmer (20-02); January 2020-March 2020

Most recent posts on top, older ones below


March 28, 2020

Last of the deployments on the R/V Nathanial B. Palmer and prepping for unloading

So now that our science operations aboard the ship are done, what are we doing? Believe it or not, we are still pretty busy! Just like how we had to work with the technicians on board to get everything organized and ready to start doing science at the start of the cruise, we now have to do the reverse and tear everything down. The NBP is used for multiple scientific expeditions every year, so we want to make sure we leave it better than we found it!
Linnah is our Marine Lab Technician. She helps us make sure our labs on the ship are
safe and operational and also is helping us pack all of our samples.
Preparing to leave means packing all our samples in a way that makes them easy to ship. For SOCCOM, most of the water samples we collected will be analyzed at Scripps or UCSB. We take samples from the water whenever a float is deployed to calibrate the float’s sensors. Sometimes sensors have a “bias” or need to be “corrected.” We can compare the first profile of the float to the data from the water samples to perform these corrections.

The marine geologists have a lot of samples to take home! Each of these coolers will be 
taken as luggage on the plane rides home and the cores stored on the shelves 
and in the back left corner will be either driven by van or sailed by ship up to the States.
The marine geologists on board have been working very hard to prepare their sediment samples to travel. Some of the smaller samples will be carried by hand on the way home; some folks are so excited to start working on their samples they do not want to have to wait for them to arrive later! However, many of the 75 sediment cores that were collected will take a longer time to get up to the States. Most of the cores that were sampled on this cruise will be archived at Oregon State University, which is home to the OSU Marine Geology Repository. The marine geologists aboard are planning to meet up in Oregon in the fall to have a “coring party” to look at all the cores and to start data analysis!
We keep the whiteboard updated so everyone knows what is going on each day. Today’s science
talk is about work currently being done at Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula
Our days are not just filled with packing and labelling; we are also staying busy by having daily science meetings. Oftentimes, someone presents a scientific paper that they think is interesting or important for others to know about. The other day, Rachel Clark, a graduate student at the University of Houston, presented a paper on till, the sediment left behind by glaciers or ice sheets. Isa and I presented a paper about upwelling of deep waters in the Southern Ocean. Being on a multidisciplinary cruise means that we have people who study very different topics, so when you present a paper you have to make sure you explain things in a way that everyone will understand. It’s also very neat to see how passionate people are about sharing their science! Through these presentations and discussions, we learn a lot from each other and begin working to understand how we all fit into the big jigsaw puzzle of the Antarctic region.
Isa (left) and Lily's (right) selfie with DSC Falcons
Matt with DSC Falcons.

Bye bye DSC Falcons!!! 
One of the last pieces of science we did was to deploy the fifth SOCCOM float #18097, aka DSC Falcons. Isa and I had lots of fun drawing on the float, and we were pretty happy about the result ☺ Falcons! The Falcons are the mascot of the Daytona State College, from Daytona Beach (FL). Isa and Matt deployed this last float, in a glassy ocean, with some beautiful clouds around. The float was deployed on March 19, 2020 at 23:28 UTC, at the location 69.7S, 95.5W. A big Hello to Debra Woodall and her class!! Keep an eye on the float’s data and trajectory at the SOCCOM website https://www.mbari.org/science/upper-ocean-systems/chemical-sensor-group/soccomviz (search for float #18097).

- by Lily Dove


March 27, 2020

An infinite desert of ice... with an escape and a little bit of yellow

The final part of the cruise has been a rollercoaster. As we were getting out of the Amundsen Sea, the sea ice had grown thick and compact, making our way out particularly challenging. The NBP crew worked non stop to find a lead in that unforgivable desert of ice.

Shades of white
It’s incredible how much the ice could change in just a small distance..and with that, the wildlife! At some point, we were surrounded by (literally roaring) crab-eater seals. They were everywhere! And then, some minke whales popped up in between some sea ice floes, sometimes jumping out of the water to crack the ice or maybe scared by the presence of the ship, hard to know. But, hey!, what a view!!
"Roar!" says the crab-eater seal
And after a few days of cracking ice, stopping, looking around, tirelessly trying, and a little bit of help from some winds that pushed the ice away, allowing for some opening in this impermeable desert, all of a sudden we were out. Free. The dark blue of the ocean was all around us.
Madeleine and Becky with Amaroq before the deployment.
And with the familiar blue, we approached our last few science activities: the deployment of the last two SOCCOM floats, the last two CTD casts and the recovery of the gliders that we deployed at the beginning of the cruise.
Ryan is deploying Amaroq.
Just a few more kilometers from the ice edge, still some icebergs towered around us. The sun rays against their shell reflected some spectacular colors. And in this beauty, on March 19, 2020 at 0:55 UTC, at 70.4S, 103.2W the 4th SOCCOM float on this cruise, Amaroq, was deployed. What a beautiful name! Amaroq is the Brooklin (NY) JHS 223 - The Montauk School’s mascot. The Amaroq is a “gigantic wolf in Inuit mythology, said to stalk and devour any person foolish enough to hunt alone at night. Unlike wolves who hunt in packs, Amaroqs hunt alone.” Just… WOW!! Wolves are among my favorite animals, and now even more! :-) And, how cool is this!, the school’s teacher, Sarah Slack, is one of the science party onboard!! Sarah has been blogging, videoing, writing to her students, working non-stop for science outreach, under the PolarTrec program. I highly recommend to read her beautiful blog posts on tinyurl.com/thwaites2020. And to follow the fate of Amaroq, click on the SOCCOMviz website (https://www.mbari.org/science/upper-ocean-systems/chemical-sensor-group/soccomviz) and search for float #18861.

I’m sitting down at my desk, thinking about all that happened during this cruise, and my heart goes to the peace of that land of ice, with its so many shades of white. I miss that, I miss the chill, the wildlife, the silence, and the stillness. What spectacular views we had in front of our eyes during this cruise!

- Isa Rosso


March 16, 2020
The Amundsen Sea: Why Here?

Antarctica is a large continent - it’s about twice the size of Australia. The continent and surrounding region also play a vital role in our climate system, with the bright white ice and snow reflecting shortwave radiation back out to space and the Southern Ocean circumnavigating the land. It is home to amazing wildlife found nowhere else on Earth, including the Southern Elephant seals and Emperor penguins. So, if we’re lucky enough to have two months to explore offshore questions about this amazing continent, why is our cruise (NBP 20-02) focused on the Amundsen Sea? Here are a couple reasons you might find compelling: 

Some views of the Antarctic Shelf - photos by Isa Rosso

1.     The Amundsen Sea is home to Thwaites glacier and Pine Island glacier, two glaciers of great concern to scientists who study sea level rise. These glaciers are considered to be some of the most unstable on our warming planet. As ice shelves decay, warm water is able to get to the grounded ice, raising the sea level and putting coastal cities and populations in danger. We are already seeing the effects of climate change-related flooding in places all over the world, from Venice, Italy to coastal Bangladesh. Scientists are working to understand what makes these glaciers so unstable and vulnerable. There are many geological, oceanographic, and atmospheric processes to consider to understand the past and future of these glaciers. 
2.     In the Amundsen Sea, the Circumpolar Deep Water (CDW) that was formed hundreds of years ago in northern latitudes reaches the continent. And this water is relatively warm (at a balmy 2 degrees Celsius!). When warm CDW gets onto the continental shelf, like it can in the Amundsen Sea, the warm water is available for ventilation to the atmosphere and glacial melt. The ACC only flows over the continental shelf in very few places around the continent, so this is a very special aspect of the Amundsen Sea. 
3.     Even compared to other parts of Antarctica, the Amundsen Sea (and its neighbor, the Bellingshausen Sea) is understudied. The main American research station on the continent is McMurdo Station near the Ross Sea. Palmer Station, another American Antarctic base, is on the West Antarctic Peninsula. Both of these stations are hundreds of kilometers away from the Amundsen Sea, making it hard to get regular measurements here. It takes about a week to get to the Amundsen by ship and the moving sea ice and icebergs make it challenging to navigate safely. Any data we get here is extremely valuable and informative. 
One of the Hudson mountains, north of the Pine Island Glacier. Photo by Isa Rosso
Our cruise has oceanographers, marine biologists, geophysicists, and other scientists working to understand some of the machinations of this amazing part of the world’s most mysterious continent. What an amazing place to work and play!
Sea Ice and the sunrise - photo by Isa Rosso

- by Lily Dove, CalTech


March 6th, 2020
I was sitting writing my thesis in my lab after dinner when I got the call. I was chosen to ride on the zodiac to see seal tagging. I was assigned to help Mike, the filmmaker, get the footage he required. We climbed over the side of the ship down a ladder into the zodiac, an inflatable rigid-hulled motor boat. Once everyone was loaded, we were off at around 8 pm. Since it is still summer here, there was plenty of light. We rode in the boat, holding onto ropes on the side, glad for our layers of clothing in the wind. We drove around enjoying the views and watching the seal tagging, getting good camera shots. The techs driving the boat brought out snacks and hot cocoa and hand warmers to lift our spirits and body temperatures! 

The seal tagging team climbed up onto the ice floe, a floating piece of sea ice covered in snow. They `danced' with the Weddell Seals until they wiggled their way into the catching bag. Then they tagged the seal, only on 1 meter of sea ice, with no land underneath, in one of the most exotic and beautiful ecosystems! After tagging 3 seals, we headed back to the Palmer, zooming along at full throttle past sea ice and icebergs and through fresh new sea ice. I was glad to return to the warmth of the ship and the sauna, but I will not forget the beauty, joy, quiet, and space that the excursion that the ice provided provided me. 

- Madeleine Youngs


February 20th - On the Ground: Sif Island

With extreme explorers and satellites, you would think that there were no more uncharted places left on Earth. However, on February 10, the Chief Mate of the RV Nathaniel B. Palmer spotted some unexpected rocks. After general excitement and checking of maps, the pile of icy rocks was confirmed to be a previously uncharted island! What a discovery. After some discussion, the island was named Sif Island, after the Norse goddess of Earth (and Thor’s wife).

Scientists climb aboard Sif Island to collect rock samples.
Just a few years ago, this island was covered by Pine Island Glacier!

Sif Island was part of the grounding line for Pine Island Glacier (PIG) as recently as three years ago. The grounding line of a glacier is determined topographically, and basically determines how far out the glacier’s ice shelf goes. The fast retreat of the glacier over the last few years left Sif Island uncovered. Due to the scientific interest about what secrets this island holds, several scientists on board the ship wanted to go visit. This island may help hold some clues as to the retreat patterns of PIG due to its strategic placement in the glacier basin. After obtaining the proper permissions to collect samples from the island, the Chief Scientist decided to send a team of scientists over to the new land.
The Nathaniel B. Palmer, our home away from home, fading into
the distance. We needed to use small boats called Zodiacs to access the
island because the water depth was too shallow for the Palmer.

I was extremely lucky to be invited to go along to join the science  party in a second small boat. Upon our arrival at the island, several geologists got out and began collecting samples. After waiting a few minutes to make sure we wouldn’t disrupt the ongoing science, the members of our boat disembarked and set foot on an Antarctic island! Looking back and seeing the RV Nathaniel B. Palmer in the distance really threw things into  a new perspective. We were already in one of the most remote regions of the world, and now we were even removed from our lifeline at sea.

There were several amazing things that we witnessed on the island, including some very curious Weddell seals and some amazing geologic& features resulting from years of wear and freezing and thawing. However, my favorite part was circumnavigating the island, getting GPS fixes of the extent of the land. Although it is a pretty small island, when we got to the side of the island that we couldn’t see from the RV Nathaniel B. Palmer, it was like we entered another world. We were surrounded by icebergs and 100 shades of blue that were captured in the ice and ocean. There were several icebergs that had recently flipped over and others that had magnificent signatures of glacial melting and refreezing. Although I had seen amazing ice from the bow of the RV Nathaniel B. Palmer and I had appreciated the majesty of the massive icebergs from a distance, being so close to these massive pieces of glacial ice was absolutely awe-inspiring.

A Weddell seal and some layers of glacial meltwater
preserved in an iceberg, just a few of the amazing things we saw during
our all too short shore expedition.

Hidden in the shadow of a glacier, this island has its own history to tell and now it has become part of my history, too. No matter where I travel the rest of my life, Sif Island will always have a special place in my heart.

The blog author Lily Dove in the zodiac with some glacial ice in the background. Photo by Laura Taylor.

- Lily Dove, Caltech


Location: 69º 30.179 S, 87º 59.873 W. Time: 6AM local. The icebergs stand guard over a peaceful ocean, the sun peeking out around some clouds low on the horizon. I watch an antenna disappear below the waves and breathe a sigh of relief. We just launched a Seaglider, a type of Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) that oceanographers use to measure different properties of the ocean.  
A Seaglider floating at the surface of the ocean just after
deployment. After “calling home” and getting new instructions about
where to go, it will disappear below the waves.
 Although oceans are huge, there are physical and biological processes that occur on relatively small scales that scientists have a hard time observing. Observing these small scales is hard, because doing research out in the ocean is challenging and is also really expensive! Floats, like those designed and deployed by SOCCOM, are helping to fill in the huge gaps we have in our datasets. However, because these floats only sample every few days, they can miss important processes occurring on even smaller scales. This is where gliders fit in!  

We just deployed two gliders that are on a mission to help us understand how water moves across and along the continental shelf in front of the Bellingshausen Sea. Currently, very little is known about the Bellingshausen Sea; until last year, only a few research groups had ever gone there to collect samples. This is the cutting edge of science; we get to test if our theories and models are correct by collecting real observational data! The data we collect with the gliders will help inform our next generation of climate models and help us begin to put together the puzzle pieces about how the ocean, ice, and atmosphere interact in this extremely remote region of the world.  
A Venn Diagram comparison of the SOCCOM floats and gliders.
Both of these instruments are vital for helping us gain a better
understanding of how the ocean works!
Our gliders are developed by a company called Kongsberg, and the instruments yoyo between the surface ocean and 1000 meters depth collecting data on temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll, and other properties. When the glider returns to the surface every few hours, it “calls home,” using an Iridium connection to send back its data and to pick up the new instructions about where to go. Right now, my colleagues at Caltech and the University of East Anglia are tracking the gliders’ positions and giving the gliders new instructions. That’s right - from thousands of miles away, they can control where the gliders go! That’s just some of the awesomeness of satellites.  
Isa and I putting some of the final touches on the glider
before saying goodbye. The gliders are usually stored without their
wings or rudder because those parts are the most fragile parts of the
instrument. The wings and rudder are extremely important, though,
because they allow the glider to sample horizontally and not just
vertically like a float!
In a few weeks, we will be picking the gliders up on our way back to port after our work in the Amundsen Sea is complete. Our gliders are already sending back data and happily sampling across the continental shelf. It will be good to see them again and to get them patched up before we send them off on their next adventure, wherever that may be!

- Lily Dove, Caltech


February 11, 2020

From wiggles to glacial melt. 

I look at the monitor that shows the data coming from the Knudsen, an instrument that measures the distance from the seafloor and a few meters below it. Lots of wiggles, and lines, mountains and more. Black on white, it keeps recording how far is the seafloor below the ship. To understand how deep we can go with the CTD rosette, we look at the data from the Knudsen and the multi beam, another instrument that reveals the depth of the ocean floor. With respect to the multicolor panel of the multi beam, the Knudsen is clean, clear, simple. It looks like a pencil drawing.

I’m still standing in the lab, looking at the screen, when I hear a “Wow!”, as more and more lines kept appearing on the monitor; it looks like my fellow geologists see much more than my eyes can perceive. 

Rachel (left) and Asmara looking at the Knudsen screen (see
all those lines?). Photo by Isa Rosso.

“The lines that appear on top of each other is what we want! They show us where there is sediment, rather than hard rock. The layers, as shown by lines on top of each other, are what we are searching for and not rock, which produces no lines on the screen. And that’s where the fun starts!” (cit. Rachel). They want to collect samples from the ocean floor, and they need a soft, sediment-type terrain that they can core from: they have already collected a few cores, but when the weather will improve, they will deploy coring device that will collect a 24 meter (80 feet) core! Imagine that! 

Working with cores is like traveling back in time, as the deeper you go, the more back in time you get. 
One of the cores that has been collected. Photo by Isa Rosso

I talked to a couple of geology PhD students, as I was seeing the lines being formed on the screen. Rachel, a 3rd year student from the University of Houston, works on the characterization of the sediments, by looking at the sizes and shapes of the grains that form the sediment. This allows her to understand how that type of sediment got there, and specifically for this area of study, if the glacier had any influence in the past in getting this type of grains accumulated as they appear to be. The grains, says Rachel, allow us also to date the youngest sediments.” Another method is using radioactive lead to date, but this is not what Rachael would do. “Grains are more attractive!” she says. A geologist, in this way, can recreate the regional history over the past century… Isn’t that really cool!? Not only can she characterize the grains by size and shape, but she also looks for the presence of diatoms (i.e. particular types of phytoplankton made of a silica shell) to help describe the sample she analyses. 

From the University of Alabama, Asmara is a 1st year PhD student, working with Foraminifera (“forams” for short), beautiful and very complex single-cell organisms that are made of calcium carbonate. Some live in the water column, some within the seafloor sediment. They are kind of neurotic (cit. Asmara): they grab food and sediment around with their little tiny feet (aka pseudopods), but apparently, they are “picky”. Some like only a certain type of sediment, some steal from their neighbor. They can even use dead coccolithophores (another type of phytoplankton, but made with calcium carbonate plates) to make a shell around them. They can be microscopic, or the size of a palm of a hand (!!!??!? Asmara, whaaaat???). 

Asmara studies both the living forams and the ones in the core to trace back the environment at which the dead ones lived in and to date the core, as well. There’s a large variety of forams, and I found it extremely fascinating to hear that some like to live in particular water types, such as those ones living in the old and warm Circumpolar Deep Water (CDW): finding those types of forams in the sediments allow to infer if that type of water mass was present at a particular time in the location of the sample, and hence shed light into circulation patterns and glacial melting, for example. 

Why is the CDW is so important? CDW is a deep old water mass characterized by waters that are not only depleted in oxygen because they have not been in touch with the atmosphere for a long time, but they are also warmer than the waters above. As CDW approaches Antarctica from the North, it gets closer and closer to the surface of the ocean, warming up the colder waters that encounters. The possible presence of this water mass in this region is one of the possible sources for melting of the ice shelf, and one of the key factors investigated by the scientists who are collaborating to this project in the Amudsen Sea. 
Mini seastar (dyed in purple) surrounded by worm poop.
Photo by Isa Rosso.
I watch Asmara, Rachel, Santi, and Ali taking samples from the mud (Rachel with a large syringe and Asmara with a spoon). The excitement in the eyes of Asmara, the precision in Rachel’s hands, the passion that I could see in them. I’ll never look at mud with the same eyes! Especially after they show me the ‘bones’ or spicules of glass sponges in the mud (apparently they’re quite sharp and itchy) and the cutest tiny seastars one can possibly imagine! 
Glass sponges in the mud. Photo by Isa Rosso

To know more about the achievements, news, and studies of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC), have a look at the website https://thwaitesglacieroffshoreresearch.org/            

-       Isa Rosso

February 6, 2020

The crew loves to drive this ship because they get to run into things, primarily ice, but only sea ice, not icebergs.  The 'rule' is that you can't hit anything large enough to wake up the captain.  The Nathaniel B. Palmer is an icebreaker, meaning that it can travel through sea ice of up to a meter thick. It does not mean that it can travel through icebergs though! The Nathaniel B. Palmer breaks ice by ramming into it and splitting it to either side using special slippery paint on its belly.  Other icebreakers break ice by transferring their weight to the back of the ship, sliding the front of the ship up onto the ice, then shifting the weight really quickly to the front, pushing down the front of the ship and breaking the ice.  On this journey so far we haven't been traveling through the thickest ice, just occasional ice floes and thinner contiguous sea ice.  When the ship hits ice, there is a large rumbling and scraping sound along the side of the ship.  It is especially loud in the dining room near the front of the ship and in the sauna.  I have to agree with the crew.  Ice breaking is pretty fun. (photos by Isa Rosso). 

- Madeleine Youngs


February 5th, 2020

A Narwhal in the Southern Ocean!!
 On February 1, 2020 at 2:16 UTC Narwhal was deployed in the magical waters of the Southern Ocean, with majestic icebergs at the horizon. 
A closer look at one of the beauties. photo by Isa Rosso
What a view to start your journey, Narwhal!! As the 5th grade students of the Judson and Brown Elementary School of Redlands, CA, point out, narwhals are unique, unusual and “magical” animals the live in the polar waters of the Northern Hemisphere. But with the help of their teacher Eric Dildine, they sent one here, right in the Southern Hemisphere! What a journey! :-) 
MT Ryan with Narwhal before the deployment (you can see one of
the icebergs at the horizon on the left). photo by Isa Rosso
Narwhal left the ship at 68.9ºS and 86.6ºW, and its unique identification number on the SOCCOM website is 19169 (https://www.mbari.org/science/upper-ocean-systems/chemical-sensor-group/soccomviz). All the sensors have already reported, and they are doing great! (Check the plot that shows a beautiful Circumpolar Deep Water around 250m, with the typical low oxygen and high nitrate signature of old waters and the nice productive peak close to the surface).
The profiles of Narwhal
 I love how the artwork of Natalie and Lily! What do you guys think?
Lily (left) and Natalie (right) showing their artwork.  photo by Isa Rosso

-       by Isa R.


Super Bowl 54
 Just like much of the nation, we tuned into the super bowl on Sunday night.  Like many families, we were crowded around a big flat screen TV. However, unlike most, we didn't actually get to SEE the game.  A few days ago, we passed out of good internet coverage, so we only have a very slow connection.  We did get to HEAR the game using our small bandwidth. Like many other people we also created a small pool with small prizes consisting of about $10 US or 1000 chilean pesos, and a snickers bar, because that is all we had on hand. We also made pretzels a few hours before so that we had our snacks! We also ate wings for dinner because that is what you eat for the Super Bowl. People filtered in and out depending on their shifts. In the end, the last five exciting minutes of the game, the room was full of attentively listening people enjoying the game.
Mike (the videographer on this expedition) is recording the
very smooth deployment. photo by Isa Rosso

-       by Madeleine Youngs


February 3rd

On February 1st, we entered the kingdom of the ice! It started with just a few icebergs in the distance until we were cruising through water that was completely covered in ice.  On some of the pieces of ice, we have seen seals! These seals are called Crabeater Seals.  When the seals saw the Palmer, some tried to run away, which made the look like slugs. Others just opened their mouths wide and yelled at us.  Some couldn't decide what to do and moved back and forth and yelled at the ship! 
Seals, sea ice and icebergs (photo by Isa R.)

The best place to watch for seals and other animals is the bridge, the top floor where the captain sits and the mates drive this ship. It has really big windows, way bigger than anywhere else on the ship, on all sides and we get almost a whole 360 view.  My other favorite place to watch for seals is in the ice tower.  Extending up from the bridge, to get there you have to climb three ladders! The tower room has just a chair and a heater and is maybe 4 feet by 5 feet wide.  Up here you get a full circle view of the seas.  This tower was created so that the mates could scout the best way for the ship to cut through the ice. We often sit up there to watch bird, mammals, and the ice in our free time.
 Natalie and Lily showing their drawing of Sea Dog
(photo by Isa 

Before the excitement for the ice, we had another exciting day, with the deployment of the second SOCCOM float for this cruise!! Sea Dog (named by the 5th grade class of Watsonville Charter School of the Arts in Watsonville, CA) was deployed on January 30, 2020 at 8PM, at the latitude of 65 degrees S and 80.5 degrees W. From a pirate connotation, “Sea Dog” refers to an “experienced sailor that will gather information from the ocean as it sails the seas”. And to see with the eyes of Sea Dog, look for the float with ID #18829 on the SOCCOM website: https://www.mbari.org/science/upper-ocean-systems/chemical-sensor-group/soccomviz
Sea Dog "sailing the seas" (photo by Isa R.)

Ahoy to Jennifer Gill and her students!!

- Madeleine Youngs


February 2, 2020

So many things happened in these days, that it feels like 3 months have already passed... while it is, what? a bit more than a week? wow! Time for writing has been so very little. I’m still recovering from an intense 3 days of work, where Natalie and I have barely slept 4 hours in total. This can happen sometimes. Our projects have a total of few days to work over the entire time of the cruise. But more than a half was concentrated in this initial part of the cruise, so we just had to roll up our sleeves, prepare a few shots of good espresso, keep a smile on our face, and eat a lot of chocolate!!
Madeleine, Lily
and Natalie - photo by Isa Rosso

Let’s start from the beginning:

We left Punta Arenas on the 25th of January, after which we headed towards the famous Drake Passage.
Drake Passage - often a rough crossing!

I heard this name so many times. I read about it, analyzed and published results on its oceanographic data (check my friend and colleague’s super nice paper: Freeman et al. “The Observed Seasonal Cycle of Macronutrients in Drake Passage: Relationship to Fronts and Utility as a Model Metric”). And l’ve always been mesmerized by how frequent the storms can shoot through it… which are usually massive.

But what is Drake Passage? Drake Passage is the gap between the southernmost tip of South America and the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The volume of water that flows in the entire Southern Ocean has to squeeze and pass though this narrow (~500 mi/800 km long) space. If you want to go to Antarctica (I mean: “if”?! who doesn’t???), then this is the shortest route that can take you there. It also connects the Pacific with the Atlantic Ocean, allowing these 2 different oceans to mix their properties together, which, for an oceanographer, is extremely fascinating. But for a sailor, this is one of the most dangerous and difficult parts of the oceans to navigate: the Antarctic Circumpolar Current that flows through it is extremely strong, waves can be huge and storms are usually very nasty here.

To be honest, this pretty much describes what you can expect anywhere in the Southern Ocean. It’s not by chance that the prevailing winds blowing over the Southern Ocean have names such as the “Roaring 40s” (winds between ~40-50 deg South), “Furious 50s” (~50-60 deg South) and “Screaming 60s”. I’ve been at these latitudes multiple times, usually in the Indian or Pacific Ocean, but I never crossed the Drake. So, needless to say, I was pretty excited about it!!

Sometimes, the Drake could be as gentle and calm as a lake. As we started our crossing, the weather was indeed nice and the waves were not big. But as we moved south, it showed us its true face, as a storm gave us a big shake. The ship started to roll substantially, the decks were secured (meaning that we could not go outside, for safety), sleeping on the bunk got extremely difficult and as the time passed, the labs got more and more empty: many stayed in their cabins, waiting for the seasickness to calm down. At some point, I felt like I was on an abandoned ship...

MSS Husky in the box getting ready for launch
After these first days of rolls (which are always very exciting for me), we started our science activities. SOCCOM opened the science “dance floor”, with the very first station of the cruise and its first deployment!!

MSS Husky getting ready to go over - photo by Madeleine Youngs
MSS Husky (from Howell Middle School South of Howell, NJ) was smoothly deployed on January 29, 2020 at 15:57 UTC at the longitude 74ºW and latitude 62ºS. The float was named after the school’s name and mascot. Greetings from the Southern Ocean to Danielle Gianelos and her 8th grade students!! 
First profile from MSS Husky!
The float has already reported some very nice data of its first profile: very interesting mixing happening between 200m and 700m (was the float crossing a front, i.e. a boundary between two water masses with different properties?), nitrate-rich and oxygen poor old Circumpolar Deep Water around 1000m. Can you bet where will the float be in 1 month? In three? What is the temperature that the float “feels” at 1000m? You can find the answers to these questions and many many more on the SOCCOMviz website (https://www.mbari.org/science/upper-ocean-systems/chemical-sensor-group/soccomviz): just search for the float with ID number 18643 and start plotting the different parameters. And if you have questions, we, the SOCCOM team, will be very happy to help!!

- Isa Rosso


January 26, 2020

Ahoy everybody!

Here I am, on the icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer (a 308 foot research vessel of the US Antarctic Program), heading from Punta Arenas (Chile) to the Thwaites Glacier in the Amudsen Sea. The research cruise is led by an American-UK team, collaborating to investigate one of the most unstable glaciers in Antarctica. The project is called the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, or ITGC. Two of the groups that are part of it (i.e. THOR and TARSAN) are leading this cruise. THOR will lead the seismic, coring, mooring operations, aiming to understand this marine grounded glacier that sits on a very deep ocean and is affected by changes in ocean temperature. Part of TARSAN work on this cruise will be to tag seals (elephant and weddell): the seals will get a CTD (i.e. conductivity-temperature-depth) sensor, attached to their forehead, and the data that will be collected will help the scientific community to monitor this oceans, especially the old and important Circumpolar Deep Water. How exciting and fascinating to witness their operations and hear about their findings! (If you’re curious, and you should be, you can read about their mission here: thwaitesglacier.com). 

Map showing the geographical region for the expedition, highlighting 
the SOCCOM float deployment sites and few key features

About us: together with Madeleine Youngs (soon-to-be-doctor from the MIT), I represent the SOCCOM team, and we will be responsible for the deployment of 5 biogeochemical floats on the way to the glacier. This is my 5th time as SOCCOM representative, and it’s always an honor to be part of it. Needless to say, I’m very very excited! Together with us, there are Lily Dove (graduate student from Caltech) and Natalie Swaim (master student from Jacksonville University). We will be leading the CTD operations, collecting waters that will be analyzed for different properties. Lily, Madeleine and I (I’ll help with some logistics, but Lily and Madeleine will be the real stars of the operations) will also be involved with the deployment and recovery of two seagliders. Natalie has the big task of collecting water for oxygen and hydrogen isotopes, which will be used for her and a fellow graduate student’s thesis. No pressure ;-) 

Natalie, me, Madeleine, and Lily in front of the NB Palmer the night before leaving port. 
Interesting to see that only Lily is looking at the camera.

Stay tuned to learn more about all of these in the next 8 weeks!

- Isa Rosso