Stories tagged ocean

Oct
19
2011

8-Yr-Old Shark Conservationist Sophi Bromenshenkel from Minnesota
8-Yr-Old Shark Conservationist Sophi Bromenshenkel from MinnesotaCourtesy University of Miami
Second-grader Sophi Bromenshenkel from Minnesota sold lemonade, hot chocolate, shark-shaped cookies, and wristbands to promote shark conservation, and become an international phenomenon. Earlier this year, 8-year old Sophi was named the 2011 "Ocean Hero" from Oceana, an international advocacy group working to protect the world’s oceans. She graces the front cover of the latest issue of Oceana Magazine.

Through her efforts, $3,676.62 was raised to pay for satellite tags that are used to track movement of individual sharks, and provide insight on shark populations. In addition to providing safety information to recreational ocean users, the observations of how sharks navigate the ocean can be used to inform policymakers where to focus their marine protection efforts. The satellite-tagged sharks can be followed online from the website for the R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program. Note that the Google Earth Plugin needs to be installed on your computer to view the maps.

RV Melville
RV MelvilleCourtesy WHOI
Being on a ship exploring the oceans: how cool is that?! If you can't be on the ship, or maybe you get seasick and don't want to be, check out videos from a real oceanography expedition.

An entire series is now on Science 360: The Knowledge Network. YouTube videos are filtered from some classrooms. Since Science 360 is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, their videos have passed a high academic standard and are not filtered.

Marine Microbes: Come see videos about us!
Marine Microbes: Come see videos about us!Courtesy C-MORE
The Center for Microbial Oceanography (C-MORE), headquartered at the University of Hawai`i, conducted the BiG RAPA oceanographic expedition. The C-MORE scientists sailed from Chile to Easter Island, making discoveries about micro-life in one of the least explored areas of the world's ocean.

Welcome aboard!

May
18
2011

R/V Hespérides, docked at Aloha Tower in Honolulu, Hawai`i
R/V Hespérides, docked at Aloha Tower in Honolulu, Hawai`iCourtesy C-MORE
How would you like to be aboard a ship, circumnavigating the globe, collecting samples from the world’s ocean?

That’s exactly what Spanish oceanographers are doing on their Malaspina Expedition aboard the Research Vessel, R/V Hespérides. Scientists and crew left southern Spain in December, reached New Zealand in mid-April, and recently arrived in Hawai`i. The expedition's primary goals are to:

  • build upon the historic 1789-1794 Malaspina expedition to promote interest in marine sciences among the Spanish public, particularly the nation’s youth
  • collect oceanographic and atmospheric data -- chemical, physical and biological – that will help evaluate the impact of global change
  • explore the variety of marine life, including microbes, especially those living in the deep sea
  • CTD: As this oceanographic instrument is lowered over the side of a ship, each gray Niskin “bottle” can be electronically triggered to collect a seawater sample from a different ocean depth.
    CTD: As this oceanographic instrument is lowered over the side of a ship, each gray Niskin “bottle” can be electronically triggered to collect a seawater sample from a different ocean depth.Courtesy C-MORE
    In connection with the latter two goals, the Malaspina scientists met with their colleagues at the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE). The two groups of scientists are working together. "We can exchange data on the local effects, what's happening around the Hawaiian Islands, and they can tell us what's happening in the middle of the Pacific," said Dr. Dave Karl, University of Hawai`i oceanography professor and Director of C-MORE.

    The Malaspina-C-MORE partnership is the kind of cooperation that can help solve environmental problems which stretch beyond an individual nation’s borders. The R/V Hespérides has now left Honolulu on its way to Panama and Colombia. From there, the scientists expect to complete their ocean sampling through the Atlantic Ocean and return to Spain by July. Buen viaje!

May
02
2011

the ocean's 5 major gyres
the ocean's 5 major gyresCourtesy NOAA
We often talk about the ocean ecosystem. And, indeed, there is really just one, world-wide ocean, since all oceans are connected. An Indian Ocean earthquake sends tsunami waves to distant coasts. Whitecaps look as white anywhere in the world. The ocean swirls in similar patterns.

However, oceanographers do find differences from place to place. For example, let’s take a closer look at the chemistry of two swirls, or gyres as they’re more properly called. Scientists have found a micro difference between the North Atlantic Gyre and the North Pacific Gyre. The Atlantic generally has really low levels of phosphorus, measurably lower than the North Pacific Gyre.

the element phosphorus among its neighbors in the Periodic Table of the Elements
the element phosphorus among its neighbors in the Periodic Table of the ElementsCourtesy modified from Wikipedia
Phosphorus is a very important element in living things. For example, it’s a necessary ingredient in ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate), the energy molecule used by all forms of life. Phosphorus is picked up from seawater by bacteria. All other marine life depends upon these bacteria, either directly or indirectly, for P. Therefore, if you’re bacteria living in the impoverished North Atlantic Gyre, you’d better be really good at getting phosphorus.

And they are!

Oceanographers at the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) at the University of Hawai`i have made an important discovery. C-MORE scientists Sallie Chisholm, based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her former graduate student Maureen Coleman, now a scientist at the California Institute of Technology, have been studying two species of oceanic bacteria. Prochlorococcus is an autotrophic bacterium that photosynthesizes its own food; Pelagibacter, is a heterotrophic bacterium that consumes food molecules made by others.

Pacific HOT and Atlantic BATS Stations: Microbial samples were collected at each location.
Pacific HOT and Atlantic BATS Stations: Microbial samples were collected at each location.Courtesy C-MORE
Drs. Chisholm and Coleman took samples of these two kinds of bacteria from both the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. The Atlantic samples were collected by the Bermuda Atlantic Time-Series (BATS) program. The Pacific samples were collected in the North Pacific Gyre (about 90 miles north of Honolulu) by the Hawai`i Ocean Time-Series (HOT) program. The scientists discovered surprising differences in the genetic code of the bacteria between the two locations:

  • First of all, the Atlantic populations of both bacterial species have more phosphorus-related genes compared to their Pacific cousins. (Picture Atlantic microbes in Superman outfits with a big "P" on their chests!)
  • Secondly, in the Atlantic, Prochlorococcus has different kinds of P-related genes compared to Pelagibacter. Perhaps this means the two microbial species have evolved over time to use different phosphorus sources, to avoid competing with one another for this limited resource.

Drs. Chisholm and Coleman have discovered important micro differences between bacteria of the same species in two oceanic gyres. Now we can better understand how these microbes are working to recycle an important nutrient beneath the whitecaps.

Reference: October 11, 2010 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Apr
13
2011

Earth, our place in space
Earth, our place in spaceCourtesy NASA
Life scientists study…well, life. They want to know everything about living things on planet Earth. One of the first things biologists want to know is who’s here. What kinds of plants and animals live in a forest? --or in a field? –or in the ocean?

If you’re an oceanographer who studies marine mammals, perhaps you’d go to sea on a ship with a good pair of binoculars and hunt for whales. As you focused your binoculars you’d be able to see different kinds of whale species. As you looked closer, for example at Humpback Whales, you'd see that each individual whale has a different black-white pattern on its tail. You might even take a biopsy, a small sample of whale flesh, and do a more detailed study of genetic differences among individual Humpbacks.

But what if you’re a microbial oceanographer? You sure can't use binocs to hunt for microbes! How can you study individual differences among tiny creatures that are only one-one-hundredth the width of a human hair? How do you hunt and capture single-celled bacteria, like Prochlorococcus, the most common bacterial species in the world’s ocean?

Invent something!

laser-based micro-fluidic system
laser-based micro-fluidic systemCourtesy C-MORE
Young scientists, Sebastien Rodrigue and Rex Malmstrom, at the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) were doing research in Dr. Sallie Chisholm’s C-MORE lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when they adapted a “laser-based micro-fluidic system” used commonly by medical researchers, for the study of marine bacteria. With this method they could put each individual tiny Prochlorococcus cell into its own little pool of seawater.

And then the excitement began.

Prochlorococcus
ProchlorococcusCourtesy Dr. Anne Thompson, MIT
Even in scanning microscope photographs, each Prochlorococcus looks like just another teeny, tiny balloon; we can't see any individual differences. However, Sebastien and Rex used fast and inexpensive genetic methods and discovered an extraordinary variety of individual differences among Prochlorococcus. Of course the variety among these microbes doesn't have to do with tail patterns, like whales. Prochlorococcus vary in their method of getting nutrients, like iron, out of seawater.

So what? Why do we care?

We care A LOT because microbes like Prochlorococcus are operating at the nitty gritty level of cycling not only iron, but also other elements in the ocean. Like carbon. That's right, as in carbon dioxide accumulating in our atmosphere -- and ocean -- causing climate change and associated problems. The more we understand about individual differences among oceanic microbes, the more we'll understand how they influence and respond to changes in Earth's climate.

Jan
28
2011

ocean micro-plastic: These samples were collected from the surface water of the North Pacific Ocean by the SUPER expedition in 2008.
ocean micro-plastic: These samples were collected from the surface water of the North Pacific Ocean by the SUPER expedition in 2008.Courtesy C-MORE
Who hasn’t heard that plastic in the ocean is trouble?

  • Plastic has been found clogging the stomachs of dead albatross and other ocean birds.
  • Plastic ropes and traps have entangled marine life, causing more death.
  • As a long-lasting chemical, plastic floating in the ocean provides long-distance rafts that may move aggressive alien marine life to new areas.
  • Plastic may provide a “sticky” surface where toxins can accumulate, becoming a concentrated source of poison for marine consumers.
  • A "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" has been reported to be an "island the size of Texas" floating in the North Pacific Ocean...but is this really true? Continue reading to find out!

Yep, plastic in the ocean is bad news; so let’s put scientific energy into studying and solving the problem.

manta trawl: The trawl is hoisted above the stern deck of the RV Kilo Moana.
manta trawl: The trawl is hoisted above the stern deck of the RV Kilo Moana.Courtesy C-MORE
In 2008 C-MORE, the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research & Education headquartered at the University of Hawai`i, with assistance from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, embarked on an oceanographic expedition aboard the RV Kilo Moana, which means "oceanographer" in Hawaiian. The goal of the expedition, dubbed SUPER (Survey of Underwater Plastic and Ecosystem Response Cruise), was to measure the amount of micro-plastic in the ocean. In addition, oceanographers took samples to study microbes and seawater chemistry associated with the ocean plastic. The Kilo Moana sailed right through the area known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” between Hawai`i and California.

Early results: there was no garbage patch/island. Once in a while something like a barnacle-covered plastic buoy would float past the ship, but mostly the ocean looked really clean and empty of any kind of marine debris.

manta trawl: The net is being pulled slowly through the ocean's surface water.
manta trawl: The net is being pulled slowly through the ocean's surface water.Courtesy C-MORE
But wait! Scientists looked closer and were amazed. Every single one of the more than a dozen manta trawls, filtering the surface seawater for an hour and a half each, brought up pieces of micro-plastic! Some were as small as 0.2 millimeter, mixed among zooplankton!

Other expeditions have reported similar results (for example, Scripps Institution of Oceanography's 2009 SEAPLEX expedition and Sea Education Association's North Atlantic Expedition 2010): no Texas-size garbage patches, but plenty of plastic marine debris to worry about. The data seem to show that most of the plastic is in the form of small pieces spread throughout upper levels of water at some locations around the world's ocean. In these areas, the ocean is like a dilute soup of plastic.

Dr. White: examining the results of a manta tow
Dr. White: examining the results of a manta towCourtesy C-MORE
C-MORE researcher Dr. Angelicque (Angel) White, assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State University (OSU) was a scientist on board the SUPER expedition. In recent interviews, (for example: the Corvallis Gazette-Times and Seadiscovery.com) Dr. White cautions us to view the complex plastic marine debris problem accurately. Furthermore, new results will soon be published by C-MORE about microbial diversity and activity on plastic pieces.

In the meantime, as Dr. White says, “…let’s keep working on eliminating plastics from the ocean so one day we can say the worst it ever became was a dilute soup, not islands. “

Plastic in the ocean is trouble. How can you be part of the solution?

Oct
13
2010

Happy as a whale in: ... in whatever.
Happy as a whale in: ... in whatever.Courtesy Ineuw
We love whale poop around here. Love it love it love it. Can’t get enough. It’s fortunate for us that whales poop so much—if you were to get the planet’s daily supply of whale poop in one place, and if you were also in that place, you would suffocate. It’d be awful.

The reason we love whale poop so much is because of its role in what Elton John and I like to call “the circle of life.”

We’ve already discussed how sperm whales have a net negative contribution to atmospheric CO2, because of all the iron in their poop. (The iron rich waste feeds tiny sea creatures, which, in turn, suck up CO2.)

It turns out that whales and their poop are also vital for the nitrogen cycle. Nitrogen is a vital nutrient for ocean life. While some parts of the ocean have too much nitrogen—extra nitrogen from fertilizers washes out through rivers, causing algae to grow out of control and create a dead zone—other areas contain a very small amount nitrogen, and local ecosystem productivity is limited by nitrogen availability.

So what brings more nitrogen to these nitrogen-poor areas? Microorganisms and fish bring it from other parts of the ocean, and release it by dying or going to the bathroom. But, also… whales bring it. Whales bring it by the crapload.

Whales, it turns out, probably play a very heavy role in the nitrogen cycle. And because the nitrogen feeds tiny ocean creatures, and those tiny ocean creatures feed larger ocean creatures, and on and on until we get to fish, more whales (and whale poop) means more fish. And we (humans) love fish.

Commercial whaling over the last several hundred years reduced global whale population to a small fraction of what it once was, but even at their current numbers whales contribute significantly to nitrogen levels in some areas. More whales, the authors of a recent whale poop study say, could help offset the damage humans have done to the oceans and ocean fisheries, while relaxing restrictions on whaling could have much further reaching ramifications than we might expect.

See? Whale poop is the best! (Whales too, I guess.)

Jun
11
2010

Dive in and explore: Discover amazing videos, pictures, and cool ocean stuff, including teacher resources and actions you can take.
Dive in and explore: Discover amazing videos, pictures, and cool ocean stuff, including teacher resources and actions you can take.Courtesy Smithsonian Ocean Portal

Today marks the 100th birthday of the late, great ocean explorer and visionary Jacques Cousteau. How many remember watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” on TV—either as a kid or with their kids? For many of us in the 1960s and 70s, a Cousteau TV special was a major event that brought the whole family together. His programs were how we first came to love and appreciate the marine world and see the effects of human actions. Cousteau was truly ahead of his time, and his conservation ethic is needed more than ever as we tackle problems like climate change, overfishing, pollution, and—of course—the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
We can draw inspiration from his example and take steps to help the ocean. Some of the most important actions you can take involve making changes in your own home, driveway, and workplace. The newly launched Smithsonian Ocean Portal is an award-winning website designed to help people connect with the ocean and “Find Their Blue.” More than 20 organizations have joined forces to build this site as a way to inspire and engage more people in ocean science and issues. Why not start today, as a birthday gift to Cousteau?
Tell us how he inspired you
and learn more about sharks and squids, coral reefs, the deep ocean, the Gulf oil spill, and much more. Dive in and explore!
Colleen Marzec, Managing Producer
Smithsonian Ocean Portal

Dec
26
2009

GOCE Satellite: The Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer
GOCE Satellite: The Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation ExplorerCourtesy ESA
Can it be true? Yes, for a mere $5,544 dollars round-trip airfare to Greenland! In March 2009, the European Space Agency launched the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) into orbit around our planet, which is now transmitting detailed data about the Earth’s gravity. The GOCE satellite uses a gradiometer to map tiny variations in the Earth’s gravity caused by the planet’s rotation, mountains, ocean trenches, and interior density. New maps illustrating gravity gradients on the Earth are being produced from the information beamed back from GOCE. Preliminary data suggests that there is a negative shift in gravity in the northeastern region of Greenland where the Earth’s tug is a little less, which means you might weigh a fraction of a pound lighter there (a very small fraction, so it may not be worth the plane fare)!

In America, NASA and Stanford University are also working on the gravity issue. Gravity Probe B (GP-B) is a satellite orbiting 642 km (400 miles) above the Earth and uses four gyroscopes and a telescope to measure two physical effects of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity on the Earth: the Geodetic Effect, which is the amount the earth warps its spacetime, and the Frame-Dragging Effect, the amount of spacetime the earth drags with it as it rotates. (Spacetime is the combination of the three dimensions of space with the one dimension of time into a mathematical model.)

Quick overview time. The Theory of General Relativity is simply defined as: matter telling spacetime how to curve, and curved spacetime telling matter how to move. Imagine that the Earth (matter) is a bowling ball and spacetime is a trampoline. If you place the bowling ball in the center of the trampoline it stretches the trampoline down. Matter (the bowling ball) curves or distorts the spacetime (trampoline). Now toss a smaller ball, like a marble, onto the trampoline. Naturally, it will roll towards the bowling ball, but the bowling ball isn’t ‘attracting’ the marble, the path or movement of the marble towards the center is affected by the deformed shape of the trampoline. The spacetime (trampoline) is telling the matter (marble) how to move. This is different than Newton’s theory of gravity, which implies that the earth is attracting or pulling objects towards it in a straight line. Of course, this is just a simplified explanation; the real physics can be more complicated because of other factors like acceleration.

Albert Einstein
Albert EinsteinCourtesy none
So what is the point of all this high-tech gravity testing? First of all, our current understanding of the structure of the universe and the motion of matter is based on Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity; elaborate concepts and mathematical equations conceived by a genius long before we had the technology to directly test them for accuracy. The Theory of General Relativity is the cornerstone of modern physics, used to describe the universe and everything in it, and yet it is the least tested of Einstein’s amazing theories. Testing the Frame-Dragging Effect is particularly exciting for physicists because they can use the data about the Earth’s influence on spacetime to measure the properties of black holes and quasars.

Second, the data from the GOCE satellite will help accurately measure the real acceleration due to gravity on the earth, which can vary from 9.78 to 9.83 meters per second squared around the planet. This will help scientists analyze ocean circulation and sea level changes, which are influenced by our climate and climate change. The information that the GOCE beams back will also assist researchers studying geological processes such as earthquakes and volcanoes.

So, as I gobble down another mouthful of leftover turkey and mashed potatoes, I can feel confident that my holiday weight gain and the structure of the universe are of grave importance to the physicists of the world!

Dec
04
2009

Another young scientist: Desperately trying to get his research noticed. But it may already be too late.
Another young scientist: Desperately trying to get his research noticed. But it may already be too late.Courtesy Rrrrred
Hey, Buzzketeers. I’m going to be straight with you up front (I always am):

I haven’t actually seen “The Day After Tomorrow,” even though it will feature prominently in this post. I did see the preview, however, and I know the title, so I’m confident that I can sum the film up pretty accurately.

The is how The Day After Tomorrow goes, more or less:

The kid from Spiderman, Peter Parker, is a young scientist trying to make a name for himself in the big city. He has a crippling fear of wolves. Trying to be a famous scientist, however, is a lot like trying to be a Hollywood celebrity: there are a million other kids out there just like you, except that some of them are better looking with bigger muscles, or more feminine ankles, so you have to be willing to act a little crazy, or go on camera naked.

Peter Parker, fortunately, opts for the “act a little crazy” route. He soaks up a couple red bull-vodkas and starts researching. After 7 panicked days and 6 insane nights, Peter says, “Check it out! The Day After Tomorrow, the poop is really going to hit the fan!” But the scientific community was all, “Whatever, Parker. Take that shirt off, and let’s get you on camera.” They were so preoccupied with the thought of Peter’s scientist muscles that they failed to realize that he was right! Like two sick bears squatting on an airboat, the poop was really about to hit the fan.

Sure enough, Peter Parker’s discovery proved to be accurate. The planet’s ocean currents went all haywire, and a couple days later things got really cold and stupid. Peter Parker, despite being shirtless at this point, was more prepared for the situation than everyone else, and he grabbed a sled and went to rescue a friend of his, possibly a beautiful woman or man, who was trapped in an elevator behind some very impressive icicles. Along the way, Peter had to avoid the many wolves that immediately moved into the frozen cities in search of delicious, un-canned human food, but once he rescued his beautiful friend the wolves could no longer be dodged. After a 45-minute-long wolf-fighting scene, Peter emerged bloody and victorious. He had truly conquered this world of the day after tomorrow!

It’s a little silly isn’t it? I mean, everyone knows that ocean currents are vital for spreading heat across the planet, and moderating higher latitude climates. Duh. Surface water is warmed in the tropics, and is pushed into currents by regular wind patterns and the rotation of the Earth. As it reaches colder seas, the water releases heat and moisture into the atmosphere. Colder and saltier now (because the salt in water doesn’t evaporate), the water is denser, and it sinks down to join deeper currents, where it will flow thousands of miles around the planet, before eventually returning to the tropics to be warmed again. Tada. And, of course, shortly after the end of the last ice age, a huge, cold, freshwater glacial lake burst its shores and spilled into the north Atlantic, halting this water cycle and disrupting the Gulf Stream current to plunge the Earth into another thousand years of coldness. But that sort of thing couldn’t happen the day after tomorrow, could it? Noooo. We all know that. It would take years for such a tremendous change in climate to occur. What a silly movie.

Or… maybe not. A new study from the University of Saskatchewan suggests that the story of Peter and the Wolves may not be as far fetched as we all thought. Based on lake core samples, the research seems to indicate that the drastic cooling, at least in Europe, could have occurred over a period as short as just a few weeks, not over the space of years, as was previously accepted.

Lake cores are samples of the deep mud and sediment at the bottoms of lakes, and they’re surprisingly useful for telling what happened above a lake a long time ago. Think about it—if things got really windy, for example, lots of dust and dirt would be blown onto the lake, and it would eventually settle down to the bottom, forming a unique layer. Or if all the plants nearby died suddenly, you’d probably see less pollen in the layer deposited at that time. Scientists can even look at the isotopes of the atoms in lake core layers to learn about what was happening at the time—carbon isotopes can show how much stuff was alive in the lake, and oxygen isotopes can indicate local temperature and rainfall. Examining cores from a very old lake in Ireland, the researchers discovered that the transition to the Younger Dryas period (the sudden return to ice age-like conditions) happened very suddenly, perhaps in as short a time as a month. Peter Parker was right! Peter Parker was right!

As I understand it, though, this rapid and severe change hinges on the North Atlantic Current (the Gulf Stream) being totally shut down very quickly. Cold fresh water released by melting icecaps could very likely affect weather patterns, but something on this scale would require a fairly catastrophic event—some scientists suggest that the Younger Dryas could have been triggered by some sort of extra-terrestrial impact, although the theory is heavily debated.

Still, if some hot young scientist approaches you with some hot young ideas, don’t immediately insist that he take his shirt off—he might be saying something worthwhile