Kyle spotting Frank’s genomics experiment. Fire extinguisher never far from flame.
This time of year, prevailing summer winds push surface seawater away from the North American west coast, leaving room for deeper waters to rise to the surface. This upwelled water from the deep Northeast Pacific Ocean is chemically unique: cold, salty, and old. If you ever swam at the beach in California, Oregon, Washington or Vancouver Island, consider that some of this seawater has not seen the surface for a thousand years.
Most likely, when this seawater left the surface ocean, it brought with it some of the organic matter produced by phytoplankton living there. And, since residing in the deeper sea, bacteria decomposed this organic matter, releasing its building blocks, a lot of dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus, back into the water. These building blocks are the nutrients that fuel photosynthesis. Deep in the ocean, there are no algae to use those nutrients, but when this water finally resurfaces on the west coast of North America, it delivers the nutrients to the algae waiting there, stimulating spurts of population growth, sometimes massive blooms. Because algae are the foundation of the ocean food chain, we can also thank upwelling for the rich fisheries of the west coast.
Algae blooms are so transient, rising and falling within weeks, that few chemical oceanographers get the chance to find them in the field and stay there long enough to observe all the biological and chemical changes in seawater that result from these blooms. In our last phase on Oceanus, we will use all of our remaining time to follow a parcel of recently upwelled water, easily noticeable by its cold, salty nature, as it slowly spreads out through the ocean surface. When we found that water today, we quickly dropped a drifter, a 30 foot net that caught onto the water mass for us and now relays its GPS location so that we know to stay close by. By entraining our ship and all our instruments on top of this water mass, we hope to witness the onset of an algae bloom and monitor it through the course of its life.
With this opportunity, there are many hypotheses to test: the algae species that grow, the amount of biomass that dies and sinks into the deeper ocean (again), the concentration of cells that remain at the surface, the amount of DMS production. All these hypotheses demand several types of measurements, and we have to collect them all frequently through the next six days—sometimes once every four hours. Now, the main lab on Oceanus overflows with color-coded spreadsheets, Nina’s creations, organizing people’s water sampling burdens and implicitly, all of our sleep schedules.
The only time we stop is tomorrow morning, which Ron reminded me is when we get to see the first total eclipse in all of North America! But, even then, we aren’t really stopping, as several scientists on board are using the eclipse to learn about marine life’s sensitivity to changes in light.