The Great Calcite Belt is a particularly reflective region of the Southern Ocean, seen as a distinctly bright band encircling Antarctica. Some scientists (not all) believe that high amounts of calcite (the same mineral in coral) in the surface ocean cause it to appear as it does. Hence, the Great Calcite Belt lies somewhere between idea and proof. The belt itself undoubtedly exists, but the calcite that it produces remains the scientist’s test.
From now until March 23 a crew of scientists and ship engineers will traverse the Southern part of the Indian Ocean to investigate the existence of the Calcite Belt. My role in this expedition is carbon, arguably one of the most sought after elements in the history of industrialism and environmental advocacy. While humans have pumped massive gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for the last 150 years, ocean biology has re-absorbed a fraction of it into its own mass. Like plants, marine plankton at the sea surface breathe in carbon dioxide and store the carbon in their own bodies. They die. They get eaten by bigger things. They sink deeper. The plankton-borne carbon that actually reaches the deepest parts of the ocean stays locked up for hundreds to thousands of years, unable to act as a greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.
For those concerned with the warming climate, the fraction of carbon dioxide that is soaked up by ocean biology is an important number. I spent much of my college years learning about the updated estimates of this number, but also found that with the sheer size of the oceans, new sea measurements add unique pieces to the puzzle. What new pieces will this ocean venture on the Roger Revelle bring? How may the existence of a calcite belt in the Southern Ocean affect sinking carbon in this region? How can observations from one cruise track in one part of one ocean basin influence traditionally global perspectives of ocean carbon?
Other questions that I will investigate over the next five weeks are:
-How can I learn to salsa dance on a boat?
-If I am a good ping-pong player on land, does that mean I am an equally good ping-pong player on the ocean?
-What foods will I miss most being away from my terrestrial home?
-What is the best way to remember how to tie a knot (so far, my educated hypothesis is that three different teachers is most effective).
Through these weeks on the Revelle, some questions will be answered better than others, while some questions may prove feasibly impossible. I may never get to practice salsa dancing, for example. But, if I secure a few hours on the ping-pong table in the main laboratory, I may just have enough results to report.