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Welcome to Atlantis and the quest for nitrogen

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Editor’s Note: Journalist and crew member Kathryn Eident and scientist Jeremy Jacquot are traveling on board the RV Atlantis on a monthlong voyage to sample and study nitrogen fixation in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, among other research projects. This is the first blog post detailing this ongoing voyage of discovery for Scientific American.com.

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It’s momentarily quiet in the computer lab as a cluster of scientists stare intently at a computer monitor, watching thin lines of red, blue, green and brown slowly appear on a grid.

"Is this the right measurement?" one scientist asks another, his finger pointing at one of the squiggly lines on the screen.

Suddenly the group erupts into chatter as someone runs to get a printout with yesterday’s readings. The measurements are right on, and the group heaves a collective sigh of relief. The day is off to a good start, and everyone disperses to their collective spaces to analyze and log the myriad of data they’re collecting.

These scientists are not hidden away in some lab on a verdant university campus; they are at sea on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution ship Atlantis, and they are hundreds of miles from land. The instrument they’re monitoring is collecting chlorophyll, oxygen, sea temperature and salinity levels deep within the southern Pacific Ocean, and this information will help them form a picture of what this stretch of ocean looks like on a microscopic level.

The scientists are looking for a number of indicators, but they’re mainly searching the water column in an attempt to understand which organisms are converting nitrogen into a usable form in a place called the Eastern Tropical South Pacific zone (ETSP).

Nitrogen is considered to be a basic building block of life, but it’s not readily usable since its atoms are held together tightly in a triple bond. But if nitrogen is converted into a form such as nitrate, microorganisms can flourish. They can even form blooms so large they are visible from space. Scientists are trying to understand the nitrogen cycle in both the marine environment and on a global scale.

For Chief Scientist Doug Capone (USC), this trip is just one in a series of voyages aimed at understanding how nitrogen fixation—or the conversion of nitrogen into other forms—affects overall nitrogen levels in marine environments. To do this, Capone has assembled a team of 28 scientists, from post-doctorates to graduate and undergraduate students, to help him collect and analyze hundreds of samples while at sea for more than 30 days.

Capone and his team are trying to answer a host of questions, such as: How much nitrogen enters the ocean? How does it get there? What happens to it once it gets there? And, how much eventually gets removed or recycled back into the atmosphere?

Answers to these questions may help scientists understand nitrogen’s relationship to the carbon cycle and its role in global warming.

But not everyone aboard the Atlantis is concerned with nitrogen fixation alone. Of 28 scientists on board, some are interested in tracking trace metals in the water column, while others are concerned with filtering and preserving the RNA of various organisms to study back in the lab at home. Still others are contributing data to Capone’s project, while also building their own research papers on the side.

Throughout this month-long voyage, we will describe and document this research as well as what its like to live at sea. We’ll hear from scientists as they work, we’ll examine the types of equipment they use and discuss their findings as they develop. We’ll also take a look at what life is like sharing tight quarters with nearly 60 people for more than a month. There is a lot going on—so be sure to check back in!

Image: RV Atlantis sits at anchor off the coast of Iquique, Chile.

 

 





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