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Steaming North: how the scientists are trying to find plankton

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


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June 16th, 2012

We’ve set sail! Here’s proof:

You can also tell by this graph of the ship’s speed over the last few days.

The few hours before we set off were full of tying down all the science equipment and negotiating with customs officials to get a piece of equipment that had been shipped.

If I had live Tweeted our departure, it would have gone something like this:

@roseveleth: Customs finally arrives with the box that’s been sitting in the Ponta Delgada airport for a week.

@roseveleth: Untying some of the ropes keeping us tethered to the dock.

@roseveleth: Now the gangway is being lifted, last chance to abandon ship without getting wet!

@roseveleth: We’re pulling away. What the heck am I thinking? Land! I like land! Is it too late to swim back?

@roseveleth: This boat has a great turning radius — better than my parents’ Suburban. Away we go!

Now we’re at sea, surrounded by nothing but the horizon. To find our way, the captain uses a complex navigational system. But how do we decide where to go? Satellites! Here’s a satellite image that we’re using to plan our journey.

It’s may look confusing, but let me explain   The very bottom layer of the map is just a Google Earth image of our location. You can see the Azores outlined faintly in white. I’ve labeled Ponta Delgada, the island from which we departed.

Next, the colorful layer shows a satellite image of chlorphyll a, the chemical that plants use to photosynthesize. Where there’s more chlorophyll a, there are bound to be more plankton.

On top of that are all the arrows. Those represent currents and ocean height. I had no idea that the ocean isn’t always the same height. In my mind it’s a big, flat expanse with some waves. Have you ever heard of a hill in the ocean? Turns out the ocean isn’t the exact same height everywhere. There are higher and lower points, and those tend to be markers of eddies where cold or warm water is circulating. (If you’re imagining a death whirlpool, don’t worry — I asked, it’s not like that at all.) These “cyclonic eddies” are often great places to find phytoplankton. And phytoplankton are what we’re after!  So this map is really useful to help us figure out where to go.

A few other points on the map include our departure point, Ponta Delgada, and where one of our gliders is. The team here uses these little torpedo-like sensors to move through the water and collect information about the ocean (more on that in a future post!). Gliders can stay at a constant depth, or move up and down in the water as they travel.

This glider was deployed about a month ago from another island in the Azores, but it aborted its mission about half way through. Now it’s floating on the surface of the water, and we’re heading to pick it up. We have two other gliders on the boat that we’ll deploy and pick up along the way.

So the plan is to steam north, pick up the glider, and stop in that eddy labeled “stopping point.” There, the scientists will sample water, and do a bunch of experiments. I’ll talk more about those experiments in a few days when I figure out what they are. For now, we’re steaming ahead and land is nowhere in sight.

Remember, you can ask me questions using the form below, and I’ll try to answer them (or find someone else on the boat who can). Ask us anything!

Rose Eveleth About the Author: Rose Eveleth is a producer, designer, writer and animator based in Brooklyn. She's got a degree in ecology from U.C. San Diego, and a masters in journalism from NYU. Now, she makes sciencey stuff for places like The New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider and OnEarth. Follow on Twitter @roseveleth.

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





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