Maine researchers, teacher embark on scientific cruise

Wed, 01/15/2020 - 4:00pm

A unique educational opportunity launches on Jan. 24, when a Maine teacher sets sail for the Southern Ocean as part of a Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences team. This partnership with the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance’s “WeatherBlur” education project will bring the experience of an ocean research cruise to students in Maine and beyond.

“Research cruises are tremendously exciting, and sharing that excitement is a great way to interest students in science,” said Senior Research Scientist Barney Balch. “The ocean is endlessly fascinating, and learning about its vital role is essential to understanding life on Earth.”

Marci Train, a teacher at the two-room Long Island School in Casco Bay, will join Balch and several other Bigelow Laboratory scientists in order to engage students throughout the National Science Foundation-funded cruise. The research team aims to investigate how algae in the Southern Ocean may be affecting the future of sea life as far away as the Northern Hemisphere.

Throughout the cruise, Train will connect frequently with students in Maine and beyond. She will conduct video tours of the ship to show what a day at sea looks like, post learning materials on the WeatherBlur website, and share photos on social media. She will also assist with scientific operations and help conduct experiments.

“I can’t wait to have a first-hand experience with a scientific research project, and I think it is important for teachers to show their students that you are never too old to learn new information,” Train said. “It is important to get out of your comfort zone and share your own learning experiences with your students.”

Coccolithophores are a common type of algae that help form the base of ocean food webs, and they play a significant role in global chemical and carbon cycles. Balch recently found that they are remarkably scarce in the fertile waters near the equator, and his team aims to learn why during this cruise.

The Southern Ocean and equator are connected by an important ocean layer called “Sub-Antarctic mode water,” which forms at the surface of the Southern Ocean, sinks, and flows to the equator over a 40-year journey. Balch suspects that booming coccolithophore populations in the Southern Ocean are depleting its supply of essential nutrients before Sub-Antarctic mode water flows north, making the water layer sub-optimal for coccolithophore growth by the time it reaches the equator.

While at sea, the team will use satellite imagery to locate eddies rich in coccolithophores, whose chalk shells are so reflective that they can be seen from space. By measuring water properties in these eddies and collecting water to conduct onboard experiments, the researchers hope to uncover how coccolithophores in the Southern Ocean are altering this important source of nutrients before its long journey towards the equator.

“Sub-Antarctic mode water travels far north from where it forms, and it exerts a staggering level of control on much of the global ocean,” Balch said. “If coccolithophores are changing its essential properties, then they could be influencing which species grow in food webs as far away as the equator or even in the Northern Hemisphere.”

The team will use a creative approach to calculate how fast this water layer changes. The ship will follow Sub-Antarctic mode water for more than 1,000 miles on its journey to the Indian Ocean. As they measure the water’s basic properties, they will also collect samples at depth to measure freons, manufactured refrigerants that can be found throughout the environment.

Freons have constantly changed since their invention in the 1950s – a fact that today allows scientists to detect when water was last at the surface and exposed to freons in the atmosphere. Back on shore, a team from the University of Miami will determine which types of freons are present in different parcels of Sub-Antarctic mode water along the ship’s transect.

“Freons are a great timekeeper for the age of water,” Balch said. “We'll use their time signatures to figure out how long it took a sample of Sub-Antarctic mode water to arrive where we found it, and to understand how quickly the water is changing as it's moving north.”

The researchers will investigate these questions over 38 days aboard the RV Thomas Thompson. The team will depart from South Africa and return to the island of Mauritius in early March. The Bigelow Laboratory Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts will post updates during the cruise, as will the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance’s Twitter and Facebook accounts.

This cruise is the latest research topic to be explored by WeatherBlur, an online citizen science community funded by National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The project brings together students, teachers, community members, and scientists, who collaborate to ask questions, design scientific investigations, and bring back data and findings to discuss with each other.

Currently, WeatherBlur engages six Maine schools, as well as two schools from Mississippi and one school from Alabama. Train’s outreach from the cruise will be followed by more than 1,300 students and 26 teachers.

“I think this will be a wonderful opportunity for students to see all the different career options onboard a research vessel, including positions in research and on the crew,” Train said. “It’s important that students are exposed to STEM in action, and I can’t wait for them to be immersed in this experience and see how big scientific questions get answered.”