January 1, 2009
Today we are near the end of our journey that began one month ago today when most of us arrived in Montevideo, Uruguay. Barney's (Dr. Balch) primary mission to study coccolithophore blooms in the Patagonian Shelf region has certainly been accomplished. Barney has a passion to study these small microscopic creatures of our vast oceans. People like Dr. Balch who are tirelessly looking for answers to big questions in a very tiny creature can give us all hope that science will triumph over adversity. Along with Barney, co-workers Dave Drapeau and Bruce Bowler of Bigelow Labs are studying these tiny creatures to find answers to big problems that are facing the earth and humanity in this day we live in. As I arrived on the ship in Montevideo on Monday, December 1st, Dave Drapeau was already hard at work preparing the onboard lab, which involved varying the amount of CO2 that each carboy would receive to measure how this may impact coccolithophores. Dave repeated the experiment for a total of five times during the cruise. Each lab exercise would last for three days on the fantail of the REVELLE. Each day samples would be given out to other scientists who were measuring a varied assortment of parameters relating to the carbon levels and the coccolithophores development. Dave also measured the pH of each carboy every time a sample was taken. As we end this part of the cruise the scientists will pack everything away and ship the stored samples back to their labs around the world. The intensive long process of taking the samples and gathering much scientific data will begin. At the end of the whole process, labs from around the globe that have participated in the study will put the results together in a data bank so that other scientist can share in the wealth of data collected. Conclusions may be drawn about the overall impact of increased CO2 rates in earth's atmosphere on the coccolithophore, other marine organisms, our oceans, and our planet as a whole. The carboy experiments are hoped to show how rising levels of CO2 in our planet's atmosphere will impact populations of marine organisms in our oceans. The oceans of our planet remove most of the CO2 emitted by man, far more than do trees and other plants. Coccolithophores are tiny microscopic organisms that form scale like shells as an outer surface by removing carbon from the water. Off the Patagonian Shelf this process is repeated and is at its peak during the month of December, which is summer time in the southern hemisphere. The carboy experiment was set up to closely match real conditions in the oceans. It is feared that the rising CO2 levels in the earth's atmosphere will eventually make our oceans more acidic. The increase in acidity could cause the coccolithophore to quit producing their scale like outer surface. This surface does not only take excess carbon out of the oceans and eventually sequesters it to the bottom of the ocean, but also reflects much more sunlight back into the atmosphere than ocean waters without coccolithophores present. The reflection of sunlight helps to slow down the warming of the oceans in much the same way as our poles ice packed surfaces reflect much of the sun's rays that reach the surface. If the coccolithophore is not able to adapt to rising carbon levels in the earth's oceans, the earth could begin to warm even more rapidly that it is at present. It may be several years before we know the full impact of this cruise.
I talked to Dave about how he felt about the onboard coccolithophore carboy experiment. Dave was pleased with the logistics of the operation and how the equipment and setup performed. Dave designed the engineered the whole setup, from the crates, twelve carboys, CO2 lines, in and out water system, as well as the dilution experiments. The experiment was run five separate times, each time we became a little more proficient at distributing the samples to the other scientist on board, commented Dave. Samples were taken at the beginning from a CTD cast in surface water, and at 24 hours, 48 hours, and again at 72 hours. It will be many months before all the samples have revealed their data, but preliminary results show that the lab exercise as carried out aboard the REVELLE's fantail was successful. Now we all wait for the data collection and analysis. It will certainly be interesting to find out how the CO2 concentrations affected coccolithophore development and how this may correlate to the future of the coccolithophore, our oceans, and our planet.Questions of the Day: (answers in previous journals)