Searching for Answers at Sea: 2016 West Coast Ocean Acidification Cruise

Jenny WoodmanOriginal, Women in STEM 2016

NOAA’s 2016 Ocean Acidification Cruise was an unprecedented voyage with scientists collaborating to understand a changing ocean environment.

NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown. Image Credit: Meghan Shea

NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown. Image Credit: Meghan Shea

“We are presently conducting the biggest experiment in human history on our global atmosphere, ocean, and terrestrial ecosystems,” according to Dr. Simone Alin, supervisory oceanographer for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Marine Environment Laboratory (NOAA PMEL).   

To understand the implication of this experiment, NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown set sail in May from San Diego, bound for Baja, California. From there, an interdisciplinary team of researchers spent five weeks collecting data while traveling north to British Columbia as part of the 2016 West Coast Ocean Acidification Cruise. Alin coordinated the cruise and served as chief scientist for the first leg of the trip; the second leg was led by NOAA PMEL Senior Scientist Richard Feely.

The voyage represented an unprecedented effort to understand how human-induced climate change and ocean acidification are affecting the health of one of Earth’s most valuable resources: our oceans. It is now understood that oceans absorb about a quarter of the carbon dioxide (CO2) generated by human activity, and this CO2 is altering ocean chemistry – negatively impacting marine life and habitats in ways scientists are working to understand.

Several smaller ocean acidification cruises have occurred in recent years, starting in 2007. But this was the first time researchers have been able to integrate biogeochemistry and ecosystem studies into one, large-scale cruise.

According to Alin, while the NOAA PMEL group has worked with other researchers in the past, the space on the boat and the length of the West Coast voyage allowed for greater collaboration than previous trips. For example, by connecting ocean chemistry to biology, scientists studying harmful algal blooms (HABs) may be able to find connections between pH levels, warmer temperatures and how fast HABs grow as well as how these linkages impact toxicity levels.

Seventeen institutions, five countries, 13 students, and three postdoctoral researchers participated. Seventeen of the 36 people who sailed were women.

Dr. Simone Alin standing by the Conductivity Temperature Depth (CTD) Rosette. The CTD collected water samples throughout the voyage; it is used to measure salinity, temperature, depth and concentration of particles in the water column. Image Credit: Julian Herndon

Dr. Simone Alin standing by the Conductivity Temperature Depth (CTD) Rosette. The CTD collected water samples throughout the voyage; it is used to measure salinity, temperature, depth and concentration of particles in the water column. Image Credit: Julian Herndon

For Alin, the biggest challenge with orchestrating such a large endeavor was determining what each scientist would need to do his or her work.

“It was so broad that so much of it was outside of my area of expertise; I didn’t even know what questions to ask,” Alin explained. “There were so many pieces to put together that I thought my brain was going to explode.”

Alin adds that if you don’t know what is involved in the scientist’s research, it isn’t easy to anticipate needs like cold storage or deionized water. But, in the end, a year’s worth of preparation worked and the voyage yielded fruitful collaborations between researchers studying ocean acidification, temperature, oxygen levels, HABs, marine organisms and coastal habitats.

“It was certainly one of our goals to get better integrated and have more of a biogeochemistry and ecosystem focused cruise,” said Alin. “Because without really putting the two together, who cares if the chemistry is changing if you’re not linking it to biological impacts.”

For many of the scientists on board, it was a rare opportunity to see what their colleagues were up to in similar, but different research areas.
“The stations at the Columbia River blew me away,” Brendan Carter, NOAA PMEL mission scientist, explained on a blog documenting the trip. “I’m an open-ocean oceanographer and I have very stark opinions about how the ocean chemistry should be, and those stations shattered my mind.”
“The low salinity, the organic gunk, our sensors were going crazy. It was a mess. But a fun mess, and I loved it. I gained a lot of respect for coastal oceanographers.”

Carter’s research at sea focused on measuring CO2 while looking at the complex interaction between CO2 molecules and seawater.

Deploying a vertical net at sunset. Image Credit: Meghan Shea

Deploying a vertical net at sunset. Image Credit: Meghan Shea

For students, the cruise gave them a first-hand glimpse at what goes into conducting science at sea. Meghan Shea is an environmental engineering student at Stanford University and a Hollings Scholar interning under Alin for the summer. Shea was tasked with helping run the cruise blog.

Normal shifts on the ship were 12 hours long, so Shea focused on research for eight hours, and used her remaining time to take photos, interview scientists, and write updates for the public.

“It was a great way for me to be involved with the cruise because I was able to connect with all the different scientists on the ship. It was fun to put things into a context for the general public,” Shea said.

University of South Florida College of Marine Science graduate student Erin Cuyler shared similar sentiments: “I feel like you’re a part of something bigger. Like we’re each doing our own little portion of science that’s going to combine into a bigger, awesome picture.”

Alin, who was drawn to oceanography after a fifth grade field trip to the Oregon coast, finds the cooperative nature of working with other NOAA researchers and partner organizations beneficial for everyone involved. “Sharing the responsibility and having people to brainstorm with, it definitely makes us stronger as scientists individually, to work that closely with others,” she said.

And it isn’t easy work. The summer of 2015’s epic HAB along the West Coast, combined with a mysterious mass of warm water nicknamed The Blob were low points for Alin.

“I have five-year-old kids,” she said. “I can’t believe I brought children into this world – I do have those moments. But, I think that’s pretty common in the climate science community nowadays.”

While the results can be troubling, she acknowledges the thrill of discovery, when she is able to figure out what is happening. CO2 chemistry keeps her going: “It is sort of meaty and complicated enough to keep you interested for a long time and also to still stump you some 15 years into the field; you have to still really think things through.”

With last summer looming in her mind, she was relieved and surprised to see things were relatively all right this year. They did observe warmer temperatures and concentrations of calcium carbonate, used by some marine species to build their shells or skeletons, which were lower than ideal. Feely writes in the voyage blog, “Coupled with the ever-increasing acidification due to anthropogenic CO2 emissions, the region was under the strong influence of the combined stressors of warming and acidification.”
But, what they witnessed was nothing compared to last year’s phenomena; the economic impacts of which are still being calculated. Alin emphasizes, “It was good that we didn’t see anything shocking – that was kind of what I wanted to see.”

As for the results of this cruise, Alin and her colleagues will keep looking at the data, integrating it into existing information, and searching for larger patterns to help us understand the impacts of human activity on the largest ecosystem on Earth. And, in spite of the Herculean efforts to organize a cruise like this, Alin is already looking forward to the next one in 2019.
Jenny Woodman is a science writer and Writing Club Coordinator for Earthzine. Follow her on Twitter @JennyWoodman.