Science as Usual

While our coverage so far has focused on the subsurface monitoring efforts in the Gulf of Mexico, we’re also still going about our everyday science business.  The NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown is currently underway to discover and characterize deep-water coral communities in the Gulf of Mexico.

This is the fourth cruise in a four-year project to conduct a variety of experiments and analyses that will help us to predict where other communities will be found, and to understand why we find them where we do. This project is sponsored by the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, a division of the Department of the Interior. The scientists involved come from several universities, including Florida State, Louisiana State, Temple and Penn State, as well as from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the US Geological Survey.

You can follow this mission at Lophelia II 2010: Oil Seeps and Deep Reefs

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Video Update on Subsurface Monitoring Progress

NOAA’s Dr. Janet Baran, a Deepwater Horizon oil spill responder, talks about sub-sea and sub-surface monitoring operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

Posted in News, Sediment Sampling, Water Sampling | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Ocean Veritas – Reflections at the end of a cruise

We are close to wrapping up our sub-surface sampling work in the Gulf of Mexico here on the Ocean Veritas. The last several days have been a haul. We’ve had clear, quiet weather—perfect for sediment sampling—and we have been able to get through a lot of our assigned sampling sites.

 

Sediment sample up close

Sediment sample up close

 

Last weekend three of our team members that started this cruise with us back in September headed home to their day jobs, including our Chief Scientist Ian Hartwell of NOAA. He was replaced by Frank Coluccio also of NOAA. It was bittersweet to see part of our team leave since we’ve really found our rhythm and have learned how to work well together. Everyone on board worked hard, was willing to learn and listen, and was very interested in obtaining accurate data, and everyone feels privileged to have been a part of this mission.

 

Warapping up work

Wrapping it up

 

We have a few more days out at sea before we all get to head back into port for good. As our work comes to a close, Ian Hartwell summed up the cruise in his own words:

Like any good research project we have created as many questions as we have answered. Is there material on the bottom that appears to have come from the blowout? Yes, but this is consistent with data from other spills (such as the Ixtoc I spill of 1979). As for the composition of the material we’ve found and whether or not it’s toxic: we don’t have answers to these questions yet, and will wait on chemical, microbial, bioassay, and benthic infaunal analyses results from the labs to make those determinations. But, there are other questions too: How will the spill impact the ecosystem in the long run? What are the more subtle impacts it will have beyond direct toxicological effects? How widespread has it been deposited on the bottom? Will it move with subsurface currents or stay in place? As an empirical scientist, I find these and other questions to be of great interest, and they will no doubt keep scientists from NOAA and other public and private organizations going back to sea for some time to come.

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Ocean Veritas – Rough seas and pulling in our last few samples

Things are winding down here on the Ocean Veritas. Currently we are finishing up the last of our work so that we can head back into port tomorrow.

 

Samples being carried off the ship in a cooler

Samples being carried off the ship in a cooler

 

Last Monday we were in at Port Fourchon, where we off-loaded the lab. Our lab was basically a large conex box (like the kind of shipping containers you see on the backs of semi-trucks) that held our chemistry equipment and microtox machine. Not having those machines on board has made the last few days simpler since we’re no longer running any samples on board.

 

Crew members get soaked as we pull the multi-corer in from a sample drop.

Crew members get soaked as we pull the multi-corer in from a sample drop

 

We’ve had some rough weather lately which makes sampling near-impossible. Rough seas increase the chances that the multi-corer will get knocked around as we deploy it or bring it up. We also get soaked in the process.  So, we used our spare time to catch up on work and (of course) sleep.

But yesterday we were finally able to do some sampling near the well head. We saw some sheen on the water in the samples we pulled up. We also had one core which appeared to contain some dark substance which smelled a little like kerosene. Of course, we can’t be sure of anything until the sample analyses are back, and there are all kinds of natural oil seeps on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.  But it’s always interesting to see what we pull up from 1000 meters down on the sea floor.

Tomorrow we head back into port where most of the crew will say goodbye to the Ocean Veritas.

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Gyre – ROBIO shows us these aren’t your typical backyard Pill Bugs

We are in port this morning offloading samples, restocking, and changing over some of our team, including our chief scientist. We say farewell to Neil Summer of Ecolyse who has expertly guided this expedition for the past month or so. And, we say hello to our new Chief Scientist Oscar Garcia. (We’ll introduce Oscar in more detail in a future post.)

 

Mexican Rattail fish

Mexican Rattail Fish

 

Today, however, we’d like to introduce you to ROBIO (Robust Biodiversity) lander—our underwater autonomous photographic lander. Thomas Linley is a marine biologist from Oceanlab at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He is on board the Gyre for the sole purpose of deploying, monitoring, and analyzing the data returned from ROBIO. Thom has taken ROBIO all over the world on various sea expeditions. We deployed the underwater camera over the weekend and took some interesting pictures that can tell us lots about the deep sea environment. Here, Thom tells us what exactly ROBIO does and why the information it gathers is useful.

How does ROBIO work?

 

Deep-sea red crabs fighting over bait

Deep-sea red crabs fighting over bait

 

The ROBIO lander is a baited, underwater camera. We deploy ROBIO near the well head, and with the help of weights it sinks to the sea floor where it sits for 16 hours. It has a digital camera and flash on board taking a photo every minute. It also has a current meter, a CTD, and a reference cross (metal bars with centimeter markers so that fish can be measured).  These tools help us log the environmental parameters of wherever ROBIO comes to rest on the sea floor. The lander also has air-filled glass floats on board that help it return to the surface when we tell it to.

What kind of data are you gathering?

 

Giant isopod (Pill Bug) and cutthroat eels. The Pill Bug is about the size of a small cat.

Giant isopod (Pill Bug) and cutthroat eels. The Pill Bug is about the size of a small cat.

 

From the photos themselves we can get a species list. When we’ve got the reference cross in view, we can also measure the fish and compare differences in species assemblages and in the size of the animals between different sites. But then, we can get a little bit interesting. We can use the current meter data to plot the odor plume—how far the smell of the bait has gone out into the water. By allowing the animals to feed on the bait we can see how long and how much they eat, before they wander off and get bored. This can indicate how much available food is in the area: if they have enough to eat and food isn’t their top priority or if they’re starving and they’ll eat as much as they can.

Using optimum foraging theory, we can determine how the deep sea animals are looking for their next meal. In a nutshell, optimum foraging theory helps explain how animals have evolved to get the maximum amount of food while using the minimum amount of energy. They don’t just search randomly for food. With this information, we can start to make comparisons about how many fish are in the area.

What does that have to do with the possibility of oil on the ocean floor?

 

ROBIO and what we believe to be a Rudis Rattail fish

ROBIO and what Thom believes to be a Rudis Rattail fish

 

These are the mobile organisms—the ones that could move to another part of the Gulf if they needed to. If these animals don’t have what they need where they are due to an increase of oil in their environment for example, they go find another place that can sustain their life. Our goal is to generate some nice images and gather data on the megafauna – the larger animals – which we haven’t really looked at yet in this sediment coring activity.

We will most likely be heading back out to sea tonight or tomorrow. Check back soon for our next update from sea!

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Ocean Veritas – Back to the Deepwater Horizon well head

We spent the weekend bobbing around the Gulf of Mexico on seas that were about six feet tall—too big for us to sample safely. Many of us were relieved to have a break from sampling since it gave us a chance to catch up on sample processing and data management; not to mention sleep.  After the weather had calmed down, we sampled at two stations and then skipped to sample at several closer to the well head.

We were also given a change in course over the weekend. Since we have one of only a couple multi-corers on ships sampling out in the Gulf, we are heading out to the deep water to sample while ships with box corers will be sampling closer in toward shore. This is because box corers are less predictable to use in deeper water.

Today we were able to get in a full day of sampling (Seven stations!). More bad weather is expected, so we’re trying to work fast before that hits. Wednesday we’re due back in port where we will do the usual restocking and sample off-loading and some of our crew members (including our on-board chemists) will rotate off the ship.

Meanwhile, we continue to marvel at our surroundings including these curious Mahi Mahi that swam next to our boat for an hour.

Mahi Mahi swim alongside the ship

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International Peace – CTD, Fluorometry, Sediment, Oh My!

Today the sea is a field of oil rigs. But, depending on where we are there are occasional curious-looking brown pelicans and blood-orange sunsets to enjoy.

A pelican comes in for some aerial monitoring

A pelican comes in for some aerial monitoring

After a few days in port due to mechanical issues and a crew change, we set sail in the early morning hours last Thursday, through the Southwest Passage to the Gulf of Mexico. With Captain George at the wheel, we headed west of the well head to begin our sediment sampling operations. Our skilled, sampling crew consists of four scientists: Lead Sampler Ken Cerreto of Exponent, Carl Johnsen also of Exponent, and John Kizhakethil and Ed Atkin both of Oil Spill Response.

Ken Cerrito conducts a surface water sample with a backdrop of oil rigs

Ken Cerrito conducts a surface water sample with a backdrop of oil rigs

The scientists work together at each station to conduct CTD and fluorometry casts. To do this, a CTD and fluorometer are lowered together by a ship-side winch. The devices are lowered and raised three times through the water column. Next, those devices are removed from the winch and Go Flow containers (containers for collecting water samples) are loaded onto the winch. The Go Glow containers collect water samples at the mid-depth and bottom of the water column.  The samplers are lowered to the appropriate depth and then opened to collect the sample when they’re at the appropriate depth. We also collect surface samples with a pole from the ship.

Ed Atkins and Nick Gianoutsos prep the grab sampler

Ed Atkin and Nick Gianoutsos prep the grab sampler

But we’re a busy ship. In addition to all of that other stuff, we’re also taking sediment samples using a grab sampler. The grab sampler is a box-shaped apparatus that drop off of the A-frame on the aft (near the stern or back) of the ship. The grab sampler drops much faster to the sea floor than the multi-corers that some of the other ships are using. When it touches the bottom it makes one big scoop. We do this twice and each time we take the top two centimeters of sediment from each sample. These are then placed in a large bowl and stirred to create a composite sample. (No, we’re not making mud pies out here.) All of our samples are stored in a refrigerated unit we have on the deck.

Creating the composite from the top 2cm of the bottom grab.

Creating the composite from the top 2cm of the bottom grab

Tomorrow we’ll explain another apparatus we have on board: the LISST.

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