In Pursuit of Knowledge

In Pursuit of Knowledge is an ode to a study that has been a very big part of my life over the past four years, as I was privileged to take part in two of the four North Atlantic Aerosol and Marine Ecosystems Study (NAAMES) cruises on board the R.V. Atlantas.  During NAAMES, scientists ventured out into the great North Atlantic Ocean on month-long cruises that characterized the ecosystems four seasons and studied the relationship it has with gases and cloud formation in the atmosphere. And while the science itself was challenging, the ocean also posed its own obstacles to the study.  For a large part of the year the seas are rough and sampling is difficult.  If work isn’t complicated by the North Atlantic’s winter storms and gales, then it is the late-summer hurricanes that slingshot up from the south, causing the ship to flee to the safety of calmer waters.  But when the seas allow, sampling efforts are around the clock and one of oceanography’s most critical tools, the ships CTD, is lowered into the ocean to collect seawater from depths reaching thousands of meters below the surface, locking waters from individual depths into sampling bottles isolated from contamination as the CTD travels back up to the surface, sampling along the way.  These waters provide the biological, chemical, and physical properties that allow the scientists to calculate rates critical to the study’s hypotheses.

Measurements from the ship were also augmented by a fleet of autonomous robots tossed overboard during each of the cruises.  These robots, called floats (despite the fact that they sink to ~2000m depth), provided measurements of the water column characteristics after the ship would leave an individual water mass.  Following each cruise, the floats would continue their missions, traveling up and down the water column to provide near real-time information on evolution of the water masses.  And each following time the scientists took to the sea, the floats provided a deep history of the waters they returned to sample.

Accompanying the Atlantis during the field campaigns was NASA’s C130 Hercules, ‘the Herk’, which collected data on both the surface ocean and the atmosphere.  During each flight from St. Johns, Newfoundland, scientists on board the Herk sampled clouds and their predecessors, cloud condensation nuclei, while also using optical sensors and lasers to interrogate the air and sea alike.  And during days with patches of clear sky, satellites orbiting the earth provided a third layer of data, looking at the fine details of ocean color, allowing for ocean basin-wide estimates of phytoplankton biomass.  Collecting these three layers of data together was also critical to improve the accuracy of measurements made by the satellites.

As the winds are stirring the ocean
much like the winds a season ago
There’s a cage and cable ascending
long before dawn creeps through the portholes.

With respect to the labors preceding
those of our own some decades ago
Our great council in Sverdrup is waning
as knowledge grows old
and knowledge must grow.

Ah, so we’ve followed the songs of sirens that beam information
Brave floats that hide from the sun,
rising from depths with their sensors all ablaze
But just once per day.

Then up comes the CTD laden again
with waters surrendering rates!
How the strengths of the blooms are enhanced by deep mixing
when grazers get lost in the cold.
And the compounds that stir at the boundary of sky and sea
rising to nucleate cloudy days.

There’s a glint shining on the horizon
tearing through clouds while taking some home.
It’s the ‘Herk’ C130 descending
Instruments manned, retrievals a go!

Clear blue skies with Atlantis below,
there’s optical verification
for a swath of sea from sensors remote.
Satellites gazing beyond blue and gray
pass by once per day.

Then up comes the CTD laden again
with waters surrendering rates!
How the strengths of the blooms are enhanced by deep mixing
when grazers get lost in the cold.
And the compounds that stir at the boundary of sky and sea
rising to nucleate cloudy days.

Chief Scientist Mike Behrenfeld discusses NAAMES objectives.