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  • Writer's pictureAlexis bahl

Steaming to the Southern Ocean: Part 2

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

This blog is intended to capture the experience of the Macrozooplankton and Micronekton team led by Evgeny Pakhomov, comprising Lora Pakhomov, Florian Lüskow, and myself on board the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Polarstern research vessel. From October 1st – November 17th for the PS 133-1 Island Impact cruise to the South Atlantic sector of the Southern Ocean, we will record daily insights of the activities on board, with a personal perspective of what it’s like conducting science at sea. All thoughts are ours and are not to be taken for media use. This work is funded by Alexis Bahl's 2022 Explorer Grant with the National Geographic Society.


Day 10: Patience is a virtue

October 10, 2022

Low-pressure storm cells are constantly brewing throughout this region. Because of it, it was decided that the ship would be rerouted northwest to retrieve to calmer, safer waters. Should we have continued to station one, it was said that we would have experienced 12-m waves – dangerous conditions that are nonworkable for deploying instruments and unpleasant for everyone on board.

As I sit in the red room watching the ship’s live camera that looks out to the front of the boat, I acknowledge just how much I’ve learned despite work being put on hold. For instance, every day is variable, and plans constantly change. This is a normal situation when at sea, and you must remain patient. Already the original plan to sample five transects is being revised as no matter what the weather brings, we have a set timeline, and we must port in Punta Arenas on November 17th, whether all scientists have the samples they want or not. Secondly, the Chief Scientist role is truly a challenging one. Not only does Christine Klaas have to manage all scientists, but she is responsible for revising the science plan every day that it changes. This becomes very complicated when you must schedule 10+ instrument deployments that require different time allotments, while also considering the order of deployment so as not to contaminate the samples. Truly, hats off to Christine for rolling with the daily changes.

The meteorologists on board are extremely important for providing daily weather insights and forecasts. Without them, we would not know what kind of weather we are steaming into. I wanted to learn more about their work so yesterday, Florian and I, assisted Sonya and Frank (the 2 meteorologists) in deploying the balloon. Every morning at 11 UTC, Frank and Sonya, participate in recording atmospheric conditions, which I learned is practiced across the world, no matter the location. So, this is how it goes. The first step was to calibrate the small, lightweight sensor before attaching it to the balloon. In the ten minutes that we waited, we learned that the sensor collects temperature, pressure, and wind direction information up to 50,000 km in the sky. Once calibrated, we bundled up and made our way to the helideck where we accessed the helium tank to blow up the balloon. Upon attaching the balloon to the nosel of the tank, the cream-colored latex grows and grows until it reaches a specific size. The tank turns off and we are prompted to carefully remove the balloon and attached the sensory with a string and plastic ringlet. It’s very similar to the construction of a kite. As soon as the sensory is secure, I held onto the tug of the balloon with a clenched fist and made my way to the center of the helicopter deck with Frank (pictured below). Honestly, this was a little frightening because the winds were strong, the boat is swaying side to side, and the balloon is pulling me up, but I remained steady and waited for a SW wind to come our way and then released the balloon and sensor attached to the balloon with a string at the exact same time. Then, away it went, drifting further and further away into the sky!

After this exciting lesson, we went back inside to record deployment information and watched the sensory data fly in as the balloon went higher into the atmosphere. Lines start darting across the screen, providing vital information on cloud formations. In addition to this data, a German model is utilized to forecast daily weather conditions. I am certainly not an atmospheric person, but all earth processes are connected so this was a fascinating introduction to the daily work of a Polarstern meteorologist. Photo credit: Florian Lüskow.


Day 16: Process station

October 16, 2022

I haven’t written in several days because I’ve been rather ill – can’t shake the sea sickness, so, here I am, reporting on the success of our first process station that occurred on October 14th. After we retreated north to escape the storm, we steamed south and planned out our 36-hour process station. With readiness energy in the air, all scientists on board were eager to collect some samples and begin their experiments. Upon arriving at the station, each instrument was assigned a spot in line, and we were to begin!

With the help from the crew, each instrument was deployed one after another. With careful planning, each instrument is deployed to a certain depth (at the direction of the appropriate scientist(s)) with an estimated amount of time that it takes to enter and exit the water, plus additional handling time. Many of the instruments require a stationary position, but once it was time for the zooplankton team, we required our nets to be towed.

If you read my earlier post, you will recognize one of our nets known as the RMT. From the control room, I watched Evgeny and Florian work with the crew to attach the net to the wire frame, which would be lifted and deployed off the back of the ship into the water. As soon as the monster-sized net entered the water, I logged some details (time, latitude, longitude, sea surface temperature, sea surface salinity, and more). All this information becomes important for data logging. We estimated 30 minutes to hit 600 m, and we were nearly right on time. Evgeny communicated with the crew to begin pulling the wire in. As soon as the net reached the surface, I logged additional information and Lora made her way downstairs to grab a bucket and retrieve the cod-end of the net, which held the surplus of the sample.

Now comes the most exciting part! I hurried downstairs to the wet lab and looked at the organisms with amazement as Lora began separating the different species. From black, creepy-crawly amphipods to bright red euphausiids to scaled, black micronekton (pictured above), the catch was truly stunning. Never have I seen zooplankton straight from the water, so it was truly a sight. Two of us went to work on carefully extracting each individual from the bucket and placing it in the appropriate petri dish with similar-looking individuals, while the other two began looking at each salp individual under the microscope to define its life cycle stage and measure its body length. (I will write more on the importance of this last part in a later post.) In addition to the salps, all other organisms required counting and measuring. After 6 hours had passed and the time hit noon on the following day, we had finished processing our first RMT sample.


Day 17: Net repair

October 17, 2022

Yesterday during the process station, our IKMT net, unfortunately, broke, leaving us with one less sample (thank goodness we had the RMT!). The good news is that 1) we brought a backup IKMT net, should we just need to replace it, and 2) the fabric part that ripped was repairable. Florian and Evgeny went to work on the net, albeit breaking two needles in the process, but eventually reattached the fabric and repaired the net successfully.

The photo on the left shows Evgeny Pakgomov and the photo on the right shows Florian Lüskow, both giving a concerted effort to fix the net. Photo credit: Lora Pakhomova.

To be continued...

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