At Work on NOAA’s Largest Research Vessel

As a marine microbiologist, part of my job is to periodically go to sea on various research cruises to collect samples and conduct experiments. Our lab compares data from both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and for the next week and a half, I will be transiting the mid Atlantic, and sharing my experiences as a working oceanographer.

The R/V Brown at the Coast Guard Pier. The giant antennae on the front of the ship are for collecting air samples forward of the smokestack to avoid contamination. Photo courtesy of J. Cameron Thrash. 

The Western Atlantic Climate Survey (WACS) cruise is filled with scientists from a variety of backgrounds. Some research chemistry in the atmosphere, or chemistry in the surface water, many are involved in building complex climate models, and a couple of us, including me, are here to measure the metabolic processes of microorganisms in the sea surface. We are on board the Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown, the largest ship in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fleet. The R/V Brown is over 270 feet long, filled to the brim and loaded with cargo containers containing oceanographic and laboratory equipment like side scan sonar, mass spectrometers, ion and gas chromatographs, cell filtration systems, aerosol detectors, highly accurate thermometers, and more. In total 300 tons of equipment has been loaded! At nine days, our cruise is short by oceanographic standards, so it will be an exercise in efficiency. Many different research projects will be going on simultaneously, with close to a dozen different research groups all working around each other.

View of Boston from the back deck of the R/V Brown while heading out to sea. Photo courtesy of J. Cameron Thrash.

Samples will be taken from the air, the surface water, and even the deep ocean below 2000 meters. The goals of the various research groups are largely complimentary. The collective scientific studies here will provide new information on the way certain carbon, sulfur, and nitrogen-containing molecules move between the sea and the air, where and how they are produced, and what types of microorganisms produce and consume them. Some of these molecules influence cloud formation, some act as greenhouse gasses, and some are pollutants. Ultimately, our research on the dynamics of these important compounds will help fine tune global climate models so they can more accurately predict the effects of our changing planet.

Over the next few days I will provide an insider’s looks at how work gets done on one of the country’s biggest, most advanced research vessels.

Some of the containers filled with atmospheric analysis equipment. Photo courtesy of J. Cameron Thrash.

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