Tag Archives: oceanography

UGA Skidaway Institute, SECOORA christen new glider

Researchers from the UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography and the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association (SECOORA) welcomed a new glider to their research fleet with a christening ceremony at UGA Skidaway Institute on Tuesday, April 23. The new glider was purchased and is owned by SECOORA, but will be based at UGA Skidaway Institute and operated by the UGA Skidaway Institute glider team headed by Catherine Edwards.

Gliders are torpedo-shaped crafts that can be packed with sensors and sent on underwater missions to collect oceanographic data, and are classified as autonomous underwater vehicles, meaning that they operate untethered on their own. Equipped with satellite phones, the gliders surface periodically to transmit their recorded data and to receive new instructions during missions that can last from weeks to months.

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The glider is named Franklin, after Benjamin Franklin, who ordered the first chart of the Gulf Stream.

The christening ceremony, based on traditional versions for naming and renaming boats, called upon the favor of the gods of the sea, the wind, the tide and the Gulf Stream, and was offered by Edwards, research professional Ben Hefner, SECOORA executive director Debra Hernandez and UGA Skidaway Institute assistant director Marc Mascolo.

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Catherine Edwards raises a glass to Franklin.

Hernandez then capped the ceremony by smashing a bottle of champagne against a metal weight positioned near Franklin’s nose.

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Debra Hernandez completes the ceremony.

Franklin is outfitted with a pumped conductivity-temperature-depth sensor and a three-channel fluorometer that measures chlorophyll, dissolved organic matter and turbidity. It also has a dissolved oxygen sensor and two built-in Vemco acoustic receivers that listen for tagged fish and other animals. The glider is powered by lithium-ion batteries that will allow it to remain on mission for up to five to six weeks at a time without recharging.

Franklin’s first deployment was a SECOORA mission at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. It was joined on the mission by UGA Skidaway Institute’s other glider, named Angus.

Grad student Kun Ma receives Georgia Sea Grant funding

Kun Ma SquareUGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography graduate student Kun Ma has received $25,000 in research funding as part of the Georgia Sea Grant Research Traineeship Program. Ma will use the funds to support her work studying microplastic pollution in Georgia’s marine ecosystem. The project is titled “Determining photodegradation rates and products of textile-derived plastic microfibers in aqueous environments.”

Because the study of microplastics in a marine environment is still very new, there are many basic questions about microplastic distribution, environmental effects, and the sources and sinks of the microplastics. Ma’s focus with this research program is to examine one loss pathway, the degradation of microplastics and microfibers by sunlight in estuarine and marine environments. There are at least 50 trillion microplastic particles in the global ocean and up to one trillion microplastics in Georgia’s waterways alone.

“Knowledge of microplastic degradation pathways is essential to water management of coastal ecosystems, and many types of larger plastics can be degraded by exposure to light,” Ma said. “However, there are no published studies on the rate or degradation products of plastic microfibers in aquatic environments. My study will serve as an initiative to fill this knowledge gap.”

Sea Grant Research Trainees undertake research projects that advance the goals and objectives in Georgia Sea Grant’s strategic plan. Ma’s project will address two goals, maintaining a healthy coastal ecosystem and promoting environmental literacy.

The research will form part of Ma’s thesis research. The results will be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal and will be presented at regional and national conferences. In addition, an educational poster summarizing results of the project will be showcased at public special events reaching diverse audiences, such as Skidaway Marine Science Day, Savannah Earth Day Festival and the World Oceans Day Celebration.

Ma is a Ph.D. student in the UGA Department of Marine Sciences. Her faculty advisor at Skidaway Institute is Jay Brandes. Her professional mentor on the project will be UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant educator Dodie Sanders. The funding is for one year, beginning August 1.

UGA Skidaway Institute gliders improve hurricane predictions

The models hurricane forecasters use to predict the paths of storms have become much more accurate in recent years, but not so much the models’ ability to accurately predict a storm’s intensity. Now, underwater gliders, operated by researchers at the University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, are part of a national effort to use marine robots to improve the accuracy of storm forecast models.

UGA Skidaway Institute research technician Ben Hefner launches a glider into the ocean. Photo courtesy MADLAWMEDIA

Two storms from the 2018 hurricane season provide examples of how quickly storm intensity can change. Hurricane Florence was predicted to be a Category 5 storm, but she weakened significantly before making landfall in North Carolina as a Category 1 storm on September 14. On the other hand, a month later, Hurricane Michael grew from a Category 1 to a Category 5 storm in just two days and hit the Florida panhandle on October 10.

Hurricanes feed off of heat from warm ocean waters like that found in the Caribbean, and in the Gulf Stream and shallow waters off the southeast United States, known as the South Atlantic Bight. This can be a tremendous source of energy for developing storms. Heat is transferred between the ocean and atmosphere at the ocean’s surface, but it is important to understand the amount of subsurface heat as well.

“Places where warm waters near the surface lie over cooler water near bottom, winds and other factors can mix up the water, cooling the surface and limiting the heat available to the atmosphere,” UGA Skidaway Institute researcher Catherine Edwards said. “Satellite data provides a nice picture of where the surface ocean is warm, but the subsurface temperature field remains hidden.”

UGA Skidaway Institute researcher Catherine Edwards examines the tail assembly of a glider.

This is where autonomous underwater vehicles, also known as gliders, can collect valuable information. Gliders are torpedo-shaped crafts that can be packed with sensors and sent on underwater missions to collect oceanographic data. The gliders measure temperature and salinity, among other parameters, as they profile up and down in the water. Equipped with satellite phones, the gliders surface periodically to transmit their recorded data during missions that can last from weeks to months.

“This regular communication with the surface allows us to adapt the mission on the fly, and also process and share the data only minutes to hours after it has been measured,” Edwards said. “By using a network of data contributed by glider operators around the world, the U. S. Navy and other ocean modelers can incorporate these data into their predictions, injecting subsurface heat content information into the hurricane models from below.”

The 2018 hurricane season provided Edwards and her colleagues a fortuitous opportunity to demonstrate the value of glider data. Edwards deployed two gliders in advance of Hurricane Florence. One was launched off the North Carolina coast and the other further south, near the South Carolina-Georgia state line. The gliders discovered the models’ ocean temperature forecasts were significantly off target. Edwards points to charts comparing the predictions from ocean models run in the U.S. and Europe with the actual temperatures two days before Florence made landfall.

On the south side of the storm path, the models predicted that the ocean had a warm, slightly fresh layer overtopping cooler, saltier water below, but the glider revealed that the water column was well-mixed and, overall, warmer and fresher than predicted. On the north side of the storm, the models predicted warm, well-mixed water, but the glider detected a sharp temperature change below the surface, with a much cooler layer near-bottom. However, the most surprising part was just how stratified the water was.

“There is almost a 14-degree Celsius (approximately 25 degrees Fahrenheit) error that the glider corrects in the model,” she said. “The model and data agree near-surface, but the models that don’t use the glider data all miss the colder, saltier layer below. The model that incorporated glider data that day is the only one that captures that vertical pattern.”

Not only can gliders provide a unique view of the ocean, they fly on their own, reporting data regularly, before, during and after a hurricane, making them a powerful tool for understanding the effects of storms.

“The glider data is being used in real time,” Edwards said. “These real time observations can improve our hurricane forecasts right now, not just in a paper to be published a year from now.”

Edwards and collaborator Chad Lembke, at the University of South Florida, had a third glider deployed in August before Florence as part of a glider observatory she runs for the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association (SECOORA). While it was recovered about a little over a week before Florence made landfall, the glider helped define the edge of the Gulf Stream, which is an essential ocean feature that is very hard for models to get right.

“So it’s possible that the data from that glider already improved any tropical storm predictions that use ocean models and take that glider data into account, because the Gulf Stream is so important in our region,” Edwards said.

Edwards works with colleagues from other institutions through SECOORA. Together they are making plans for the 2019 hurricane season. Funded by a $220,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, they plan to pre-position a number of gliders in strategic locations to be ready for deployment in advance of incoming storms.

“Gliders are like the weather balloons of the ocean,” Edwards said. “Imagine how powerful a regular network of these kinds of glider observations could be for understanding the ocean and weather, and how they interact.”

UGA Skidaway Institute scientists publish two papers on Arctic processes

The Arctic is experiencing the effects of climate change faster than anywhere on the planet, yet it is one of the least understood regions, due largely to the difficulty of making observations and collecting samples there. With the support of National Science Foundation funding, two University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientists are studying the biogeochemical processes in the Arctic and recently had their research published in two peer-reviewed science journals.

Postdoctoral researcher Christopher Marsay and assistant professor Clifton Buck have been participants in the international GEOTRACES program which aims to improve the understanding of biogeochemical cycles in the ocean, focusing on important trace elements. Trace elements are present in the ocean in very low concentrations, however some of those elements are essential for marine life and can influence the functioning of ocean ecosystems while others are potentially toxic to plants and animals.

Cliff Buck works with deck equipment during a GEOTRACES cruise in the Pacific Ocean.

“The Arctic part of the GEOTRACES program is particularly important because the region is already showing significant changes as a result of climate change and is relatively poorly studied with respect to many trace elements,” Marsay said.

Marsay is the lead author on both papers, which are the result of analysis of samples he collected on a 64-day GEOTRACES cruise from Dutch Harbor, Alaska to the North Pole and back from August through October 2015.

“On this cruise, our research goals were to describe the chemistry of atmospheric deposition to the region,” Buck said. “These data will then be shared with the scientific community to help better understand biogeochemical cycling of trace elements in the Arctic Ocean.”

The first paper, published in the journal Chemical Geology, describes the concentrations of 11 trace elements in atmospheric samples that Marsay collected during the cruise by pumping large volumes of air through filters. The sources of this material could include natural material from land surfaces, smoke and soot from burning vegetation, and emissions from industrial activity.

“We compare the results to other ocean regions and speculate as to the sources of the material reaching the Arctic,” Marsay said. “An important part of the work is that we used the concentration data to estimate how much of these chemicals settle from the atmosphere to the surface of the ocean.”

In addition to Marsay and Buck, co-authors included David Kadko from Florida International University, William Landing and Brent Summers from Florida State University, and Peter Morton from the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.

The second paper was published in the journal Marine Chemistry. In it, Marsay and his co-authors examine trace elements in Arctic melt ponds. Melt ponds are a widespread feature of the sea ice in the Arctic during the summer months. As snow melts it forms ponds on top of the ice which eventually drain into the surface ocean.

Chris Marsay collecting samples at the North Pole.

“Melt ponds are an important intermediate step in atmospheric deposition to the surface ocean that is unique to the polar regions and not very well studied,” Marsay said. “Ongoing climate change in the Arctic will change this pathway, and we want to know how that may affect distribution and biological availability of trace elements in the surface ocean.”

The paper brought together measurements of several trace elements made by different research groups involved in the GEOTRACES project. It showed that the chemistry in melt ponds is also influenced by material in sea ice and the seawater beneath the ice, which modifies the chemistry of material deposited from the atmosphere before it reaches the surface ocean.

Additional co-authors on the paper included Ana Aguilar-Islas from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Jessica Fitzsimmons, Laramie Jensen and Nathan Lanning from Texas A&M University, Mariko Hatta from University of Hawai’i at Manoa, Seth John and Ruifeng Zhang from the University of Southern California, David Kadko from Florida International University, William Landing from Florida State University, Peter Morton from the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, Angelica Pasqualini from Columbia University, Sara Rauschenberg and Benjamin Twining from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, Robert Sherrell from Rutgers University, and Alan Shiller and Laura Whitmore from the University of Southern Mississippi.

The two papers can be accessed through the UGA Skidaway Institute website at: https://www.skio.uga.edu/research/research-publications/.

Skidaway Institute of Oceanography: 50 years of marine research and education

The Skidaway Institute of Oceanography was born in 1968, but the story of the institute began several years earlier with a dream of some local and state leaders to give Georgia a foothold in the burgeoning field of oceanography. In 1964, the Georgia General Assembly formed the Georgia Science Technology Commission with an Oceanographic Task Force. Two years later this task force proposed that an oceanographic research laboratory be established on the coast. That same year, the U.S. Environmental Science Services Agency decided to establish an east coast facility. State and local leaders wanted to attract the federal facility to Georgia. To that end, in 1967 the General Assembly created the Ocean Sciences Center of the Atlantic Commission (O.S.C.A).

During this same time period, two property owners on the island offered to donate land to provide a home for the facility. Robert and Dorothy Roebling, and their family had lived on the island since the mid-1930s and operated a cattle breeding facility they called Modena Plantation.

Dorothy and Robert Roebling in 1967

Skidaway Institute’s current main campus is on the former Modena Plantation. Much of the remainder of the island was owned by the Union Camp corporation, which had previously used the property to grow pine trees for wood pulp to supply their paper plant in Garden City. Union Camp donated several hundred acres, which now includes Skidaway Institute’s Priests Landing dock on the Wilmington River. Union Camp also donated the land to accommodate Skidaway Island State Park.

In the end, Georgia did not win the prize for the federal facility. It was eventually established in Miami, Fla., but the idea of an oceanographic research institution on Skidaway Island was carried forward. Skidaway Institute of Oceanography was established as part of O.S.C.A. in 1968. In 1972, Governor Jimmy Carter dissolved O.S.C.A. Skidaway Institute was then assigned to the Board of Regents as an autonomous unit of the University System of Georgia (USG.)

Skidaway Institute officially opened on July 1, 1968. The former dean of Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering, Thomas Jackson, was the first director. He hired Herb Windom as the first faculty scientist. Windom had just completed his Ph.D. at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego. Soon others followed, including Howard Yen, who was finishing up a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech, and Jim Andrews, who was completing his doctoral work in animal nutrition from UGA.

Lee Knight, Thomas Jackson and Jim Andrews walk near the under-construction Roebling Laboratory and Administrative Building.

The early support staff was very small. Jackson brought Lee Knight with him from Georgia Tech to be assistant director. Richard Buchner handled the business office, and Bonnie Zeigler was hired as a bookkeeper and secretary.

In those first days, Skidaway Institute relied heavily on the infrastructure inherited from the Roeblings, including a sophisticated firefighting system, farm buildings and dwellings, and a machine shop with equipment still in use 50 years later.

The Roebling House today

Initially, the director and all other staff had offices in the Roeblings’ two-story schoolhouse/gymnasium now called the Roebling House.

Work began fairly quickly on the first modern office and laboratory building, later named the Dorothy R. Roebling Laboratory Building. That building was completed in 1970.

In late 1969, Skidaway Institute received a new director who would play a dominant role in shaping the course of the institute over the next 23 years. David Menzel had wide-ranging experience as a marine scientist and took the reins of Skidaway Institute after a six-year tenure at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He brought an instant visibility to Skidaway Institute with his research reputation in oceanography, and his national and international connections. Soon after his arrival at Skidaway, he started hiring several young scientists from various oceanographic graduate schools. Whether a biologist, chemist or physicist, scientists were expected to approach questions in a multidisciplinary fashion and in cooperation with others, so they looked at an issue across all the disciplines. His aim was to establish an oceanographic research group capable of addressing interdisciplinary research topics, particularly those focused on coastal oceanographic processes. Through Menzel’s efforts, the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography became one of the true pioneers of interdisciplinary coastal oceanography.

Because of his stature and connections, and the quality of the faculty he hired, Menzel was able to integrate the faculty into national and international research programs, workshops and meetings. This allowed them to network and make connections with colleagues, which often led to research collaborations that lasted decades.

Skidaway Institute research has covered the world, including sites as distant as Antarctica.

During the 1970s, much of Skidaway Institute’s research was focused on understanding biogeochemical processes and their relationship to circulation on the continental shelf, a true interdisciplinary endeavor. This has remained an underlying theme of Skidaway Institute’s research to the present day. Early research benefited from large block grants from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), later the Department of Energy (DOE). The AEC/DOE was interested in knowing the potential impacts of all things related to energy production and exploration.

Skidaway Institute scientists deploy a sediment trap.

The National Science Foundation declared the International Decade of the Ocean from 1971 to 1980. Skidaway Institute and Menzel took the lead in one major international project, the Controlled Ecosystem Pollution Experiment (CEPEX), the results of which spun off a second program — Vertical Transport and Exchange (VERTEX). These two projects provided funds that supported Skidaway Institute scientists for several years. CEPEX studied the responses of pelagic marine food chains to low and chronic levels of various contaminants. It originated with concerns about the potential impact of fossil fuel exploration and energy production, along with nuclear power production, on the marine environment. VERTEX’s goal was to determine just how much carbon in the form of phytoplankton detritus sank to the sea floor over a given period of time, aimed at a better understanding of the global carbon cycle.

In 1993, Menzel retired. Skidaway Institute’s first faculty scientist, Herb Windom, moved up to the director’s office. He began a campaign to significantly upgrade Skidaway Institute’s research fleet. The former fishing trawler, the Research Vessel Blue Fin, had limited capability and was aging. Eventually, the institute ordered the construction of the 92-foot, 300-ton R/V Savannah, which was built in Maine and arrived at Skidaway Institute in September 2001.

R/V Blue Fin

The R/V Savannah is part of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) fleet and has been utilized by Skidaway Institute scientists as well as scientists from other institutions to conduct marine research in regions as far-flung as Chesapeake Bay, the western Gulf of Mexico and the coast of South America.

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Tricia Windom christens the R/V Savannah.

R/V Savannah at the fuel dock on the Skidaway Institute campus.

In 2001 Windom retired, and Rick Jahnke was appointed acting director until Jim Sanders, who years earlier had been a graduate student at Skidaway, took over the leadership of the institute. During Sanders’s first several years as director, the institute was challenged by funding issues as the recession of 2002-3 and the “great recession” that began in 2008 cut into the institute’s state and federal funding. The reduction in funding resulted in a reduction of support staff and the elimination of Skidaway Institute’s engineering department.

During this time, however, the institute also saw an expansion of its facilities and evolution within its faculty. The long-awaited Marine and Coastal Science Research and Instructional Center, a modern laboratory research structure, was funded through a $5 million appropriation by the Georgia General Assembly in 2006 and was completed in 2009.

Marine and Coastal Science Research and Instructional Center

It provided much needed office and laboratory space. In 2008, the General Assembly approved a $1.2 million capital appropriation to replace the institute’s aging wooden main dock with a modern concrete pier and floating docks, and to renovate two other  docks. Finally, in 2015, the state approved a $3 million appropriation to extensively renovate the Institute’s iconic, circular cattle barn (a legacy of the Roebling era) into a modern space designed to provide meeting areas, teaching spaces and exhibits for the interested public—in essence, a new “front door” for Skidaway Institute.

The 2000s also saw a transition of the Skidaway Institute faculty. In addition to Windom, a number of faculty scientists who had long been the core of the institute’s research retired, including Dick Lee, Gustav Paffenhöfer, Stuart Wakeham, Rick Jahnke and Jack Blanton. (Windom, Lee and Paffenhöfer continue to be active at the institute in an emeritus status.) These retirements, along with the death of Peter Verity, created space for an influx of new and younger researchers. During Sanders’ tenure as director, 10 new members joined the Skidaway Institute faculty. Five of those new hires were women.

In 2012, after nearly 40 years as an autonomous unit of the USG, Chancellor Hank Huckaby directed that Skidaway Institute be merged into the University of Georgia. That merger became official on July 1, 2013. The director of Skidaway Institute now reports to the university’s provost’s office. Currently the faculty are all part of the Department of Marine Sciences. The merger created a fresh set of challenges, from combining accounting systems to differences in culture and mission. The educational component of Skidaway Institute’s mission grew with the acquisition. Skidaway faculty have UGA graduate students working in their labs each year, and planning is underway to provide other unique learning experiences for graduate and undergraduate students.

In 2015, Sanders announced he would be stepping down as director in 2016. Long-time faculty member Clark Alexander was appointed interim director, and in 2017, that appointment was made permanent.

Since 1968, Skidaway Institute and its scientists have shown leadership outside of academic settings as well, providing valuable guidance to state and regional planners, resource managers and industrial stakeholders. Skidaway Institute scientists have served on national, regional, state and local advisory boards for organizations such as the EPA, National Science Foundation, NOAA-Sea Grant, NOAA-National Marine Sanctuaries, Governors South Atlantic Alliance, Georgia Coastal Management Program and the Chatham County Planning Commission.

After 50 years, nearly all the faces have changed. The technology is vastly different. The challenges are different too. Yet the mission of Skidaway Institute remains the same, to create and communicate a deeper understanding of our world through leading-edge research in the marine and environmental sciences and by training tomorrow’s scientists.

Ohnemus joins UGA Skidaway Institute faculty

Chemical oceanographer Daniel Ohnemus has joined the faculty of UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography and the UGA Department of Marine Sciences as an assistant professor.

Ohnemus received his bachelor’s degree from Williams College and his Ph.D. in chemical oceanography from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program. He joined UGA Skidaway Institute following a postdoctoral appointment at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine.

Ohnemus’ research focuses on marine particles—the mixture of living organisms and non-living chemicals that transport and transform material within the oceans.

“All living organisms need small ‘trace’ amounts of elements like iron and copper to live,” Ohnemus said. “Unlike on land where plants can get these elements from soil, algae in the oceans have to get them from much rarer things like dust, other cells or seawater itself. The limited availability of these elements is an important control on many marine ecosystems.”

The son of a lobsterman and an elementary school educator, Ohnemus grew up on Cape Cod and became fascinated with the ocean at a young age. In fourth grade, his class visited Woods Hole to take part in a satellite video call with marine scientists off the Galapagos Islands. Seeing underwater robots explore a coral reef got Ohnemus hooked on marine science.

At Williams College, he pursued a double major in biology and chemistry. After graduation, he returned to Woods Hole, first as a research technician and later as a graduate student. After earning his Ph.D., he completed a postdoctoral appointment at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, continuing to concentrate on marine particles and trace elements.

Glider partners come to the rescue during Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma presented an interesting problem to UGA Skidaway Institute scientist Catherine Edwards and other glider operators in the Southeast. They had several autonomous underwater vehicles or “gliders” deployed off the east coast as the hurricane approached, including Skidaway Institute’s glider, “Modena.” Edwards and the others were confident the gliders themselves would be safe in the water, but the computer servers that control them would not.

Catherine Edwards works on “Modena.”

The gliders are equipped with satellite phones. Periodically, they call their home server, download data and receive instructions for their next operation. It was expected that Skidaway Institute would lose power for at least several days (as did happen). However, Skidaway’s backup server partner at the University of South Florida’s marine science facility in St. Petersburg, Fla. was also directly in the storm’s projected path.

“In the week before she hit, Irma sort of blew up our hurricane emergency plans,” Edwards said.

Several other options, including Teledyne Webb’s back-up servers and Rutgers University were not feasible for technical reasons. Glider operators at Texas A&M University came to the rescue. Catherine was able to instruct “Modena” to switch its calls over the Texas A&M server. No data was lost and “Modena” continued its mission.

According to Edwards, two big lessons emerged from the experience.

“First, most of us rely on nearby or regional partners for emergency and backup support, but disasters are regional by nature, and the same Nor’easter or hurricane can take you down along with your backup,” she said. “Second, there aren’t a lot of glider centers that can absorb several gliders on a day’s notice, and there are some compatibility and operations issues involved, so it is best to identify our potential partners and build out these steps into our emergency plans well in advance.”