Tag Archives: research

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.”


UGA Skidaway Institute scientist to spend winter 2020 locked in Arctic ice

Cliff Buck

Spending the Christmas holidays and the better part of January and February on a ship frozen solid in the Arctic ice cap isn’t most people’s idea of a great way to spend the winter. However, University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientist Cliff Buck is planning to do just that. Buck is part of a major, international research project named Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate or “MOSAiC.” The goal of the project is to sail the German ice breaker Research Vessel Polarstern into the Arctic Ocean until it becomes locked in the ice and leave it there for a year, all the while using it as a headquarters for scientists to study Arctic climate change.

Climate change is occurring at a higher rate in the Arctic than in other regions. That rate of change is not reflected well in climate change models, mostly due to the lack of year-round observations in the Arctic.

“We care about this because the Arctic is turning out to be one of the more sensitive parts of the planet when it comes to climate change,” Buck said. “It’s warming at rates much higher than other parts of the world, and as it warms, many things are happening, such as the reduction in the expanse of sea ice.”

Those changes have implications on the means and rates that materials flow into the region, which, in turn effect plant and animal life. Buck’s role will be to monitor the atmospheric deposition of trace elements like iron. Trace elements appear in the ocean in minute concentrations — parts per billion or even parts per trillion. However, they play a key role in the growth of phytoplankton — the tiny marine plants that form the very base of the marine food web and produce approximately half the oxygen in our atmosphere. In much of the world’s ocean, it is the presence or scarcity of iron that regulates the growth of phytoplankton.

Buck and his colleagues hope to develop a better understanding of how trace elements make their way from the upper atmosphere to the ice cap. They can arrive either as little particles, floating in the atmosphere and settling like dust, or they can fall as part of a raindrop or snowflake.

“In the Artic, the composition and abundance of aerosols tend to vary seasonally which is the reason it is important to get a series of observations over a long time scale to see how deposition rates of these aerosols change over the course of a year,” Buck said. “We care about that because in areas removed from river input and other continental influences, atmospheric deposition can be the primary source of trace elements like iron for the surface ocean.”

Buck and colleagues from Florida International University and Florida State University will use a technique utilizing a radioactive isotope of beryllium, itself a trace element, to measure the rate of atmospheric deposition. Beryllium-7 is created only in the upper atmosphere by the exposure of nitrogen and oxygen to cosmic rays, and has a half-life of 53 days. By measuring the concentration of beryllium-7 in samples, Buck will be able to estimate the rate beryllium and other trace elements are being deposited on the surface.

R/V Polarstern
Photo credit: Stephanie Arndt/Alfred Wegener Institute

The research team will take turns working on the ship in shifts of two months at a time. As many as 40 to 50 scientists might be on the R/V Polarstern during each shift, collecting samples and making a wide range of observations throughout the year. Buck is tentatively scheduled to be on board from mid-December 2019 through mid-February 2020.

“I really have no one to blame but myself for being assigned a winter shift,” Buck said. “It is very difficult to make these measurements during the winter, so it is very important to us to insure those winter samples are collected properly. When I said that out loud, they said ‘so I guess you want to go in the winter.’”

Although locked in the Arctic ice cap, the R/V Polarstern will not be stationary. The area where the researchers anticipate the ship will be frozen is subject to a surface current called the Transpolar Drift which propels sea ice from the East Siberian Sea to the Fram Strait, off the east coast of Greenland. The R/V Polarstern could drift as much as 1,500 miles during its year locked in the ice cap.

“The Arctic Ocean is a very interesting place with a lot of wind and a lot of physics going on up there,” Buck said. “You may not perceive the movement, but you will be moving.”

Buck’s participation in the MOSAiC project is funded by a four-year, $350,412 grant from the National Science Foundation Arctic System Science Program.

Skidaway Institute graduate students participate on a glider team cruise off Cape Hatteras

Skidaway Institute graduate students Kun Ma and Lixin Zhu recently joined a science cruise on the Research Vessel Savannah off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The cruise, which ran from May 31-June 5, was led by Jeffrey Book from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. The main objective of this cruise was to test and demonstrate the use of gliders together in teams and to assimilate the data into ocean forecast models. The cruise was 22 days in total, divided into three legs. Ma and Zhu were part of the third leg.

Kun Ma cocking the Niskin bottles on a Conductivity-Temperature-Depth array.

Ma is a new University of Georgia doctoral student at Skidway, working mainly on a National Science Foundation-funded photochemistry project with professors Jay Brandes and Aron Stubbins. This was her first science cruise and she collected some particulate organic matter and dissolved inorganic carbon samples. She also helped Skidaway Institute researcher Bill Savidge by collecting some chlorophyll samples in order to calibrate the chlorophyll sensor on the CTD instrument, an instrument used to collect water samples and measure those samples’ properties, such as Conductivity (a proxy for salinity), Temperature and Depth.

Lixin Zhu in immersion suit during safety trainning

Zhu is a visiting doctoral student in Aron Stubbins’s lab from East China Normal University. He collected filtered water samples on the cruise. Zhu will analyze the color and fluorescence of dissolved organic matter, and dissolved black carbon concentrations. In addition, Zhu performed solid phase extraction and collected high-resolution real-time data on colored organic matter with the underway scientific computer system on the ship. Eventually, he will combine these data with other field data collected in the South Atlantic Bight area to see the overall dynamics of dissolved black carbon.

“I am glad that we overcame seasickness, and it’s really cool to see that the glider team controlled six gliders at the same time aboard,” Zhu said. “Furthermore, their working approach and decision making process, based on real-time data, modeling and satellite results, impressed me a lot.”

Jay Brandes collaborator on research paper

UGA Skidaway Institute professor Jay Brandes is a collaborator on a recent publication focusing on the roles of methane, iron and microbes in regulating the temperature of the primordial ocean. The research team was led by Georgia Tech Ph.D. student Marcus Bray. An article describing the project, can be found here.


UGA Skidaway Institute researchers probe complex Atlantic Ocean currents

Dana Savidge

The ocean off the coast of North Carolina has a complex system of ocean currents that make it one of the least understood areas on the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography professor Dana Savidge is leading a team of scientists, including UGA Skidaway Institute scientist Catherine Edwards, working to unravel the mysteries of the complex ocean currents near Cape Hatteras.

The four-year project, informally called PEACH: Processes driving Exchange At Cape Hatteras, was launched in early 2016 and is funded by a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to better understand the relationship between the waters of the continental shelf and the deep ocean.

“The U.S. continent, like others, has a shallow ocean immediately around it, called the continental shelf. It’s like an apron that extends out from the shoreline and it is fairly shallow, only about 60 meters deep,” Savidge said. “At its outer edge, the bottom drops sharply into the deep ocean, which can be miles deep.”

Exchange at the shelf edge can push cold, nutrient-rich water from the deep ocean onto the shelf, which drives productivity of marine algae and the food web that it supports.

“There’s a reason people love offshore fishing at the edge of the Gulf Stream,” said Edwards. “Areas with regular exchange of shelf and deep waters are often known hot spots for commercial and recreational fishing.”

One reason Cape Hatteras attracted the researchers’ attention is that two opposing deep ocean currents collide there, making the ocean there highly dynamic. The warm Gulf Stream hugs the edge of the continental shelf as it flows north from the tip of Florida. At Cape Hatteras, the Gulf Stream opposes a colder current, the Slope Sea Gyre current, that moves southward along the mid-Atlantic coast. There, the Gulfstream breaks away from the coast toward northern Europe.

There is a convergence of shelf currents at Cape Hatteras as well, as cool shelf waters of the mid-Atlantic continental shelf meet the warm salty shelf waters from the south. Each of these currents, on the shelf and at the shelf edge, has a distinct temperature, salinity, and often a biological signal that reflects the origin of the water it carries. The team will measure these properties and ocean currents to better understand the exchange processes.

During the first year of the study, the researchers prepared and installed a network of sophisticated, high-tech instruments on the shore and in the ocean to monitor and capture the movement of water and changing properties like temperature and salinity. Together with scientists from the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University, the team has worked with ocean models to better understand the interaction between shelf currents and the deeper currents of the Gulf Stream and the Slope Sea Gyre.

“Circulation on the continental shelf and the deep ocean can be quite separate things, but their effects on one another can be quite complicated,” Savidge said.
In addition to subsurface packages moored on the sea floor, the PEACH team is taking advantage of modern sampling techniques with shore-based radar systems and autonomous underwater vehicles called gliders to collect data remotely.

Savidge working on a radar antenna on the Outer banks.

Savidge’s hardware contribution to the project is a series of low-power, high-frequency radar stations that scan the waters of the continental shelf and measure the speed and direction of surface currents.

“Measuring surface currents remotely with the radars is a real advantage here,” Savidge said. “They cover regions that are too shallow for mobile vehicles like ships to operate, while providing detailed information over areas where circulation can change quite dramatically over short times and distances.”

An array of radar antennae on an Outer Banks beach.

Savidge’s research technician, Gabe Matthias, installed the radar systems on the beach at Salvo and Buxton, and at the airports at Frisco and Ocracoke, North Carolina. Currently, the researchers are working out the bugs in the system and getting the four stations to work together to paint a composite picture of the surface currents. The radars produce a massive amount of data to be processed.

Edwards leads the effort to use gliders that will operate on the shelf for nearly the entire 16-month experiment. Gliders are shaped like torpedoes and equipped with sensors to measure properties like temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen. They can be programmed to cruise the underwater environment for weeks at a time, surfacing at regular intervals to transmit its collected data via a satellite phone.

Edwards in her lab with a glider.

Edwards’s specialty is improving the way these gliders sample the coastal waters using information from models and real-time data streams, including surface currents from Savidge’s HF radar. Edwards and doctoral students Qiuyang Tao and Mengxue Hou, co-advised by Edwards and Fumin Zhang of Georgia Tech, have developed new systems that optimize the path of the gliders based on near real-time information about current patterns and how they are expected to change, making operations more efficient and allowing better data collection.

“The glider provides data that help explain how temperature, salinity, and density change in space and time underwater, and the HF radar provides high resolution maps of surface currents every 20 minutes,” said Edwards. “The two systems are highly complementary, and their combination provides an unprecedented view of when, where, and why there is exchange between the shelf and deep ocean.”

According to Savidge, the study should produce a greater understanding of the forces at work at Cape Hatteras with implications across a wide range of interests from fisheries management to pollution control. Microscopic marine plants, known as phytoplankton, are a vital part of the marine ecosystem. Phytoplankton are the very base of the marine food web and they produce approximately half the oxygen in the atmosphere. In addition to tracking deep water inputs that support productivity on the shelf, Savidge said, it would is also be important to understand any processes that transport carbon-rich shelf water back to the deep ocean. When phytoplankton and the rest of the food web convert nutrients into their own biomass, water returned to the deep ocean can carry large quantities of organic carbon with it.

The knowledge gathered at Cape Hatteras will be applicable to other oceans around the world.

“Cape Hatteras is the ideal place to look at these processes that you are going to find elsewhere,” Savidge said. “You have a lot of energetic forcing and everything is concentrated in a very small space, with large variations over short distances. The idea is to understand the processes so you can model them effectively. If you can do that, you can anticipate how circulation on the shelf and exchanges with the deep ocean will respond to changes in the Gulf Stream or the wind over time.”

The project will run through March 2020. The other members of the research team are Harvey Seim and John Bane of the University of North Carolina; Ruoying He of North Carolina State University; and Robert Todd, Magdalena Andres and Glen Gawarkiewicz from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

Savidge expressed special appreciation to the National Park Service and the North Carolina Department of Transportation for providing sites for the radar installations, and the University of North Carolina’s Coastal Studies Institute for help in installing them.

UGA Skidaway Institute scientists study microbial chemical warfare

In the battlefield of the microbial ocean, scientists have known for some time that certain bacteria can exude chemicals that kill single-cell marine plants, known as phytoplankton. However, the identification of these chemical compounds and the reason why bacteria are producing these lethal compounds has been challenging.

Now, University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientist Elizabeth Harvey is leading a team of researchers that has received a $904,200 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund a three-year study into the mechanisms that drive bacteria-phytoplankton dynamics.

Researcher Elizabeth Harvey examines a part of her phytoplankton collection.

Understanding these dynamics is important, as phytoplankton are essential contributors to all marine life. Phytoplankton form the base of the marine food chain, and, as plants, produce approximately half of the world’s oxygen.

“Bacteria that interact with phytoplankton and cause their mortality could potentially play a large role in influencing the abundance and distribution of phytoplankton in the world ocean,” Harvey said. “We are interested in understanding this process so we can better predict fisheries health and the general health of the ocean.”

A microscopic view of a population of phytoplankton.

This project is a continuation of research conducted by Harvey and co-team leader Kristen Whalen of Haverford College when they were post-doctoral fellows at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. They wanted to understand how one particular bacteria species impacted phytoplankton.

“We added the bacteria to the phytoplankton and the phytoplankton died,” Harvey said. “So we became very interested in finding the mechanism that caused that mortality.”

They identified a particular compound, 2-heptyl-4-quinlone or HHQ, that was killing the phytoplankton. HHQ is well known in the medical field where it is associated with a bacterium that can cause lung infections, but it had not been seen before in the ocean. The team will conduct laboratory experiments to determine the environmental factors driving HHQ production in marine bacteria; establish a mechanism of how the chemical kills phytoplankton; and use field-based experiments to understand how HHQ influences the population dynamics of bacteria and phytoplankton.

“This project has the potential to significantly change our understanding of how bacteria and phytoplankton chemically communicate in the ocean.” Harvey said.

The project will also include a strong education component. The researchers will recruit undergraduate students, with an effort to target recruitment of traditionally under-represented groups, to participate in an intense summer learning experience with research, field-based exercises and some classroom work.

“The idea is for the students to return to their home institutions at the end of the summer, but to continue to work with us on this project,” Harvey said. “This will be a unique opportunity to offer students cross disciplinary training in ecology, chemistry, microbiology, physiology and oceanography.”

In addition to Harvey and Whalen, the research team includes David Rowley of the University of Rhode Island.

UGA Skidaway Institute associate professor cited for top research articles

University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography associate professor Aron Stubbins is one of just a handful of researchers cited in the journal Limnology and Oceanography for authoring two of the journal’s top scientific papers over the past 60 years.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Limnology and Oceanography is an official publication of the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography and is considered a premier scientific journal. In its recently published 60th anniversary issue, the journal collected and republished the 10 most cited research papers for each of the last six decades. Stubbins authored or co-authored two of those papers, one in 2008 and the other in 2010.

“It came as quite a surprise to see two articles show up on the list,” Stubbins said. “I was at a conference and wasn’t really checking my email when one of my colleagues let me know.”

The journal used the number of times a paper was cited in future studies as the yardstick to determine which papers should be included on the list. It is one commonly used method for measuring the impact of a scientist’s work.

“The list isn’t really about popularity,” Stubbins said. “It’s about usefulness. That people have found some of my work useful over the years is rewarding.”

The 2008 paper was titled “Absorption spectral slopes and slope ratios as indicators of molecular weight, source, and photobleaching of chromophoric dissolved organic matter.” The lead author was John Helms. Stubbins was a co-author along with four other scientists. The research team developed a new method for extracting new information from a relatively common and simple test of the color of dissolved organic matter.

Stubbins was the lead author, along with nine co-authors, of the second paper, “Illuminated darkness: Molecular signatures of Congo River dissolved organic matter and its photochemical alteration as revealed by ultrahigh precision mass spectrometry.” The study examined organic carbon carried to the ocean by the Congo River — after the Amazon, the second largest river in the world in terms of carbon and water flow. The research team studied how sunlight degrades organic material, including which compounds are degraded, which are not and what new compounds are created when sunlight shines on river water.

“His inclusion in this seminal volume is quite an honor for Dr. Stubbins,” UGA Skidaway Institute Interim Director Clark Alexander said. “This recognition validates what we have always known, that he is conducting groundbreaking and meaningful research that is recognized around the world.”

All 60 papers can be found at http://aslopubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/.