Cold-Water Coral Gardens of the Atlantic: Do they have a future? @eu_atlas @ScotMarineInst #EEL17

by Stuart Cunningham

The Atlantic Ocean is a living soup full of nutrients feeding plankton, fishes, dolphins, whales and seabirds. And of course we exploit these ecosystems to feed our growing population. Less well known are the fantabulous beds of cold-water coral gardens growing all round the Atlantic Ocean. Think of the Great Barrier Reef in the Pacific Ocean formed from warm-water corals. Our Atlantic coral gardens grow in deeper, colder waters and are no less spectacular and valuable, and no less vulnerable than their better know tropical cousins.

The natural resources of the Atlantic have the potential to help support the growing needs of the human population. Fishing for new species, discovering chemicals for new medicines, identifying novel marine genetic resources, mining the seabed for minerals and of course drilling for oil. All of these will be more beneficial for society if they can be carried out sustainably. ATLAS is a European scientific research programme to study Atlantic Ocean coral ecosystems and will provide governments, industries and researchers with new scientific understanding helping to support sustainable use of Atlantic resources. Physicists, biologists, geochemists and geneticists from 24 Laboratories and Universities around Europe are all working together in this great scientific enterprise.

A most exciting area of research is that done at sea from Research Ships. Today a team of 20 scientists, students and technicians supported by 20 officers and crew are at sea on board the UK Royal Research Ship Discovery. We sailed from Southampton and will finish in Reykjavik, Iceland in a few weeks time.

One of the more challenging missions today is to deploy a series of moorings across the Rockall Trough (the area of the Atlantic Ocean west of Scotland). A mooring is a wire anchored to the sea-bed, kept vertical by floats and coming to within 50m of the sea-surface. Today we are deploying moorings that are 1.8 kilometers long. These moorings are a traditional way to put instruments in the ocean at the same locations and depths and over many years. Physicists use these to measure ocean circulation, temperature and salinity. We can then determine how ocean circulation is changing in time.

The exciting work today is to deploy on a mooring a Remote Access Sampler for capturing water samples. The water samples will be collected in 18 months time and analysed for a whole range of nutrients and chemicals. Combining data from our physical measurements with the chemistry measurements will give us a better understanding how the ocean circulation and the soup of nutrients together help support healthy coral gardens. Our goal is to help sustain these ecosystems for future generations.

A Trans-Atlantic assessment and deep-water ecosystem-based spatial management plan for Europe

Photos by Penny Holliday

Surveying open ocean seabirds from the #RRSDiscovery monkey island for @SeaWatchersUK #EEL17

Giulia La Bianca is a volunteer for the conservation organisation, Sea Watch Foundation. Her role on board is to carry out a careful and structured survey of birds and marine mammals during the three weeks that we are at sea.

Her favoured position at the start of the cruise has been the monkey island – which is the open deck above the Bridge and pretty much the highest point that you can go on the ship. From there she has a fantastic, uninterrupted view across the wide open ocean which makes surveying the birds very clear. However, it’s really quite exposed up there and we have had to kit her out in some warm, water-proof and wind-proof clothing so she doesn’t freeze!

Today it has been very cold and windy, and so she very sensibly retreated to inside the Bridge where it is warm and cups of tea can be made….

Below are photos some of the birds she has seen – including some that might surprise you.

Photos by Giulia La Bianca

Life in the deep: colonisation of OSNAP moorings

by Winnie Courtene-Jones

Today two OSNAP moorings were collected, these were deployed on the east and west flanks of the central region of the Rockall Trough during a cruise in July 2016. The moorings have a number of instruments and floats fastened to a long chain which collect temperature, salinity and water velocity data throughout the water column. Upon sending an acoustic signal from the ship, these moorings are released from the seabed and the floats come up to the surface, where they can be brought on board.

This makes the process sound extremely simple but in reality locating and hauling the mooring on-board is a bit more tricky. The ship was a hive of activity and watching the skill of the crew was very impressive; they manoeuvred and lowered the heavy chains and floats, and delicate instruments onto the deck with ease.

Given that this equipment has been in the water for the last 10 months a number of marine organisms had colonised the floats. Those floats nearer the surface were colonised by large barnacles, while those at a depth of nearly 500m had large anemones and some cold water coral on its surface. It’s fascinating to see these establishing themselves in the deep sea after a relatively short period of time. Individuals were sampled to investigate the abundance of small pieces of plastic (microplastics) ingested by species inhabiting the mid-waters in the North East Atlantic Ocean.

Photos by Winnie Courtene-Jones

Starting over the side work – testing the kit and training the samplers

by Penny Holliday

Today marks a key day in the cruise – the start of over the side work. It’s taken us 3 days to get to the location where we want to work – just long enough for people to get used to the ship, but getting close the point at which some could get bored. But there is no time to be bored now – for the next 3 weeks we’ll be working hard to get everything done.

One of the first jobs on the cruise when we get out into deep water (~1000m) is to test our equipment and train up the people who will be collecting water samples for various analyses later on. This can be an exciting time with lots of people watching and taking photos, and a busy time as first-timers have a lot of information to take in, and experienced folk brush up on their skills.

The equipment in the picture below shows the instruments that make up our "CTD" and instruments that will be attached to our moorings. This whole package is lowered to just above the seabed to record data about the water it passes through. The instruments arranged in the lower part of the frame record temperature, salinity, pressure, oxygen, fluorescence (indication of algae in the water), transmittance (indication of concentration of particles in the water) and velocity.

When the CTD is close to the seafloor (10m above it), we start closing those vertical grey bottles on the frame. There are 16 in all on it at the moment (24 when it is full) and every so often we stop upward progress of the CTD and close a bottle by sending a signal down the cable. When it comes back on deck we draw off some water from each bottle that we’ll analyse for salinity, dissolved oxygen, nutrients, carbon and some isotopes. All of these things will eventually help us understand the role of the ocean in the oxygen, carbon and nutrient cycles of the planet.

Our first test was a shakedown CTD cast to make sure the main instruments work OK (they did!). The second was to test the self-contained mooring instruments (silver with red tape arranged vertically between bottles) and to collect data for calibrating them before they are left underwater for 18 months. I’m very pleased with the way things have gone today.


Playing with fire hoses during a safety drill #EEL17

It was the perfect day for the first of our safety drills – calm, sunny and warm. Fortunately no-one got wet and we practised how to cool a deck or bulkhead, and how to shield someone from the heat (by expanding the jet of water to fan out and create a wall of water) in case of a fire on the ship.

We’ve been steaming towards our working area since Saturday morning, and we are itching to get started with the main work of CTD stations and mooring operations. That work will start tomorrow morning, and I predict a sizeable audience for the first station at 6am!

The start of our expedition to do the 2017 Extended Ellett Line and to service UK OSNAP moorings

by Penny Holliday, Principal Scientist

This morning we left the calm of Southampton docks to set out on a new expedition on the Royal Research Ship Discovery: cruise number DY078. Over the course of the next 3 weeks we will collect data from a part of the ocean that we have visited every year since 1975 – a programme named the "Extended Ellett Line" in tribute to David Ellett, the oceanographer who began this work over 40 years ago (pictured below).

Our journey will take us from the inshore waters of Scotland, out into the deep and open North Atlantic ocean to a wild rocky islet called Rockall, and north towards the glaciers and volcanoes of southern Iceland. The aim of DY078 is to measure the temperature, salinity, oxygen and nutrient concentrations of the ocean along a line that runs from Scotland to Rockall to Iceland (which we call the "section"). The repeats of this section tell us how the ocean has changed since 1975, and from that we learn new things about the way the ocean currents work, how and why they change over time, and the implications of those changes for climate and for marine ecosystems.

Over recent years we have been adding to this programme of repeated sections by leaving instruments in the water for a year at a time, attached to very long moorings that are anchored to the seafloor and held upright by buoys. These moorings are part of a relatively new programme called OSNAP that has similar moorings strung out across the whole North Atlantic between Canada, Greenland and Scotland. Together they will tell us for the first time how the vast ocean currents change over time; critical information for understanding the climate system. We will recover the instruments and download their data, and put new ones back in their place.

The people on board the RRS Discovery are a great mix of experienced seagoers and first timers. We hope to share some of our stories about us and our varied work over the coming 3 weeks, and to share our pretty amazing photos of this expedition, so please re-visit this blog to stay in touch with how we are getting on.

Image: David Ellett, the oceanographer who first started making repeated measurements in the deep ocean to the west of Scotland

Home again, with instruments recovered, moorings re-deployed, and data safe and sound

by Penny Holliday

We’re steaming through Southampton Water on a hot, sunny day, and as we near the dockside at NOC we’re reflecting on a successful and enjoyable cruise. We were very lucky with the weather, and that, combined with the work by our highly skilled team of people on board, meant that we have achieved all our scientific objectives. I’m very pleased with the excellent quality of the data that we have collected, and with the new friendships we’ve made.

The OSNAP moorings are now starting a 2-year long period in the deep ocean collecting lots of precious data for us – and some of us will be back to retrieve them in 2018. Meanwhile, we’ll be busy analysing the data we’ve collected on this trip, and looking forward to going to sea again.

Photo by Penny Holliday

Caffeine consumption among the DY054 science team (The Great Caffeine Experiment)

by Ryan Peabody

Scientists and marine technicians have long appreciated the productivity-increasing role of caffeine [citation needed]. However, quantitative assessments of caffeine consumption and usage among the members of the DY054 science team have not yet been performed. Herein, we perform a not-quite-exhaustive nine-day analysis of tea and coffee consumption on the RRS Discovery. No significant trends were observed, other than a general preference for tea over coffee, and a sharp decrease in enthusiasm for the study as it progressed. Further work is needed to determine whether or not bush tea counts as a cup of tea, and exactly what quantity of coffee counts as a colloquial “cup.”

Data were self-reported via “marker and whiteboard,” following methods developed in Mrs. Cooper’s second grade class [Cooper
et al.
, 1999]. Logging was originally intended to take place daily at 23:59:59 UTC, but the lead scientist occasionally felt “really over it” and data were not recorded until the following morning. Efforts were taken to ensure that subjects maintained standard patterns of caffeine consumption, though it is worth noting that several believed the study to be a contest to see which one of them could drink the most coffee.

Coffee and tea consumption demonstrate a general downward trend over the nine days, both passing a Mann-Kendall test (Figure 1). A 0.377 coefficient of cross-covariance implies that coffee and tea consumption are not related at any reasonable confidence level. Tea was consumed in generally higher quantities: on average 2.1 cups/person/day to coffee’s 1.6 cups/person/day. Further study is needed to determine if this is standard on a British flagged research vessel. Initial data supports this hypothesis: American-born members of the science team consumed 2.8 cups coffee/person/day and 1 cup tea/person/day, while British nationals consumed 1.3 cups coffee/person/day and 2.2 cups tea/person/day. The sole Hungarian-born member of the science team consumed an average of 6.1 cups of tea per day and 0 cups of coffee.

Over time, a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for the study is evident, with participation dropping from 14 initial participants on day 1 to 6 participants on day 9 (Figure 2). On a ship with 45 crew and scientists on board, this represents a drop from “low” to “very low” participation. Despite the decrease, 70% of participants reported feeling “fair” to “good” about their own caffeine consumption and the study, indicating that maybe no one was really paying attention to the study in the first place. A least-squares fit of a nonlinear model of form b(1) + b(2)*exp(b(3)*t) represents the data very well, but also indicates that it was wise to end the study on day 9 (Figure 3). If the study had continued until the scheduled arrival in Southampton, approximately -15.5 responses would be logged each day, indicating that study participants would begin to erase the previously collected data, invalidating the entire study.

Clearly, further study is needed to determine: 1) exactly how much caffeine is being consumed on board, 2) why no one wants to log their daily caffeine consumption, and 3) whether or not this was a good use of my time. Caffeine is a widely-consumed but little-studied product in the context of oceanographic research vessels, with most scientific effort going toward measurements of physical, chemical, and biological properties of the ocean. Though oceanographic research vessels are built and used primarily for the latter three areas of research, there is no apparent reason not to also study caffeine consumption.

Images by Ryan Peabody

Life at sea: stories from the night watch

by Sotiria Georgiou

Here we are! 15 days on board! So far, 36 CTD stations, 10 Moorings, 25 RAFOS floats and 1 Argo float have been completed and so many stories to tell!

Back on land, I am a PhD student at TU Delft in the Netherlands. I am using a numerical model to reproduce the circulation of the Labrador and the Irminger seas. To validate a numerical model we use observational data that we can easily download from the web. That means that we want to be sure that the output data of the model are able to reproduce the real state of the ocean as well as possible. Being here, in the Irminger Sea, collecting data for the first time is a priceless experience. Now, I get a rough picture on how complicated is to plan such a cruise to obtain the precious data and keep track on it whatever difficulties might occur.

The team is working hard during day and night. Me and Ryan are the night-watchers. During the night the ship is quiet and everyone is waiting for some action. That’s going to be either by getting to a CTD station or by releasing some RAFOS floats. When we reach at a CTD station the technicians will guide the CTD from the deck to the sea surface and then all the way down to the bottom. Once it returns on deck, we make sure that all the bottles keep well protected the water from the different depths. Then, under the whispers of songs (mostly from the top 40..), we take water samples from each of the bottles for both salinity and nutrients. Even if is too dark to distinguish the difference between the ocean and the sky, there is a beautiful sunrise to wait for (not everyday though!!).

Yesterday, we had some celebrations! Anna turned her 21st year! During the dinner (having greek mousaka!!) there was a big surprise for her. A huge birthday cake suddenly popped up from the kitchen followed by the happy birthday song! Mia made a wonderful birthday card for her and we all wrote our wishes to her. She was really happy!

We are about to finish the measurements and then we need almost one week to sail back to Southampton. On our way back, as we will all be more relaxed, there will be time to discuss the first processed data, our research and have even more fun!

Photos by Sotira Georgiou