URI oceanographers explore world’s oceans to better understand underwater volcanoes, microscopic life, Arctic winds

Posted on October 29, 2018 on URI Today

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. – October 29, 2018 – Scientists from the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography spent weeks at sea last summer on research expeditions designed to gain a better understanding of underwater volcanoes, microscopic life and Arctic winds.

The summer expeditions are representative of the wide variety of subjects that URI oceanographers study and the leadership role the University plays in gaining new knowledge about the world’s oceans.

In a NASA-led expedition to the North Pacific, URI oceanographers and graduate students were among 100 scientists participating in a month-long project to study microscopic organisms that live deep in the ocean and play a critical role in removing carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere.

This first-of-its-kind effort to explore the impact of plankton on Earth’s carbon cycle used two research vessels to deploy advanced underwater robotics and other instruments to depths up to a half mile, where little or no sunlight penetrates. In these regions, carbon produced by plankton can be confined in pockets and kept out of Earth’s atmosphere for decades, or even thousands of years.

Phytoplankton are of particular interest to researchers because they play a key role in Earth’s climate by removing heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Yet a detailed account of what becomes of that carbon — how much of it goes where within the Earth and for how long — has beset scientists for decades.

“Our experiments and sampling were all successful,” said URI Oceanography Professor Tatiana Rynearson. “The project collected terrabytes of data and thousands of samples that will provide insights into the mechanisms of carbon export from the oceans’ surface waters.”

In another NASA-led expedition, this time to an underwater volcano off the coast of Hawaii, URI used its Inner Space Center to help NASA learn how to use telepresence in the way it may use it for space exploration. The researchers blended ocean and space research to better understand if the watery worlds found on moons and planets in our solar system offer conditions that could support microbial life.

According to Dwight Coleman, director of the Inner Space Center, the type of hydrothermal venting at the Lō`ihi Seamount is a good representation of conditions scientists believe exist on certain moons in the outer solar system.

“We accomplished every goal that we set out to accomplish,” said Coleman. “The primary goal was to simply use the Center as it was designed to support seagoing ship-based ocean exploration involving a multidisciplinary team of scientists. It worked perfectly for that.”

In a follow-up expedition next year, a delay in the Inner Space Center communications system will be simulated to represent the transmission delays likely to occur during space exploration.

In the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska, URI oceanographer Robert Campbell and two students joined a project to understand how winds and ocean physics influence plankton and fish prey availability and how marine mammal and seabirds respond to varying conditions. The URI team was responsible for describing the changes in abundance and distribution of zooplankton in response to the upwelling of deep water during east winds and determining the nutritional quality of zooplankton for animals that feed on it.

This was the second year in a row that Campbell has participated in the project.

“The conditions we encountered in the two years were dramatically different,” he said. “In 2017, there was no ice and we encountered two large upwelling events with strong winds from the east. In contrast, during the 2018 cruise the entire region was still covered in ice and mostly light, non-upwelling winds dominated. We anticipate that the two contrasting years will provide a nice comparison in the distribution, abundance, and nutritional quality of the zooplankton prey field.”