Where are we? When you spend most of your day inside the vessel cabin or in the lab you don’t really have concept of place. Even when I look out on deck, I find the usual endless horizon of the sea. No land in sight, but we are north of the Arctic circle now, heading up to the Beaufort Sea.
We arrived and departed Nome late on August 4th, where we loaded the rest of the gear and scientists that got weathered out of Dutch Harbor. By morning on the 5th, we were finalizing the lab work areas for oceanography and zooplankton, one of our last days of preparation before we hit the transect sampling lines when work will be more steady.
There were sunny skies and flat seas when we passed through the Bering Strait, Russia on the port side and Alaska on the starboard.
Puffins danced between the swells as I was busy sewing some light-blocking bags for phytoplankton growth experiments. We continue to retrieve and deploy moorings, and are now doing CTD casts. The schedule is variable for now... whatever time we get to the mooring site is the time to work. Last night the mooring stop was at midnight, so half of the crew stayed up until 4 am due to some unforeseen complications with the winch.
The first oceanography stations are slow going as we all learn from Lisa Eisner about how to filter water for the multiple experiments going on. On most surveys oceanography is simpler, with only chlorophyll and nutrient sampling for most stations. On this project, we are looking at many aspects of the ecosystem, also including phytoplankton growth experiments, and collections of phytoplankton and zooplankton for fatty acid analysis.
As I have learned from Chief Scientist Johanna Vollenweider, the fatty acid tests will help to determine what fuels the Chukchi Sea ecosystem from the base of the food web: is it sea ice algae or phytoplankton from the open ocean that gets eaten by the zooplankton, which get eaten by fish and eventually marine mammals and humans? By tracing the fatty acids up through the trophic levels, we can see how dependent animals are on the sea ice, and make predictions about what might happen when there is less ice in the future. Sea ice algae has higher fat content than open ocean phytoplankton, so with less ice, there is potential for less nutritious diets for all - like fueling the system with the celery versus hamburgers of the phytoplankton and zooplankton world. We will look to see how the source of primary production (what phytoplankton and ice algae are called, because they are the primary source of nutrition for an ecosystem) relates to fish fat content and survival. This is crucial to help understand what will happen to fish stocks while the ecosystem is losing sea ice.
Sometimes it helps to put the experiments in perspective and look at the big picture when you start asking yourself why you are doing something... in my case, waiting an hour for water to filter. If the ecosystem is to be understood, and if we want to be able to predict further climate change effects, then oceanography is important, and that realization helps me to put my work into perspective as I filter water for hours.