Space Girl goes on a Marine Environment junket

JAC: Melissa Chen is a doctoral candidate in genetics at MIT, and, like me, a moderator of the Global Secular Humanist Movement Facebook site. She recently went on a cool NASA-sponsored trip from Wood’s Hole, and when she volunteered to write about her adventures here, I of course said, “Sure.” Here they are.  (By the way, Melissa’s alter ego is “Space Girl,” which she assumes, as you see below, by putting on a fake NASA helmet.)

The Adventures of Space Girl: What’s in a NAAMES?

by Melissa Chen

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With Prof. Craig Carlson and Jason, both researchers on the NAAMES mission, about to embark on a 26-day journey to sea

Space Girl was invited by NASA for a “social” which was essentially a press junket for social media “influencers” to aid the agency in disseminating information and publicizing its research. In particular, this was an insider’s look into NAAMES (North Atlantic Aerosols and Marine Ecosystems Study), a 5-year study to understand processes that govern ocean ecosystems and their influence on atmospheric aerosols—which in turn affect clouds and Earth’s climate.

NASA’s scientific portfolio is usually dominated by the “sexy” space sciences which involves research about other planets, asteroids, galaxies and the fundamental nature of our universe. It conjures up enthralling images of space exploration, rocket launches and spacefaring missions that captivate the public mindset and stoke the flames of science-fiction fantasies. But what about our own planet, the pale blue dot that we call home? Probing outer space for an extraterrestrial sanctuary for our species seems prudent, but why not spend some resources to save the one we live on now? To do so, we’ll have to understand the problems that plague Earth first.

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I arrived early at the NASA Social hosted at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Check out all the NASA swag laid out for bloggers and guests!

This is exactly what NAAMES, the first earth-suborbital mission focused on studying the coupled ocean ecosystem and atmosphere, intends to do. Fortunately for us, NASA has an Earth Sciences division that is funded to the tune of USD$2 billion. Dr. Paula Bontempi spoke to us about this terrestrial niche, one that gets scant attention compared to the titillating and awe-inspiring space sciences. Further exacerbating this is the fact that the research they do, particularly in areas like ocean sciences and biogeochemistry, have been caught up in the culture wars of our time. There’s no question that the earth sciences tend to be held to a much higher and more rigorous standard due to the stubborn pervasiveness of climate-change denialism among some factions of the American public. Funding is scarce and press coverage virtually non-existent.

“Which is why Space Girl was here to save the day,” I mused to myself as I sat in the conference room on a warm spring morning at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

Dance of the phytoplankton

The NAAMES mission is not only multi-disciplinary but also multi-modal, using ships, aircraft and satellites simultaneously. A C-130 Hercules airborne laboratory that deploys from St. Johns, Newfoundland will rendezvous with the R/V (research vessel) Atlantis which departs from Woods Hole, MA, along a route in the North Atlantic that takes it to the tip of Greenland.

One of the major biological events of the year is the phytoplankton bloom that takes place in the North Atlantic ocean. Below, you’ll notice the mesmerizing swirls of green biomass, reminiscent of a dreamy Van Gogh painting; they form the basis for the entire marine food chain. Satellites pick up the climax of blooms from April-May and were previously attributed to the same seasonal processes that cause terrestrial plants to flower in spring – namely, the gradually warming temperatures and increasing sunlight.

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Under this hypothesis however, warmer oceans should produce larger phytoplankton blooms, which means more carbon-rich fuel for zooplankton and the other marine creatures that depend on them. That goes against what we observe, however.

According to Mike Behrenfeld from OSU (pictured below), a researcher in the NAAMES study, phytoplankton actually bloom when conditions are “worse” for growth, i.e., during the dead cold and stormy swells of winter in the North Atlantic. It follows that global warming would produce smaller and smaller blooms, reducing photosynthesis and drastically limiting the ocean’s food supply and the foundation for the entire ocean ecosystem.

How biology influences cloud science

Another way these phytoplankton blooms affect global climate is by affecting aerosols and hence cloud formation. Clouds are made up of many tiny droplets of water condense from water vapor onto microscopic particles floating in the Earth’s atmosphere. Plankton essentially help to provide clouds with these nuclei to form around by “aerosolizing” to form airborne particles. It’s akin to how crystallization of a supersaturated liquid requires a “seed.”

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The more dissolved organic material in the ocean, the more particles get aerosolized in the atmosphere, which encourages cloud formation. Warming of the oceans could lead to decreased phytoplankton blooms, which, in turn, would decrease aerosols in the marine layer, thereby decreasing cloud formation. This further accelerates warming, resulting in a positive-feedback loop!

One of the NAAMES scientists showed us a neat demo which illustrates this point: holding a piping hot cup of tea on a particularly crisp cold day with minimal pollution (virtually no airborne particles), no ghostly streams of steam were detected emanating from his mug. When he blew onto the beverage surface or tried perturbing it with a lighter, hazy white ribbons of steam immediately formed.

In addition, large phytoplankton blooms are what causes the oceans to act as carbon sinks, since via photosynthesis, these micro plant cells convert CO2 to sugar that form the basis for all marine life.

R/V Atlantis: a floating laboratory

After the briefing, the participants were led on a tour of the R/V Atlantis, which was poised to embark on a 26-day mission the following day. This is no cruise – it’s a utilitarian research vessel that functions as a floating science laboratory, carrying 33 scientists and 26 crew.

There wasn’t an idle soul on board – everyone was industriously bustling about, tending to their respective duties or calibrating scientific instruments. We walked through the main lab space where we got a sense of what each group was studying, from the genomic sampling of the phytoplankton to the biogeochemistry of the oceans. It was clear to me that the only way to successfully carry out research on a ship that will, at times, be rocking quite violently, is to be fastidious and neurotic about securing everything with cable ties and rope.

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Out on the deck, we had to be very careful as we moved around, for the floor of a research vessel is a booby trap for those who, like me, have two left feet. Rows of plastic incubators were being set up to see how phytoplankton respond to various conditions like osmotic shock or varying degrees of sunlight.

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Biologists setting up a series of incubating tanks to learn more about the variables that affect phytoplankton growth. Check out that scientist’s (right) T-shirt!

Toward the bow of Atlantis, several modular ship containers (below) are perched side by side, each masquerading as mobile science laboratories. Inside, instruments like mass spectrometers and flow cytometers haphazardly corralled together from spare parts were whirring noisily as researchers were doing their final preparations.

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The NAAMES study involves some really unique and expensive instruments to take measurements. The CTD “rosette” (left) is basically a glorified sample collection device with multiple cylinders. When it is carefully hauled back on deck, the scientists gather around it with their containers in a ritual that is known on board as “milking the cow.” Then there are the “floaters,” (right) which is a little bit of a misnomer because they actually sink quickly and slowly rise as they collect data about the water column and transmit the information back to the ship. Each of these costs USD$30,000 and are for single use only!

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Off the ship, we saw the deep-sea sub named Alvin, who works with the R/V Atlantis for scientific research and exploration. He was in the dry dock because his ability to operate under immense pressures and total darkness was not needed for the NAAMES mission. Of his 4,400 dives, the most famous was probably the exploration of the wreckage of RMS #Titanic led by Dr. Robert Ballard in 1986.

Despite such an esteemed track record and illustrious career, Alvin is of course, still subject to what the internet does best – poking fun at things. Fittingly, he has been christened “Subby McSubface” (below) by an eager engineer wielding a label-maker.

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Like the ocean ecosystem that the NAAMES researchers were studying, the entire ship and its inhabitants are a kind of ecosystem as well, each part of a teeming organism whose lifeblood is the desire to learn and discover. It was all quite beautiful, like a symphony in perfect harmony or a stage of dancers in exquisite synchronicity.

Theirs is a devotion to science on a level that I have never known despite having worked in wet labs in academia for many years: crammed sleeping quarters, narrow and dim hallways, and huge logistical challenges plaguing the most basic everyday routines. Scenes from disaster movies such as “The Perfect Storm” are not just fiction to those on board – the maniacal stirrings of the North Atlantic occasionally toss people and things around. Motion sickness notwithstanding, the crew has to also “do science” under these conditions! Because of the variable working (and funding) conditions, many of the NAAMES scientists have mastered the art of “MacGyvering,” one even repurposing an engine from a Dodge truck to power sea water ionization.

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One of the NAAMES scientists was specifically looking out for Space Girl and wanted this photo. I told her that SHE was the real “celebrity” here!

The day ended with lunch at Captain Kidd’s next to WHOI where we were all still riding on the kind of high you can only get from being inspired by science. All this data from NAAMES will not only tell us so much about what processes trigger the yearly pattern of phytoplankton blooms, but also connect the dots between the blooms, aerosols and clouds. This information will in turn, help us to refine our climate models so that we can make better predictions on how marine ecosystems will be affected by climate change.

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Thank you to NASA for inviting me. I met some amazing people like mega space dork Jason Major who’s a social media rockstar and blogs at; Michael Finneran from NASA Langley Research Center; Nichole Estaphan, reporter from WCVB and a journalist who embedded with the NAAMES mission during its November mission. She wrote about her experience as a science journalist who spent her free days roughing it out on the rough sees on the Atlantis instead of kicking it back on vacation in the Carribean at Why? To tell the stories of the men and women who put it all the line for the sake of knowledge and discovery.



  1. nay
    Posted May 21, 2016 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    This is so cool! Great article. Didn’t know NASA did this (would have thought NOAA). Would love to contribute to this “cause”-my tax dollars go willingly to this kind of thing. Why DO phytoplankts bloom in cold, stormy conditions? (goes against everything we “know” about life) Q: re the photos, isn’t the rosette be on the right and floaters on the left? Anyway, meso jealous, Space Girl!

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted May 21, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      I am going to venture the guess (really based on stuff I had heard about somewhere, somehow), that phytoplankton blooms normally appear up when ocean currents kick up deeper sediments which are enriched with nutrients. The plankton then gets a spurt of growth, driven by fertilizer, basically.

      • nay
        Posted May 22, 2016 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

        Ah, so! Sounds eminently reasonable. Thank you!

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted May 21, 2016 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      Second everything from terrific article to more-science-and-articles-like-this-please, including the photo switch!

      I will also bet 30.000 gooblinks that the expensive “one time” floaters is one/mission, but cab be reworked and reused.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted May 21, 2016 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

        but cab be reworked and reused.

        Oh aye, the cabins are a commodity. At least, in my business. The going hire rate for an A-60 rated unit the last time I actually had to price them was £60/day onshore, and £90/day offshore (they corrode less when in the yard, being built).
        “A-60” means a certain degree of fire protection – 60 minutes before the unit becomes uninhabitable – combined with appropriate HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) to maintain a comfortable working environment in the expected weather conditions amd if they’re likely to be in a flammable or toxic atmosphere, appropriate controls and alarms on those parameters.
        Since different vessels provide different power outlets at different locations on deck, generally you need to tap the transformer appropriately for your voltages. Putting 100A of 480V through a transformer set up for 240V gets … smokey.
        Then you build the lab into the unit. Weeks of work, and you don’t want to do this on ship time. It’s a real challenge, but great fun.

  2. Merilee
    Posted May 21, 2016 at 11:04 am | Permalink


  3. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted May 21, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    A delightful posting! I was smiling all the way through it. She has a knack for adding some humor and ‘drama’, and I find that a great way to learn more about science.

    In some pictures she is not wearing her helmet. How does she breathe?

  4. aldoleopold
    Posted May 21, 2016 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    Great post, Melissa! Your account brings back great memories from time I spent out in Woods Hole. I was out there working on a Northern Right Whale project with NOAA. The ultimate goal of the project was to track migration patterns, and in turn, to introduce legislation to adjust shipping vessel traffic (either on a seasonal or permanent basis). We had one of the best cooks in the fleet, and to this day I can’t stomach rich pasta sauces or cliff bars – oy, sea sickness! 😉

    The point you make about devotion to science strikes a chord – this was absolutely my experience, too. I have never worked with a group of scientists so intent on their research. I was working on the NRW project, but there were other studies being performed on the vessel as well – oceanographic, etc. We kept all kinds of odd hours, collecting samples/performing surveys at specific times, etc. Science!!

    Did you spend much time at WHOI? Did you get to interact with Michael Moore?

  5. Diane G.
    Posted May 21, 2016 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    Great article! What fun it would be to be a part of such an endeavor!

    (“According to Mike Behrenfeld from OSU…” Ahem, there are 3 OSUs…)

  6. Posted May 22, 2016 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Oh, that Space Girl. I thought you meant this one.

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