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UCSB scientist leads NASA expedition at sea

Photo: Deborah Steinberg
Scientists collect water samples from various depths to study the ocean's carbon cycle

UC Santa Barbara marine scientists are currently on an international expedition to study the ocean’s carbon cycle. The scientists say the data will help them to understand how the ocean is going to respond to climate change.

The NASA-led project includes three research vessels and is underway in the North Atlantic sea.

Also supported by the National Science Foundation, the project includes 150 scientists and crew members on three academic research vessels -- two chartered from the United Kingdom and one from Spain -- working to study the ocean’s role in the global carbon cycle.

UC Santa Barbara Professor David Siegel is the lead scientist. He said the trip was supposed to happen last year but was postponed due to the pandemic. Siegel is astonished that it all came together this spring.

“Every day was a new challenge. The rules for how to deal with Covid and travel changed on a daily basis,” Siegel said.

Siegel and the team from UCSB flew to the UK, then spent fourteen days in quarantine before joining others aboard the ship.

“NASA came up with bridge funding to extend everyone’s project and they funded the entire team of 54 people sailing to stay in quarantine in a hotel in Southampton, UK, for fourteen days, and gave us many, many Covid-19 tests,” he said.

The scientists will spend a month at sea off the coast of Ireland. Their research ships are equipped with state-of-the art technology including autonomous vessels and satellites. On the ship, Siegel said work happens around the clock – weather permitting.

“On Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, we were unable to work because of gale force winds and waves - waves that were probably over six meters in height, but today was a great day,” Siegel said.

As the earth continues to warm due to fossil fuel emissions, Siegel said it’s important to understand and learn to predict how the ocean will respond as temperatures increase and carbon dioxide accumulates.

The ocean pulls as much carbon from the atmosphere as all the plants on land, and the biological process for this begins with phytoplankton —microscopic plant-like organisms that grow on the ocean’s surface. The research expedition was timed to catch the spring bloom of phytoplankton in the North Atlantic.

Phytoplankton is either eaten by sea life or decays over time and trickles down below the surface. This ecosystem and how carbon moves in the ocean is what the scientists are studying. They use a piece of equipment called a rosette to take water samples from various depths.

“We can bring it [the rosette] down to any depth, close the bottle, and bring it up on deck. We can count the organisms, we can do chemistry measurements with it, we can measure the nutrient content…” Siegel said.

For more than a decade, Siegel has worked on this project with other universities, the NSF, and NASA.

Ivona Cetinic is an oceanographer and the project scientist for NASA. She said NASA studies the global carbon cycle which includes oceans.

“The majority of people do believe that NASA is focusing on space, but we also have to remember that Earth is part of space, it’s the closest planet we can study and it’s our home,” Cetinic said.

NASA has a whole fleet of Earth-observing satellites and Cetinic said images show that the ocean changes color according to phytoplankton activity.

“They have different pigments, pigments that change their color. A majority of them are green, some of them can be reddish and it changes the color of the ocean. That’s why observing the color of the ocean is a really good way to see these teeny, tiny microscopic creatures,” she said.

Cetinic monitors the expedition in real-time from her computer in Washington D.C., and said there are numerous scientists assisting the research vessels from land 24 hours a day.

She said the data from this voyage will lay the groundwork for future predictive models.

“We need this kind of information to understand what is happening with the carbon cycle in the ocean now, and hopefully to project what’s going to happen with the carbon cycle in the future” Cetinic said.

Since the research is federally funded, the data will be freely available to other scientists in the field. You can find out more about the research vessels and see photos by going to and clicking on Earth.

This report is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.
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