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UMaine Researchers Sailing the Arctic as Part of International Project to Study Planktonic Ecosystems in Relation to Climate Change

Two professors and two graduate students from the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine will participate in the Tara Oceans Polar Circle Expedition 2013, an international research collaboration that will study Arctic planktonic ecosystems in the context of climate change.

Married marine science professors Emmanuel Boss and Lee Karp-Boss, who have both participated in Tara missions before, will embark on their first Arctic expedition this summer. Oceanography graduate students Alison Chase and Thomas Leeuw will step onto the 118-foot schooner for their first monthlong research experience on a French sailing vessel.

Tara left Lorient, France on May 19 to circumnavigate the Arctic Ocean via the northeast and northwest passages, making it the third sailing vessel to do so. By December, the boat will have covered 15,500 miles sampling surface waters continuously and at stations along the route, according to the Tara Expeditions website.

About 40 scientists from more than five countries and representing 11 nationalities will take turns boarding Tara and sampling plankton and other environmental parameters throughout the seven-month journey.

The expedition is run by the Tara Foundation, a French nonprofit organization that initiates international research missions for scientists to study and understand the world’s oceans and the effects of climate change. The foundation was established in 2003 by French designer Agnes B. and her company director Etienne Bourgois.

The polar expedition is a collaborative effort between countries bordering the Arctic Ocean and in association with the Prince Albert II de Monaco Foundation, according to the organization’s website.

Tara is not new to the Arctic. In 2006 the schooner was anchored in the packed ice and drifted with it for approximately two years. During the drift, oceanic and atmospheric data were collected as part of the DAMOCLES (Developing Arctic Modeling and Observing Capabilities for Long-term Environmental Studies) international Arctic program, Karp-Boss says.

In 2009, Tara began a global-scale study sampling planktonic ecosystems across the world’s oceans. The Arctic was the only ocean not sampled during the 2009–2012 Tara Oceans mission and the present expedition will expand these sampling efforts.

The expedition will focus on plankton biodiversity in the Arctic but will also address other issues related to climate change and pollutants such as plastic and mercury.

Researchers are funded individually, but data collection and planning are done in collaboration. All the data will be made public, Boss says.

The UMaine researchers, who were awarded $149,714 from NASA, will study composition and pigmentation of surface plankton and other particles with relation to optical properties, such as light absorption, attenuation, fluorescence and backscattering.

“We’re measuring optical properties at high resolution and linking them to specific phytoplankton groups,” Boss says. “These measurements will ultimately help us link what is observed from satellites to what’s happening in the ocean.”

Being able to relate satellite ocean color to pigmentation is one way satellite images could provide more information about plankton ecology.

“NASA is very interested in making satellite technology more useful,” Boss says.

Beyond the work for NASA and in the general context of the expedition, the information on phytoplankton composition and optical properties collected by the UMaine team will supplement the efforts of collaborators who will study other trophic levels of the ecosystem such as zooplankton, bacteria and viruses, Karp-Boss says.

Putting together a comprehensive data set that integrates state-of-the-art optical, imaging and genomics approaches, providing an “end-to-end” view of planktonic ecosystems — from viruses to fish larvae — is what makes Tara’s sampling efforts unique.

Often, direct comparison between oceanic provinces is difficult to make because studies usually focus on a few components of the ecosystem or use different sampling and analysis tools. Tara’s methodologies and protocols have been consistent across all oceans, and the same protocols will be used in the Arctic Ocean, Karp-Boss says.

To provide the environmental context, Boss says scientists will conduct general hydrographic sampling, recording conditions such as temperature, salinity nutrients and pH.

Boss says the Tara trips differ from most research expeditions because the scientists are working together as a team, collecting data as part of one project, not focusing on individual goals.

Among the seven scientists and seven crew members aboard Tara for its initial four-week leg from Lorient, France to Tromso, Norway is graduate student Chase of Jamaica Plain, Mass.

Chase is currently working on her master’s degree in oceanography, which she expects to earn in the spring of 2014, and got involved with the expedition through Boss, her adviser.

Chase has never been on an expedition such as Tara’s and is looking forward to conducting fieldwork with researchers from a variety of backgrounds.

“It will be an exciting adventure,” Chase says. “I will be working below deck in the dry lab where I will operate several instruments that analyze different properties of the water and its contents using optics.”

Leeuw of Lincoln, Vt., who is also working on a master’s degree in oceanography, will board Tara in August as it sails through the Russian Arctic.

As an undergraduate, Leeuw worked with Boss analyzing data collected during the Tara Oceans expedition, which circled the globe from 2009 to 2012. As a graduate, he has helped Boss plan, prepare and execute the next expedition.

“The great success of the previous expedition and the unparalleled data set it generated got me very excited,” Leeuw says.

He says the Arctic is an area that is being strongly affected by climate change and data collected on the expedition will provide a baseline that can be compared with future measurements, helping scientists understand the region’s ecosystem.

Tara Expeditions also educates the public and encourages policymakers to take action toward preserving the environment. Boss says at every port schoolchildren and politicians visit the ship.

“Tara Expeditions has two objectives, the first is to provide a platform for scientists to do science they believe is important, the second is to promote public awareness of ocean-related issues and stewardship,” Karp-Boss says.

Karp-Boss says the organization’s outreach program is inspiring and provides an added value and excitement to research efforts.

“Given Tara’s small size, they have a huge impact,” Boss adds. “Academics in general are not very good at doing outreach. Tara is very good at doing that link between science and society.”

Karp-Boss, who participated in Tara Oceans expeditions from Valparaiso, Chile to Easter Island in 2011 and from New York to Bermuda in 2012, will join the Arctic mission in late June. Boss, who took part in an expedition from Panama City to Savannah, Ga., in December 2011 to January 2012, will board Tara in September.

An independent journalist will be onboard during every leg of the journey, documenting the social and scientific aspects through interviews, videos and photos. The journalist is considered part of the crew and everyone is expected to do chores, Boss says, making it a different experience than on research vessels in the United States.

“Scientists never do dishes or clean toilets [on U.S. research vessels], they do research while others are responsible for such chores,” Boss says.

“On Tara, we are like a family and everyone participates in ‘household’ chores.”

Karp-Boss says there’s no typical day on Tara, but there is always work to do either at stations or in transit.

A research station can last between 24 to 36 hours and involves continuous sampling, Karp-Boss says. When Tara is not at a station, researchers prepare for the next stop by calibrating instruments, checking previously collected data and doing chores.

Despite the abundance of work, the team always makes time to eat lunch and dinner together, swap tales of expeditions and rest.

“The French hold meals sacred,” Boss says. “No matter what happens, usually everyone sits together and has a meal together. The meals are respected, as well as night. When you’re not holding watches at night, you sleep.”

The couple enjoys the social aspect of the excursion almost as much as the scientific.

“It’s a very interesting human experience,” Karp-Boss says. “When you first come onboard you find yourself with 13 other people that you have never met before but you quickly get to know them as you have to live and work together in a confined space for a month or longer.”

The diverse background, experiences and ages — from 20 years to older than 60 — of the team members create an interesting mix of people, adds Boss.

The couple recently took their children to Paris to spend a night on the boat so they could see where their parents will be staying, Boss says.

The pair, who wrote a proposal to NASA in the spring of 2012, have been preparing for the journey since their funding was approved last fall. They trained the UMaine team on instruments they will be using, wrote protocols and took turns installing equipment on Tara in the spring.

“Preparation for the trip involved countless hours of testing and characterizing instruments,” Leeuw says. “Many of the instruments we have onboard Tara were recently developed. In many cases we met directly with the scientists and engineers who built the instruments.”

Leeuw, who is most looking forward to icebergs, 24-hour daylight and spending time on a French research vessel, says even though the expedition has officially started, preparation for those waiting for their turn is an ongoing process.

“Staying in contact with the scientists on the legs ahead of mine is helping me to prepare,” he says. “They will let me know if they are having problems with any instruments or if I need to bring materials to the ship with me.”

Every corner and cubby of the Tara is packed with scientific tools, food or everyday essentials for the seven-month journey.

“As big as the Tara is, it’s not that big. It’s extremely cozy,” Boss says, adding that it’s not unusual to sleep in a bunk on top of a bag of flour.

“The cook will always ask, can I lift your bed? And grab things under the bed,” Karp-Boss says.

Temperatures are expected to be between 14 and 41 F when Tara sails beyond the Arctic Circle from July to October, according to Tara’s website. Although Boss and his wife have never been on an Arctic expedition, he is confident in Tara and the crew.

“It’s going to be cold, it’s going to be rough,” Boss says. “But it’s a boat that rides well. It’s a very seaworthy boat, and it was designed to go in the Arctic, so I’m not worried. And some of the people on the crew have already done an Arctic mission with the Tara.”

Another aspect of Tara that distinguishes it from more traditional vessels is that it is cheaper to operate and consumes less fuel.

“During the Tara Oceans, half the time we were with sails up,” Boss says. “An American ocean-going research vessel costs $35,000 a day just to operate the boat. For the Tara, it’s about $5,000 a day.”

Despite the unique experience, the data remains the most important aspect, the researchers say.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Karp-Boss says. “And it’s an amazing opportunity to sample the Arctic Ocean at a time that we witness such rapid and drastic changes.”

Boss says they will record a new data set that can be used for studies globally.

Having fun while contributing to society is a bonus.

“Being onboard is awesome,” Boss says. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had doing scientific research.”

The expedition can be followed online.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747


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