Deep Sea Biology and Chemistry: Muddy Business

Mud, mud, and more muddy mud was hauled from the bottom of the ocean for
the last five days from depths of one, two, and even three miles below the
icy surface. The biologists aboard are having a field day with mud and all
life forms that relate to mud. The mud is on their faces, mud is on their
pants, mud is on sampling dishes, there is mud in the air, mud in the
hair. People on this ship poke, grab, extract, label, profile, and film
mud. There are people filling vials with mud, people sucking water from
the mud, people running mud through fancy coffee filters, people preparing
mud with chemicals for later analyses.

The fascination with mud, mine included, makes me wonder if perhaps there
is something to the many creation stories that we all evolved out of the
mud. Perhaps what is done here and elsewhere is to decoding mud in search
of life and how life works deep down. The clean and un-muddied people are
shallow water physical oceanographers like myself who barely touch water,
never mind mud; but I got a beer cap of mud from 3 miles down sitting on
my computer as I type these lines.

It was not always like this for me: I grew up a few miles behind the dikes
of Germany’s West Coast. No promising sunny California with its rocky
inter-tidal, but endless tidal mud-flats extending to the horizon on a low
tide. We had battles with mud as kids when the tide was out and were
hosed down a few hours later by the incoming tide. Water waist-deep, we
then dove into the ground, head-first to feel the gentle impact of the
soft mud half a foot thick. Fun, children playing with mud. It was fun
because it was both dirty and smelly business.

Strangely, though, the mud that many biologists aboard are excited about
does not smell … but let me double check by asking Ulrike B., if she lets
me smell some of her mud that she just captured with a massive contraption
that she had moored about a mile deep for 36 hours collecting mud in
containers and sampling it with fine glass electrodes to measure microbial
activity. Microbes are tiny critters neither plant nor animal, a little
like the bacteria that give you the sniffles, and they are everywhere
doing lots of funny chemistry in our stomachs, throats, as well as the
bottom of the ocean.

The mud aboard does not smell, not even a tiny bit. Ulrike B., who is from
Belgium and who knows the mud-flats of the North Sea well, just told me:
“I had to smell the mud at first, too, it is none of that stinky mud we
got in the North Sea.” Wondering why, I was told quickly, “… lots of
oxygen …” as she handled 3 samples sorting and preserving them. Ian S., a
British chemical oceanographer without an urgent task at hand explained in
more detail the difference between smelly estuarine and deep sea mud:
“Most of dead matter sinks from the surface to the deep sea where bacteria
help decompose it by uses dissolved oxygen in the water-column. Hence
there usually is enough oxygen in surface sediments for bacteria to deal
with the small amounts of organic matter that arrive.  In shallow waters
more organic matter arrives, at the bottom, bacteria use it up quickly and
then switch to other forms of oxygen that often releases sulphur
compounds, giving shallow sediments a strong smell.

There was also something about receptors that made me think of oxidation
potentials, but I had my answer, I felt.


So, in summary, the North Sea mud smells, because there is so much life in
it. And as this life dies, it starts a new cycle that uses up the oxygen
in the mud. The fancy word for life is “organic matter” as it refers to
plants and animals. These plants and animals also fix carbon, the stuff
that we burn in our cars that makes our globe a little warmer each year on
average. When these carbon-based life forms die and sink to bottom of the
ocean, they decay almost the same way on the bottom of the ocean as a
banana peel is rotting away on my compost pile at home.

The process of “rotting” uses up oxygen. There is plenty in the air, but
not always on the ocean floor, except the deep ocean, few rotten bananas
here. Microbes probably help to eat up the dead stuff using oxygen and
making nutrients that then becomes food stuff for living things. Better
have a biologist proof-read this, as this stuff is not my cup of tea.
Physics and mathematics are so much easier to deal with than this fuzzy
thing called life and its many competing and co-operating cycles

Posted by Pat Ryan for Andreas Muenchow

Wild Women Working Science Aboard Polarstern

My wife of 20 years teaches at Padua Academy, a private catholic High
School for girls only. It mostly serves families where the girls will
become the first in their families to go on to college. I am thinking of
them right now, as  an hour ago there was a flurry of activity on the deck
of FS Polarstern after 2 days of endless grinding and breaking ice. And it
was predominantly women of all ages who were leading, directing, and doing
science. Some even carried a gun to protect themselves against polar bears
as they went for an excursion onto an ice floe nearby.

There is Ilka P. who studies ice, plants, and tiny animals who live below
the ice. She is also the gun safety officer for the science crew. Her
research group includes Bibi Z. from Denmark and Ulrike D. from
Germany, both graduate students. All three fly helicopter to get to the
ice often, but tonight they went out on a zodiac to take their snow and
ice samples in wet-suits. Bibi’s job is to analyze the ice for the life that
uses what little light gets through snow and ice allows there to be. When not
flying helicopters, riding zodiacs, or hiking on ice floes, she usually
works in a refrigerated container far below decks in a thick parka, so she
is rarely seen.

This is very different from both Ilka P. and Ulrike D. When not guarding others from polar bears on the ice, I see Ilka often next to me in a dry lab with lots of computers, screens, winch controls etc. She analyzes small samples of melted ice for algea with a very high-tech machine that I do not fully understand, but it works much the same way that blood samples are analyzed in a crime lab. Ulrike’s work is much easier to understand as she cheerfully explained to me that she is baking microbes in something like a pressure cooker to clean the containers used to store the microbes living near the ice. She always walked past our mooring assembly line below decks and made as much
noise with her pressure cooker as I did when testing my acoustic releases. At first I believed that she was the first to jump out of the zodiac onto the ice flow to help others along, when it actually was Ilka.

Then there is Nicole H., a biologist from Germany who quietly focuses on collecting zooplankton samples with a long net that profiles the water column, vertically extracting “stuff” in 5 containers at 5 different depths. She does all this while the zodiac is made ready with people, guns, and gear moving past her. She does all this while a group of engineers and other scientists get ready for yet another bottom-landing contraption to collect sediment, water, and critter samples from the bottom of the 2500 meter deep ocean. Ms. Grumpy Pants was among them (she shall remain anonymous), but Nicole stood like a rock focused on one thing within the storm of activity that surrounded her. There is a lot of love and dedication to detail in Nicole’s focus the same way there was in the hectic excitement of Ilka, Ulrike, and Bibi. This is science at its best. It has a rythm.

If you want to have fun, independence, challenge, and a sense of adventure rather than being judged on your make-up, prom dress, or popularity in High School, then science is for you. The make-up and the boys will fade rather quickly, but the thrill of science and making discoveries will stay
with you for a long time … it will also pay a good salary, but, more importantly, then, it often provides good and exhilarating companionship. And as Mandy K., a chemistry laboratory technician proved during some friendly banter on deck yesterday: even a 20 year old stands up with good
humor to any men aboard. Strong, wild, and mostly smart women.


Post scriptum: Jonathan P. just tells me, that there actually was a polar
bear on a neighboring ice floe. The bear was carefully watched and all men and
and women returned safely back to the ship.

Posted by Pat Ryan for Andreas Muenchow

Icebergs, Islands, and Instruments off Isle de France, North-East Greenland

Andreas Muenchow

Leaving all land behind when FS Polarstern sailed for Greenland almost 2
weeks ago, we saw land again for a few hours last Sunday. A small
ice-capped island called Isle de France was ahead of us. Solid ice was to
the west, open water to the east, and Greenland proper appeared just
faintly above the western horizon. We arrived at 5 am in the morning, but
the northern summer light changes more with the clouds, absent this day,
than it does as day becomes night. We are more than 1000 km to the north
of the Arctic Circle and about half-way between Bremerhaven and the North



Waiting for the mooring work to begin, we sailed along a row of large
and grounded tabular icebergs and ice islands that appeared strung out
like pearls on a line where the ocean’s water was about 100 meters deep.
Sea- and ice-scape looked the same eons ago when massive ice-sheets
covered much of northern Europe and North-America before people invented
agriculture and turned from nomadic hunters and gatherers to settled
farmers and peasants. And while everyone awake admired Greenland’s beauty
and serenity that Sunday morning, I had only one thought: Here go my

The ship paused for a few hours to wait for me and Jonathan to ready
instruments that we needed to placed on the ocean floor. They are
designed to measure ocean currents for the next 2-3 years and will give
us better ideas on how ocean heat and currents melt
Greenland’s glaciers from below. We already had deployed four such
instruments the day before out of sight of land and icebergs. Now we were off Isle de France to complete our shelf mooring program with 3
instruments placed across the south-western slope of Norske Ore Trough.


This ‘trough” is really a broad and deep submarine valley that connects
the deep Fram Strait 150 km to the east to Greenland’s largest glaciers
100 km in the West and North. The valley may act as a pathway, so we
think, to move warm ocean waters from Fram Strait near the bottom across
the broad and confused continental shelf of Greenland. It is coastal oceanography that we do, but the heat that our coastal flows
transport towards the glaciers does impact a changing climate that
changes land, sea, and icescape both here around Greenland and
elsewhere as ocean sea level rises when ice on land becomes ice on water
and eventually water in the ocean.

As fast-flowing floating glaciers disappear, such as Zachariae Isstrom did
the last 10 years, the ice-sheet behind them on land often accelerates and
thins because ice-shelves attached to glaciers act a little like a cork
does to a bottle of Champagne. The bubbly inside exerts a high pressure
against the cork separating the Champagne from the lower pressure outside,
especially if shaken. If you loose the cork or remove it explosively, then
the bubbly will spill out quickly. The friction of an ice-shelf may have
retarded the advancement of the ice-sheet behind in a subtle balance of
forces. Now, as the ice shelf is removed, a new
balance of forces will have to establish itself. The transition from one
to another stable state usually occurs via accelerations: The glacier
speeds up, stretches, and as it stretches, it thins and may allow the sea
water to advance deeper shoreward to melt more ice that was before not
in contact with the ocean. It is a positive feedback and the potential
exists, that the glacier keeps retreating faster as a result. Both
Jacobshavn Glacier in South-West Greenland and Pine Island Glacier in
Antarctica do this now.


But I digress and want to return to Isle de France with its pearl string
of tabular icebergs within about 5 km off our first moorings. At 170
meters below the surface a strike by one of these stunning mountains and
islands of hard ice will perhaps wipe out a mooring, but perhaps the
goddess of the sea will steer the perhaps 50,000 year old towers of ice into shallow
water where they will ground for a few years. Either way, I will be
watching these icy islands from afar for the next few years in what
becomes a most exciting and pleasurable puzzle with many pieces. Some may
fit and some may be missing. Perhaps the best we can hope for is
a sketch or an outline. Control of nature is vanity, we are merely
temporary sailors on a mighty ocean with ice that will last longer than
either us or whatever sensor we may place in her ways.

posted by Pat Ryan for Andreas Muenchow

Day-3: Working on Ocean Physics, Chemistry, and Biology

Position: 65:36’N and 00:23’W
Time: June-9, 23:33
Temperature: 9.6 C Air and 9.8 C Water

More than 5 different groups finished moving and unpacking the content of
15 or more containers filled to the brim with gear that was packed months
ago. My gear shipped from British Columbia, Canada and its 7500 pounds of
stuff filled a little over one container. The ship is large and spacious,
but moving boxes filled with scientific instruments, supplies, and tools
into labs, work spaces, and decks creates friction. All 52 scientists
aboard waited for weeks, months, or years to do this work and we only got
the next 3 weeks to do it all. Everyone was anxious to get the stuff out
of boxes to start the experiments. It always amazes me, how quickly and
smoothly this initial “friction” is overcome by the social grease of
meals, by the excitement of science, and by the many new men and women one
meets aboard a large research ship.

Everyone was a little out of their comfort zone for the first day or two,
but now we have all settled into new routines: Dry and wet labs are filled
with reagents, equipment is connect to computers, and the first data have
been collected over night. It was funny to see this happen as if someone
had flipped a switch: Walking down a broad  walkway inside the ship, I saw
Cathrine L. from Canada fix a sediment trap, Janine S. connect wires to a
water sampling device, Ulrike B. huddle over a control unit of a device to
penetrate the bottom with glass sensors, Katrin L. and Agniezka B. prepare
ARGO floats, and Jonathan P. connect metal pieces to built a mooring.

It took me almost 24 hours to finish this blog as scientific work and fun
social interactions aboard take up almost all waking hours of which there
are only about 18, so, current information:

Position: 68:50’N and 01:07’W
Time: June-10, 21:27
Temperature: 8.5 C Air and 8.5 C Water


Posted by Pat Ryan for Andreas Muenchow

First Day at Sea: Moving In

Position: 57 34.9 N and 05 10.9E
Time: 11:25pm June-7, 2014
Temperature: 14.3 C air and 12.8 C water at surface


We are a few miles south-west of Stavanger, Norway passing through the rich oil fields of the North Sea between Scotland, Denmark, and Norway without any rig in sight. The sun has long set, but it still lingers just below the horizon painting the sky in vivid reds. Four young scientists huddle on an upper deck with clear view of this sky with blankets around their bodies for warmth that, so they tell me, they used to sit and watch for several hours of sunset. They are giddy and silly in witty jokes, gently teasing each other. It is the end of our long and strenuous first day at sea.




The first day at sea is always rough both physically and mentally: Lots of boxes with gear must be found, moved, emptied, and its content moved again. Space to work is set-up in unfamiliar environs. There are many people one does not know, but one depends on each other for help and support. People come from different cultures and countries with different ways to talk to each other to get things done. Some do not talk at all. And yet, through some mysterious magic, it all works out in the end. People are naturally curious and watch how others do things by visiting each others empty rooms become living and work quarters.




People from different scientific disciplines have evolved along different lines and their way to do things differs, even a task as simple as moving boxes: Some like to stack many of them on palettes that are then moved by fork-lift, others prefer smaller carts that contain a single box only. Routines that give us comfort in daily life do not exist yet. Emotions swing wildly as there is way too much excitement. All the manual labor is done with high hopes of potential successes that may or may not bear fruit. Arctic ice can and likely will be cruel to some and blissful to others. Pleasures can be as small as a successful lift of an expensive piece of equipment moved vertically by crane from the F-deck to the A-deck far above. The crane had to swing over the water and did so, of course, without falling in. The scientist responsible had never seen such a thing and marveled exuberantly that her vertically profiling laser system is still there for her to do the science she is here to do for her PhD thesis work. I was one lucky guy receiving the news in the form of a massive verbal bear hug while grabbing myself a cup of tea. Fun.




Hard to imagine that the pilot helping steer us out of the port of Bremerhaven left us only yesterday, the beginning of the first day now over. So much has happens aboard a ship, but I have to stop here as it is now 1am Sunday which is a regular working day.


Position: 57 49.9 N and 04 56.4 E
Time: 01:02 on June-8, 2014
Temperature: 14.2 C air and 13.2 C surface water


Posted by Pat Ryan for Andreas Muenchow