February 25, 2013

UW undergraduates embark on three-week research cruise off Japan

News and Information

With winter quarter in full swing and many students spending long hours in the library or the lab, a group of undergraduates will leave the coast of Japan for an unusually ambitious research and teaching expedition.

They leave Monday (Feb. 25) and will travel for about three weeks, flying back to Seattle in mid-March. It’s part of a senior-level course, Ocean 444: Advanced Field Oceanography, that will induct 11 seniors into the UW tradition of ship-based undergraduate research.

“The students are going to find out exactly what oceanographers do, and they’re either going to like it or not,” said instructor Steven Emerson, a UW professor of oceanography. “For sure, it’s going to be something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”

Class photo with big yellow instrument

Members of the UW cruise to study the Kuroshio Current. In the center (l-r) are professors Stephen Riser and Steven Emerson, with one of 18 UW-built floats they will deploy.

Emerson and fellow instructor and oceanography professor Stephen Riser are chief scientists on one of the UW’s most far-flung undergraduate cruises.

In previous years, students have gone on research cruises off the coast of Washington, Vancouver Island and between Seattle and Hawaii. Last year’s combined research and teaching cruise took place off the coast of Chile.

This year’s goal is to study the Pacific equivalent to the Gulf Stream, known as the Kuroshio Current, which flows northward along the coast of Japan. It’s known that the fast current absorbs unusually high quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but the reason is a mystery.

UW faculty and graduate students hope to understand what role organisms play in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so they can improve computer models that try to predict how increased atmospheric carbon dioxide will affect the climate.

Four scientists and three graduate students will conduct their own research while assisting the undergraduates.

Students will carry out individual undergraduate research projects collecting data to study water movement, acidity, and the relationship between satellite imagery and abundance of marine plant and animal life. Their research will become senior-level theses, and in some cases could lead to scientific publications.

“It’s one thing to sit in class and learn the theory, or even help with someone else’s research,” said Mariela Tuquero, a UW oceanography senior from Tacoma. “It’s another thing to have your own project that you care about, to be getting data that’s personal to you and interpreting the results.”

She said she’s excited, but also a little nervous – she has packed a box of Dramamine to help with seasickness.

Students begin in fall quarter learning about field research and designing their projects. In winter quarter they collect data and in the spring they will interpret that data, write a paper and present their findings.

During this year’s cruise UW researchers will deploy 18 robotic floats built in Riser’s lab, which will join more than 3,000 that already measure temperature and salinity in the top half mile of the world’s oceans. These new floats include sensors fine-tuned by UW faculty and graduate students to precisely measure the amount of dissolved oxygen, which helps to detect the rate of photosynthesis.

Map of ocean height and route

Steven Emerson

The ship will sail out of Yokohama and travel southeast for about 500 miles, then turn northeast and cross the Kuroshio Current twice before returning to shore.

Within a few hours of deployment, the new floats will begin to dive down, gradually rise to the surface, and beam data back to the UW. By this time next year the team will have a full year’s cycle of vertical profiles collected every 10 days. The floats will continue to collect data for about five years, until their batteries die and they sink to the ocean floor.

“Studying oxygen gives us some information about biological productivity,” Emerson said. “By March 2014 these floats will generate 18 annual cycles in different areas of the Kuroshio Current off of Japan.”

The cruise will take place on a Scripps Institution of Oceanography research vessel because the UW’s Thomas G. Thompson research vessel has been undergoing repairs. The research portion of the cruise is supported by the National Science Foundation. The student ship time is supported by the State of Washington, through an agreement that brought the Thompson to the UW in 1991 in exchange for 40 days each summer of ship-based undergraduate research.

“I think it’s one of the greatest opportunities I’ve had at the university,” Tuquero said.

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