Ocean Leadership ~
(Credit: NASA/ Earth Observatory)
In December, a team of researchers and students at the University of California, Santa Barbara made the best of a local tragedy. The Thomas Fire, the largest in the state’s history, burned nearly 300,000 acres (120,000 hectares) in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties north of Los Angeles. The smoke plume could be seen from space.
(From Oceans Deeply/ By Ian Evans) — Around that time, oceanographer Kelsey Bisson was one of two graduate students leading an expedition into the Santa Barbara Channel – a diverse marine ecosystem just off the coast. They were planning to study how zooplankton and phytoplankton move up and down the water column in the course of the sun’s daily cycle, but after seeing a NASA photo of the smoke plume, Bisson realized they had a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity. The ash would be headed right toward their ship’s planned path, which would allow them to study its effect on the ocean life.
Climate change is expected to increase the rate and severity of wildfires, and not much is known about how these blazes affect coastal marine ecosystems. To study that, researchers have to be at the right place at the right time. Luckily, Bisson was – and Oceans Deeply spoke to her about what she learned.
Oceans Deeply: What were you originally planning to study and why?
Kelsey Bisson: The Santa Barbara Channel is one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. We have a really beautiful diversity of life along the coast.
There are some long-term programs that have been going on in the channel that study it once a month. But the way the ocean is sampled, compared to the rate at which the ocean turns over and how much activity is going on, is analogous to if somebody were sitting in their house, looked out their window once every 300 years and then wrote down what they saw. Our understanding of how these microbiotas in the ocean are functioning is limited by how often we sample it.
We had an echo sounder on the [research vessel] Sally Ride that enabled us to look at the sound-scattering layer, which is basically looking at the acoustic signals that are coming from different depths.
Zooplankton scatter sound. You can look at that to see how the [zooplankton] layer shifts across different timescales, and then infer that that’s the plankton movement.
Oceans Deeply: How did you adapt your mission when the fire started?
Bisson: We had planned things down to the hour for our crew over the past year, and we had very tight schedules and a game plan. Then on December 4 the Thomas Fire started.
What is this going to do? What does this mean for the sea? Everything that we had been working really hard on, we ripped apart some of it in order to make space for experiments on how ash derived from forest fires will affect or could affect ocean ecosystems.
With the current projection for California’s climate there will be more fires in the future. The work that we are now doing could be a helpful benchmark for other, [future] fires. I wish it wasn’t the situation, but it seems like we’re getting to be more of a fire-ridden state.
It was an opportunistic cruise at that point, when we realized…
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