mesoscope FROM THE FIELD
Understanding Ecosystems off the Hawaiian Islands

Racing time to Explore Ocean Ecosystems: A Mother’s Work

by |June 22, 2017

By Gwenn Hennon

Gwen HennonAs I kissed my 1-year-old son goodbye this morning at daycare it seemed like any other day. Yet as I dropped him off, I knew that I wouldn’t see him again for almost four weeks. I will be returning just in time for his second birthday. My heart aches knowing that he will likely be calling for me as my husband gets him ready for bed tonight, not understanding why I can’t be there to read him a story and kiss him goodnight.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job! I love that as a biological oceanographer I get to go to sea off the Hawaiian Islands to study how ocean life is shaped by swirling 60-mile-wide currents. The microscopic organisms that make up ocean ecosystems are invisible to the naked-eye, yet they are responsible for producing half the oxygen we breathe and sustaining all the world’s fisheries.

Scientists like myself are in a race against time to understand the fundamental drivers of ocean ecosystems before climate change pushes them towards a new unknown state. State-of-the-art models predict that warming, ocean acidification, and changes in ocean currents predicted for the year 2100 will have big impacts on the structure of the microbial ecosystem. These changes have large potential consequences for carbon sequestration and the rate of climate change, as well as the security of the world’s food supply. 2100 may seem like a long time off, but it’s likely that my son will be alive to see it. When he is 85 years old, what will he make of the world we have left for him? Did we accurately predict changes to the ocean ecosystem? Did we do enough to avert an ecological disaster?

Because no one has invented a time machine, we have to make do with our current best guesses. Unfortunately, our picture of the ocean ecosystem is far from complete, making it difficult to predict the future.  As I board my flight for Honolulu, I’m grateful for the opportunity to fit a few more puzzle pieces into the big picture of how the ocean ecosystem functions. Every scientist and crew member participating in this research cruise will make sacrifices, leaving behind family and friends, and working round the clock in an effort to gather new data to understand ocean processes. Wish us luck for a successful trip!


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