FROM THE FIELD
Wide Ocean, Tiny Creatures

Bonjour de Nouméa!

by |February 18, 2015

Scientists from research institutions around the world are participating in a research expedition aboard the R/V L ‘Atalante to study how microorganisms in the South Pacific Ocean influence the carbon cycle. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory graduate student Kyle Frischkorn is among them; his goal is to assess how the microorganism Trichodesmium, and other microbes, interact and the resulting physiological and biogeochemical impacts these processes have on marine ecosystems. This is the first in a series of posts in which Kyle shares what it’s like to do research at sea.

The research vessel L'Atalante in port in New Caledonia.

The research vessel L’Atalante in port in New Caledonia.

I am reporting from the shores of New Caledonia. I am just about as far away from my home in New York City as one can get—literally and metaphorically: New Caledonia is an island in the southern hemisphere, in the subtropical South Pacific, east of Australia. I am in the capital city, Nouméa, where palm trees lines streets that move at a leisurely, island pace. It’s also about 80 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than New York City right now, which is perhaps the most jarring difference of all.

Few have heard of New Caledonia, a French “special collectivity”. I hadn’t either, until I had to get a plane ticket here. During World War II this island served as the South Pacific headquarters of the US military. This was strategically important for the Allied forces during WWII, it had good infrastructure and developed roads. Additionally, the hospitality of the New Caledonians and the tropical amenities offered much needed respite for the soldiers. This is a snippet of what I learned at the Musée de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, just one stop on my two-day exploration of the city before embarking on 45 days of non-stop science.

As luck would have it, on my way to the museum I rode the bus one stop too far—an easy mistake to make, the street signs are miniscule and in French, also the buses blast catchy, island-y remixes of American Top 40 songs so I was reluctant to disembark. After I stepped off the bus, I got my bearings and by chance found myself face to face with the research vessel L’Atalante, my home for the next 2 months.

Scientists from research institutions around the world are partaking in this expedition, the broad, overarching goal of which is to study how microorganisms in the South Pacific Ocean influence the carbon cycle. My specific project focuses on one particular microorganisms, a cyanobacterium called Trichodesmium. This microbe is important in the low nutrient, oligotrophic ocean because of their ability to take in and fix carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, and because they have the relatively rare ability to transform atmospheric nitrogen into a form that is a utilizable nutrient for other organisms in the ocean. These abilities make Trichodesmium colonies oases of biological activity in a desert-like ocean. My colleague Andreas Krupke, a post-doctoral researcher in the Van Mooy Lab at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and I will be conducting a series of experiments on this transect from Nouméa, New Caledonia to Papeete, Tahiti to assess how other microbes and Trichodesmium interact and the resulting physiological and biogeochemical impacts these processes have.

Before we can get started on the science, however, the first mission is to unpack all of the gear I shipped from Lamont and re-assemble the Dyhrman Lab on L’Atalante. It’ll function just like our lab back on dry land, but all the equipment is literally tied, drilled or bungee corded to the benchtop… stay tuned!

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