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Making Waves: Episode 63 (November 10, 2010)

… Scientists on a NOAA research vessel collect plankton and plastic debris across the Pacific Ocean.

… An estuary in Wisconsin is the newest addition to NOAA's National Estuarine Reserve System.

… And NOAA adds visibility and wave data to real-time oceanographic systems in five maritime regions around the nation.

Those stories are coming right up. It's Wednesday, November 10, and you're listening to episode number 63 of Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.

(Okeanos Explorer)

Scientists onboard the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer just finished up a journey at the end of October that spanned thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean. A team of NOAA researchers, led by the National Marine Fisheries Service, conducted an amazingly long sampling survey of plankton – those tiny, microscopic plants and animals that drift around in the ocean. Along the way, they also surveyed plastic debris through what's popularly known as the 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch.'

Let's talk about the plankton first. It turns out that not much is known about these microscopic organisms that live in the far reaches of the Pacific. Why do scientists want to know more? For starters, plankton forms the base of the entire marine food web. It's also the most abundant form of life in the ocean. And it's the world's number one source of oxygen responsible for 90 percent of all the photosynthesis that takes place on the planet. So plankton may be tiny, but they're critically important to life on Earth.

The plankton sampling across the Pacific began with a cruise from Guam to Hawaii with the help of an instrument called a Continuous Plankton Recorder. This device was towed behind the ship and about 10 meters below the water during the transit. It's a pretty ingenious tool. As the ship moves through the ocean, water and plankton enter the nose of the rocket-shaped recorder. Inside the device, a slowly advancing silk screen filters out the plankton. This silk mesh is then rolled up and stored so it can be brought back to a lab for later analysis. 

So the researchers collected plankton on rolls of silk screen all the way from Guam to Hawaii. Then they continued on to collect even more samples during the next leg of their journey from Hawaii to San Francisco. Taken together, these samples will reveal the types, numbers, and distribution of plankton across more than 5,100 miles of the Pacific Ocean – it's believed to be the longest sampling effort of its kind on record.

Now let's move on to the plastic part. The researchers didn't only collect plankton during the trip from Hawaii to California. During this leg, NOAA researchers teamed up with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at U.C. San Diego to study plastic marine debris as they crossed through the so-called 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch.' This is a large area in the North Pacific Ocean where marine debris -- mainly small bits of plastic -- collects within the calm center of a high-pressure zone called the North Pacific Subtropical High.

To gather up this debris, they used an instrument called a "Manta Net." This device was periodically towed on the surface of the ocean behind the ship where it filtered seawater and funneled bits of plastic and surface plankton into a sampling container. Now you might have a mental image here of visible chunks of plastic floating in the water. While there are large pieces of plastics and other debris in this region, most of the plastic debris is ground up into really small pieces – some bits are as small as pollen – so it's not detectable by satellites or airplanes. In fact, it's often not even visible from a boat. So this clever method of capturing these tiny bits of debris is one of the few ways to get a good picture of what's there.

Researchers hope these samples will help answer some basic questions … like how large is this plastic debris? How is it distributed? And how does it affect marine life?

They also want to know about the make-up of the plastics, so scientists at the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle will be testing for toxins that might be on or in the particles. And this will help expand our understanding of the impacts the debris can have on marine ecosystems. 

Now, we know that marine debris may have harmful effects on marine life, but there are no known studies that specifically research how many marine mammals die each year directly due to marine debris like plastics and derelict fishing gear. What's even lesser known is how plastics affect plankton, the smallest organisms on which other marine life feed.

So you can see why this long cruise was so special – scientists were able to collect plankton and plastic together through a vast region that we just don't know that much about. Insights gained from this long sampling effort may help researchers detect future changes in the region ... and lead to a better understanding of how plankton communities are responding to features like the Pacific 'garbage patch.'  Ultimately, by combining the plankton and plastic sampling data, scientists may be able to begin making connections between plankton and plastic to figure out just how much of an impact the debris is having on this critical part of the marine food chain.

One last note - the work conducted during the cruise can be considered "exploration" since so little is known about these vast regions, and so it was a great fit aboard the Okeanos Explorer – the Nation's only dedicated 'exploration' vessel. The work was conducted during what's called 'at sea' time - that's the period when the ship is in transit from one area to another. In this case, the Okeanos Explorer was returning to California following a joint ocean exploration expedition with Indonesian partners in the largely unexplored Sulawesi Sea in Indonesia. The ship is "Always Exploring", acquiring data and imaging the seafloor while underway. Since the ship had to cross the entire Pacific Ocean to get back home, it was a unique chance to use that time to further explore an area where very little research has been done. That's a pretty good use of travel time.

If you want to learn more about this cruise, check our show notes for a link to the Ocean Explorer website where you can read updates from the cruise, learn more about the science behind the mission, and see some pictures… so you can see what a Continuous Plankton Recorder and Manta Net look like. And by the way, the net does kind of look like a Manta.

We'll also post a link to the Ocean Service's Marine Debris Program so you can learn more about the concentration of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean, and you can learn more about the broader problem of marine debris around the globe … and what's being done about it. 


Nearly 17,000 acres of freshwater marshes, uplands, and river on the shores of Lake Superior in Wisconsin became the 28th member of NOAA's National Estuarine Research Reserve System at the end of October.

Federal, state, and local officials welcomed the new Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve to the system on October 26th with a celebration and public gathering. The new reserve is located in Douglas County, in the northwestern corner of Wisconsin where the St. Louis River flows into Lake Superior.

Official designation of the Lake Superior Reserve culminates a six-year process beginning with site selection and continuing with development of an environmental impact study and a comprehensive management plan. This multi-year process was done in partnership with scientists, agency land managers, public officials, and citizens representing local, regional, and tribal interests.

This designation means that the unique St. Louis River freshwater estuary will serve as a site to study natural resource management techniques and apply what is learned to problems facing coastal communities, such as maintaining clean water, protecting wildlife habitat, and preventing and controlling invasive species.

Research conducted at the Reserve could improve the health of local freshwater estuaries and assist other Great Lakes communities. The Reserve's educational programs will also allow individuals to experience freshwater estuaries and their unique resources, making it a community asset and a destination for students and visitors.

(New PORTS Capabilities)

And finally today, the Ocean Service's Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services recently added wave and visibility measurements to the volumes of real-time data served up by Physical Oceanographic Real-Time Systems, or PORTS, at five of the nation's twenty heavy-traffic maritime areas.

NOAA's PORTS are kind of like air traffic control systems for shipping ports and busy waterways. What they do is provide mariners ranging from casual boaters to oil tanker captains with real-time information so ships coming into and leaving busy waterways and ports know exactly what's going on in the water and in the air.

This information helps prevent ship collisions and groundings – and it keeps ocean traffic moving as efficiently as possible.

PORTS systems provide an incredible range of observations. Real-time data on tides, currents, water and air temperatures, water levels, salinity, atmospheric pressure, windspeed, gusts and direction, and even clearance levels under bridges is freely available to mariners through an online portal or by calling a toll free number.

And now we can add two more measurements to this long list of observational data at some of our nation's busiest seaports and waterways.

Wave information is now being delivered through four PORTS® regions in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via real-time wave observation data from buoys operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The new stations with wave data are in San Francisco and San Pedro, Calif.; Clatsop Spit, Ore.; and Cape Henry, Va.

Fog is also a major concern for maritime traffic. Mobile Bay, Ala. is susceptible to heavy fog throughout fall and winter months, leading NOAA and the Alabama State Port Authority to select Pinto Island and Middle Bay Port as sites for two operational visibility stations. In addition to visibility sensors giving mariners the ability to see clearly, these two stations also contain air temperature and relative humidity sensors to supplement visibility measurements. Additional visibility installations are planned for other PORTS® including Narragansett and Chesapeake Bays.

Twenty PORTS are located throughout the nation, providing over 50 major seaports with real-time ocean information. Check out for more information. And check out our show notes for more links.


And that's all for this week.

If you have any questions about this week's podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean -- or if you have an ocean fact you'd like answered -- send us a note at And be sure to visit us online. We're at<./p>

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This is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.