Mercury in the news

This week our research team published an article in Nature discussing the amount of mercury in the ocean from human activities. Surface ocean mercury concentrations have tripled since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Today, the main source of mercury from human activity comes from coal-fired power plants like those found in the United States and developing countries like China and India. Once in the ocean, mercury is transformed to a chemical compound called methylmercury, a neurotoxin that biomagnifies in fish and ends up on our dinner plates. In the United States alone, millions of women have blood mercury levels high enough to effect fetal neurodevelopment. Click here to read more about the study.

Data for this new publication was collected on the 2011 North Atlantic GEOTRACES cruise chronicled in this blog, and on other similar expeditions.Scroll down to read about life at sea and what’s it’s like to do science out in the middle of the ocean.

The end!

On Dec 20th the R/V Thompson reached port in Papeete, Tahiti after successfully completing a 57 day, 36 station research cruise.  The first day in port was spent offloading our gear and samples into metal shipping containers; a sense of finality and accomplishment was felt by all as we sealed the containers and watched them leave the dock for their long journey back to the states. After an end-of-cruise gathering on the island, science party and crew slowly dispersed, most racing home to be back in time for Christmas.

I came across a quote earlier this year that really stuck with me, from a retired surgeon who now lives and works at a camp in Antarctica,

“There are no casualties, no car wrecks, and no bullets here. We are  living on our own, facing elements, and everyone behaves in the proper way. We tell our families we come for the money. But really, we come to escape.” (Benjamin Novikov, quoted in Untamed AntarcticaNational Geographic Sept. 2013)

After leaving the tropical paradise of Tahiti I am thrust back into society through means of the airport. It’s Christmas day but instead of cheer and friendly greetings, I’m surrounded by noses buried in Ipads and cell phones; the guy sitting across from me is throwing candy wrappers into the isle, just as you would toss peanut shells onto the floor of a bar.

Beauty can be defined in many ways but more than once in the past two months I have found myself thinking that this sunset, this clear night with thousands of stars, or this stream of bioluminescence trailing the ship – this is what real beauty is. How else could you define it? Sometimes there is just too much clutter in everyday life to appreciate the important things and I feel lucky to be able to take these trips every year, to go away to places where simplicity makes beauty easier to see.

I’m on my way home now to spend time with family and friends after a wonderful two months at sea. The process of funding and planning this work took years and it all came down to the last two months (no pressure right?). The cruise was hard – all of my focus during the past 57 days has been my work. There was no clocking out so bumps in the road took a more personal toll, but that only made the good days that much sweeter.

Our dataset will continue to grow beyond the 3,500 samples Gretchen and I analyzed at sea. We will look at mercury in aerosols and particles, sift through data to identify trends, and compare our findings with other ocean basins. In the coming year we will bring our findings to conferences and scientific journals with a goal to progress the understanding of mercury in the ocean to help identify problems and solutions.

I would like to thank you all for reading my blog over the past few months and I hope that you will continue to search for outlets that feed your curiosity in science and nature. Be sure to sign up for email updates to receive notice of future hginthesea blogs. My official holiday gift to you is a video of dolphins swimming near the bow of the ship, it’s from day 1 at sea but I haven’t had enough bandwidth to upload until now ( Enjoy!

xmas eve

Christmas eve dinner in Papeete, Tahiti.

Last Station

Station 36 small

The R/V Thompson is in the holiday spirit – there are stockings and lights hung in the galley, a Christmas tree in the lounge, and paper snowflakes hanging from the ceiling, gently blowing in the air conditioning. We are at our last station and will be done analyzing samples within the next 48 hours. There is some extra time before we reach port Friday and that time will be spent mapping unexplored volcanoes north of Tahiti. The ship’s multi beam system sends pulses of sound down to the ocean floor that bounce back to the ship measuring depth. High resolution of multiple beams allows for detailed mapping of the ocean floor.

Yesterday we ceremoniously crossed the international dateline, so…greetings from tomorrow! Moving east to west around the globe, clocks are set back 1 hour for every 15 degrees longitude traveled in order to keep pace with the rotation of the Earth. A full cycle around the globe would amount to 24 hours of lost time, so in order to avoid infinitely re-living the same day, an international date line was established in 1884. The dateline runs along 180 degrees longitude but curves east to accommodate some island nations, far enough east that we crossed over just before reaching our last station. Crossing from east to west adds a one day, so noon on Sunday became noon on Monday (crossing in the opposite direction subtracts one day).

There are long standing maritime traditions for crossing significant geographical boundaries, the most noteworthy are equator and arctic circle crossings. The Imperial Order of the Golden Dragon ceremony commemorates crossing of the international dateline. During the ceremony we all vowed to “finish the superstation of the gold dragon as quickly as possible, and then bravely rush to the island of Tahiti” (there were no objections). We were then each presented with a certificate signed by the Captain and posed for a photo.

International_date_line 2



The flag locker

flag locker smallThis locker holds dozens of flags that have been raised all over the world, and we will dig out one for French Polynesia to fly when we dock in Tahiti next Friday. It is customary to fly both the American flag and the port country’s flag  to show respect for the country hosting our ship.