Eddy Expedition Log: Characterizing Eddies

This month, we're following along with the scientists and engineers from the Simons Collaboration on Ocean Processes and Ecology (SCOPE) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) who working together to test new ways of adaptively sampling oceanographic features with an exciting suite of autonomous underwater vehicles.

In today's expedition post, the team has travelled from the heart of the cyclonic eddy and turned the Falkor north to cruise to its edge. They found the counterclockwise spinning cyclonic eddy. Now it is time to characterize the eddy’s physical, chemical, and biological features, which means it is time to get the LRAUVs (#MicrobeEddyBots) into the ocean and put them to work.

Date published: 2018/04/23

eddy centreTracking Changes

The eddy current vectors on the map show direction and velocity. These are derived from data collected by satellites, which circle the Earth at high altitude, and relay information as they pass over the Pacific Ocean – like a planetary cell phone circuit. In order to confirm that the eddy has formed as we might expect, based on the satellite data for the surface ocean, we’ll need to characterize the underwater features of the eddy, where the satellites can’t see.

SCOPE and MBARI science and engineering teams track the LRAUVs from the Science Control room on the Falkor. (SOI / Elisha M Wood-Charlson, University of Hawai'i)

Launch the Long Range Autonomous Underwater Vehicles!

Opah and Aku, our LRAUVs, are mapping the eddy by conducting vertical profiles. Yoyo-ing up and down from the surface to 250 meters in a zig-zag pattern, they are recording features like depth, temperature, chlorophyll, and salinity. To better map the whole eddy, we released Opah at the northern edge, and Aku on the eastern side. They spent 30-40 hours traveling from the edges of the eddy to meet back up with us in the calm currents at the center. The Underway CTD from our last blog post had already outlined many of the features helping confirm we were in the center of the eddy, but the LRAUVs can tell us more. They also detect chlorophyll fluorescence, which is a key indicator that the tiny microbial plants (the forests of the sea – phytoplankton) are present and active.

As with plants on land, the photosynthetic process of fixing carbon dioxide (CO2) to make biomass requires light and nutrients. In the magnificently clear tropical waters around the islands of Hawai‘i – and globally at lower latitudes – light is plentiful but nutrients are often limiting. In these regions of the ocean, we typically see two increases in chlorophyll fluorescence: one at the surface where light is plentiful, and another one deeper in the water column that we call the “deep chlorophyll maximum” (DCM). The DCM forms at greater depths with just enough light left to fuel photosynthesis, where the phytoplankton increase their chlorophyll content (which serves as their light “antennas”) so they can capture as much of the dwindling light as they can. In some eddies, it is possible for the DCM to move closer to the surface and become more productive, because the eddy itself can push nutrients up from deeper waters. In cyclonic eddies like the one we are studying, we predict there will be an upwelling of nutrients, a shallowing of the DCM, and larger amounts of phytoplankton.

Eddy Map

Map of the cyclonic eddy (blue area) north of Maui with Opah and Aku tracking to the eddy center to meet the Falkor (red diamond). The map moves to show chlorophyll values (blue = low, red = high) at the deep chlorophyll max (DCM). Graphic by Fernanda Henderikx (SCOPE) and Thom Hoffman (SOI).

As Opah and Aku move closer to the eddy center, we are exploring the chlorophyll signal from surface to 250 meters. At the edges, the DCM appears just below 100 meters, and it appears to get more shallow as the LRAUVs get closer to the Falkor (triangle with dashed line to show center of the eddy at depth).

After a day of chasing this eddy, then a day or two of surveys and exploration, we now can see many of the characteristics we expect for a cyclonic eddy: counterclockwise rotation, calm currents at the center, and very strong DCM that is nearer to the surface at the eddy center than at its edges. Success! We have identified a “textbook” example of a stable cyclonic eddy that we will explore in greater detail than ever before possible, thanks to the Falkor and its crew, the scientific team at sea and ashore, and of course the trusty LRAUVs and other instruments.  

Friday morning, 16 March 2018, we switch the LRAUVs from survey mode to tracking mode. They will be sent new missions: to find the DCM signal around the eddy center, lock on, and start sampling phytoplankton and other microbes in the DCM. Up next, how do they actually track and sample?

Autonomous Vehicles: The Future of Eddy Exploration (Week 1 Video)

Scientists and engineers from the Simons Collaboration on Ocean Processes and Ecology (SCOPE) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) are exploring eddy features north of the Hawaiian Islands using a suite of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). These AUVs work in concert to find features inside the eddy and track and sample them for days, drastically improving data collection for the field of microbial oceanography.

This work is funded by Schmidt Ocean Institute, Simons Foundation, National Science Foundation (NSF), as well as the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Space/eddy visualization: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

About the Author

Elisha Wood-Charlson is the Data/Research Communications Program Manager for SCOPE. Elisha has a PhD in Marine Science and has spent many years looking at the little things (microbes and viruses) that make marine ecosystems tick. Alongside research and teaching, Elisha enjoys have science communication be one of her priorities, ranging from increasing science literacy in local communities to managing multidisciplinary collaborations. Currently, she is also working with the marine microbial research community to improve data discovery and interoperability using best practices for open data science.

This expedition log was originally published on the Schmidt Ocean Institute site and was republished here with permission. 

In our drones group, you can connect with members who are working with unmanned vehicles to collect data that could transform our understanding of the natural world. Join today! 

Continue the discussion… Drones