Tracking carbon from the ocean surface to the twilight zone

The 2021 deployment of NASA's oceanographic field campaign, called Export Processes in the Ocean from Remote Sensing (EXPORTS), consists of 150 scientists and crew from more than 30 governmental, university and private non-governmental institutions. The team is spread across three oceanographic research vessels, who will meet in international waters west of Ireland over the underwater Porcupine Abyssal plain. Throughout the field campaign, scientists will be deploying a variety of instruments from aboard the three ships: the RRS James Cook and the RRS Discovery, operated by the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, UK, plus a third vessel chartered by the Ocean Twilight Zone project of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and operated by the Marine Technology Unit in Vigo, Spain. A total of 52 high-tech platforms, including several autonomous vehicles, will be taking measurements and continuously collecting data.

Much of the science focuses on the 's role in the . Through chemical and biological processes, the ocean removes as much carbon from the atmosphere as all plant life on land. Scientists hope to further explore the mechanisms of the ocean's biological pump—the process by which carbon from the atmosphere and surface ocean is sequestered long-term in the deep ocean. This process involves microscopic plant-like organisms called phytoplankton, which undergo photosynthesis just like plants on land and can be seen from space by observing changes to the color of the ocean. Their productivity has a significant impact on Earth's carbon cycle, which then in turn affects Earth's climate.

Different phytoplankton communities bloom around the Canadian Maritime Provinces and across the northwestern Atlantic Ocean. Credit:  NASA/Aqua/MODIS composite collected on March 22, 2021

Diverse plankton from surface waters seen under a microscope. It is so concentrated that you don't need to zoom to identify. Credit: Laura Holland/ University of Rhode Island

Science and crew aboard the RRS James Cook are deploying a sampling rosette - platform that allows for collection of the water samples and other information from ocean depths, with RRS Discovery and R/V Sarmiento de Gamboa in the distance deploying the same instrumentation simultaneously. Credit: Deborah Steinberg

The scientist crew boarded the R/V Sarmiento de Gamboa on April 29 after 14 days in quarantine. Credit: Ken Buesseler/ Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution