During 2010, the MC&G Department continued to build and extend its historic mission to study processes that regulate the chemistry of the oceans. As our knowledge of the marine environment evolves, so too does the nature of the research undertaken by scientists and staff in our department. The scope of these efforts is necessarily broad and involves exploration of chemical cycling not only within the oceans, but also on land, in the atmosphere, and beneath the seafloor. A recurring theme through much of this research is the relationship between ocean chemistry and climate and the anthropogenic influence on the marine environment.
MC&G has a long tradition of developing state-of-the-art analytical techniques along with innovative approaches to field and lab based experimental studies and computer modeling. During the past year, many of these techniques found new and exciting applications.
The Deep Water Horizon oil spill reminded us of the enormous impact that human activity may have on marine ecosystems. Members of MC&G, along with several other WHOI researchers, played an integral role in the mobilization of the scientific community to study the fate and environmental impact of oil released into the Gulf and Mexico. MC&G scientists Chris Reddy and Ben Van Mooy, along with research associate Sean Sylva and AOPE Department colleagues, rapidly coordinated and mobilized a research cruise during the oil spill to map the spatial extent of the hydrocarbon plume within the water column and determine the composition and abundance of plume hydrocarbons. One of the challenges facing researchers studying the oil spill was the ability to obtain a pristine sample of the extremely gas-rich petroleum released at the sea floor. Using a gas-tight sampling device developed by MC&G scientist Jeff Seewald and Engineers in AOPE for collection of hydrothermal vent fluids at mid-ocean ridges, the WHOI group was successful in collecting the only samples of pristine hydrocarbons released at the seafloor during the entire oil spill. Chris Reddy also provided effective leadership for the scientific community at a national level, giving testimony to the National Commission on the oil spill and twice to Congress, in addition to serving as the Science Liaison at the Unified Area Command for the oil spill in September.
MC&G Scientist Liz Kujawinski, working with colleagues at UC Santa Barbara and Stanford University, took advantage of the powerful analytical capabilities she developed in establishing the MC&G FT-ICR-MS Facility at WHOI. Using this instrument to analyze seawater samples from the Gulf, Kujawinski and colleagues were able to elucidate the distribution of the ~771,000 gallons of chemical dispersants that were released to the environment during the oil spill in an attempt to enhance the retention of oil within the water column and dispersion at the sea surface. This fundamental information will be used to assess the persistence of the dispersants once released, and their toxicological effects.
Although the Deep Water Horizon oil spill necessarily demanded the attention of many, other MC&G researchers continued to conduct important research in the labs at WHOI. For instance, MC&G Scientist Marco Coolen has initiated a study to investigate the microbial generation of natural gas from the organic-rich Antrim Shale in the Michigan basin. Using carefully designed laboratory experiments, he is exploring whether the addition of organic compounds that represent a source of food for the indigenous microbial communities within the shale can stimulate microbial methane production. A variety of molecular approaches are being applied to identify the microbial organisms responsible for methanogenesis. Results of this work will contribute to our understanding of biogeochemical processes (chemical and physical processes involving organisms organic matter, and minerals) associated with natural gas formation and could lead to enhanced recovery of energy resources from economically viable shale gas reserves.
Other research of note has taken our researchers far afield during 2010. Extensive water sampling occurred at the Mackenzie, Fraser, Ganges-Brahamputra, and Connecticut Rivers as part of the ongoing multi-institutional World River Project spearheaded by Senior Scientist Bernhard Peucker-Ehrenbrink. This project also involves MC&G colleagues Tim Eglinton, Aleck Wang, Valier Galy, Xiaojuan (Yvonne) Feng, and Joint Program Students Britta Voss and Katie Kirsch. These efforts will document temporal variability in biogeochemical processes that regulate the riverine transport and cycling of chemicals in large rivers around the world. Enlisting international citizen-collaborators living near rivers of interest led to a substantial expansion of this project in the past year and allowed river water samples to be collected at least once a month. In October 2010 WHOI and the Woods Hole Research Center hosted the World River Workshop, to train international participants in sampling techniques and plan for future collaborations. The resulting dataset will provide insights into the variability of river systems, and export of land-derived material from the continents to the coastal ocean, at unprecedented temporal resolution.
MC&G Senior Scientist Dan Repeta led a cruise that traversed the Eastern Subtropical Pacific Ocean from Arica, Chile to Easter Island to investigate how microbes drive transformations and movements of nutrients between seawater and organisms. Meanwhile, Senior Scientist Bill Jenkins led the first U.S. GEOTRACES cruise in the Atlantic. MC&G Scientists Karen Casciotti, Matt Charette, Phoebe Lam, Carl Lamborg, Laura Robisnon and Mak Saito are also all involved in GEOTRACES, an international program to research the distribution of trace elements and their isotopes in the global ocean. Konrad Hughen led a series of cruises in the Red Sea with funding from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and conducted a WHOI-funded cruise to Hon Tre Island, Vietnam to sample water and corals, which incorporate high-resolution records of climate and environmental change in their skeletons.
—Jeffrey Seewald, Department Chair