Keep It Going: Recycling in Phytoplankton Blooms

Dr. Adam Kustka has been wearing the same gray-and-black windbreaker for about two weeks. He doesn’t appear to sleep at all except for short naps, which consist of pulling his hood up and putting his head down on his desk in front of his computer monitor. His hands remain over the keyboard so that when he wakes up he can resume typing without interruption. His hair can assume any of the angles of a clock face, depending on the hour, and his eyes are puffy from being open so long.

If you ask him a question, he answers slowly at first and then accelerates, as if his brain is a voluminous hard drive that takes a few seconds to access the full stream of ideas inside. He told me he misses his breakfast routine back home, which is a glass of diet ginger ale mixed with a Red Bull. He gets a ‘frequent buyer’ discount on rare isotopes of carbon. He and his team have a lot going on.

They’re trying to understand the lifetime of a phytoplankton bloom—the give and take between organisms, the battles that go on for nutrients like iron, the ways that phytoplankton bodies get recycled as a bloom flourishes or dies away. At the moment, a bloom is kind of like a television: we don’t know what’s going on inside; all we can do is watch what comes out of it.

Dr. Kustka’s team is trying to change that, using subtle principles of chemistry, precise lab techniques, and hours and hours of painstaking preparation to set up controlled experiments on the ship. Read on through the slideshow to find out what they’ve been doing lately:

I’m sure you noticed the Adélie penguin that was swimming around in the ‘Gray light’ photo in today’s slideshow. I’ll admit it: we didn’t have to use that photo—we have plenty of great photos showing white sky and gray water uncluttered by penguins. But we’re in Antarctica, and to tell the truth at least one of us is kind of crazy about penguins. Maybe you are too. At any rate, here’s a close-up look at Chris’s amazing penguin-in-the-water shot:

Close-up shot of a penguin riding the waves

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About Hugh Powell

Hugh is a staff writer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and is on special assignment with the Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. He has previously written for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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