Right Place and Time: Fieldwork Fills Key Data Gap


No one knows exactly what the future of our climate will be, but scientists can create massive data sets and turn them into forecasts that shed light on it. One of the most important challenges for modern science is to make these models as accurate and powerful as possible.

Each climate model offers a different perspective on the future, and not all agree. Often this is due to a lack of data. Different models fill the gaps with different assumptions. This can result in diverging outlooks for the future. For ocean climate models, one of the regions with the biggest data gaps is the Labrador Sea along Canada’s northeastern coast. There, cloudy skies and rough weather complicate efforts to collect measurements from space, air, or boat.

“Even though it seems like it's in our backyard here in Maine, there are so many unknowns in the Labrador Sea,” said Senior Research Scientist Rachel Sipler. “Some of the biggest challenges with climate models is getting the raw data that we need to refine them. No matter what study or climate report you look at, the need to understand what's happening there is critical.”

The Labrador Sea is one of the most important parts of the global ocean because the ocean and climate interact so strongly there. Water moving north into the sea releases heat into the atmosphere, which creates strong weather events and patterns.

“The temperature difference between the ocean and atmosphere is where it all starts,” Sipler said. “It's also why the region gets really powerful storms that can prevent fieldwork, and why it has frequent cloud cover that can impact satellite images.”

Despite the difficulty of collecting it, data is critical to understanding this region and the role it plays in the planet’s future. Scientists brave the elements and conduct fieldwork in the area when conditions allow. Sipler and her team are collaborating on a Labrador Sea study that hinged on a 40-day research cruise this summer. Colleen McBride, a doctoral student from Memorial University who is advised by Sipler, was onboard the RV Celtic Explorer to collect some of the critical measurements.

Sipler and McBride are interested in how biological processes move carbon from the atmosphere into the ocean, a system called the biological carbon pump. They are working to estimate how much carbon phytoplankton are taking out of the atmosphere and using. At the same time, they are studying the role of nitrogen. Nitrogen is intricately linked to how organisms sequester carbon, and sheds light on how carbon is being moved. Together, this information will tell them how much and how fast the region is sequestering carbon – critical missing data for climate models.

“Phytoplankton in the North Atlantic are really important and interesting,” McBride said. “It’s a location both with really big algae blooms and with great potential for carbon sequestration.”

Like other plants, phytoplankton go through cycles of intense growth and then die down. They are most productive during a “bloom,” which is when they take up the most carbon. Supported by a team using satellites and ocean gliders, the ship’s scientists were in luck – and caught a bloom as it began.

The chance to study a full bloom cycle provided them with an invaluable opportunity, and the interdisciplinary team present provided the diverse expertise needed to take advantage of it. Although the timing was fortunate, the team onboard was by design.

Computer models used to predict global issues like climate change typically require the use of research conducted by many separate teams of scientists. Matching up these studies can involve gaps and incongruities, which can limit the accuracy of models. By including a broad array of specialists on this research cruise, the team aimed to create a harmonious data set that could help answer big questions about our climate and its future.

“Being able to gather a range of data and observe it through so many scientific lenses gives us a more complete view of the system,” Sipler said. “The data we gathered will inform our understanding of how carbon moves through this critical area for years to come.”

Photo credit: Brianna Stanley