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article imageTara Oceans: A three-year expedition of oceanographic discovery Special

By Igor I. Solar     Mar 9, 2011 in Science
Valpara - The Tara Oceans Expedition, exploring from polar to equatorial seas worldwide, is dedicated to scientific research on how marine microorganisms, from viruses to fish larvae, will be impacted by climate change. The boat just visited Valparaiso, Chile.
Tara is a 36 metre long, 2-mast schooner registered in Lorient, France. The expedition started in the port of Lorient in September 2009 and the trip is planned for completion in December 2012. The navigation will cover about 150 000 kilometres around the world. It started in the Mediterranean Sea and will include all 5 great oceans of the world. The expedition will have the participation of about 100 international scientists covering 12 scientific fields including oceanography, ecology, biology, genetics and physics. The samples collected along the expedition are sent periodically for analysis to 22 laboratories in 7 countries.
So far, with the expedition about half way into the second year, the scientific team on board has included 80 researchers on a rotating basis (including 20 women), it has collected nearly 30 000 samples of plankton and corals, has visited 39 ports and endured 5 important storms.
After crossing the South Atlantic and exploring the Antarctic Peninsula, Tara travelled northwards along the Chilean coat visiting the ports of Puerto Montt and Valparaíso. During the stop at Valparaíso, I had the opportunity to visit the schooner, talking with several of the scientists, visiting the laboratories and observing the top-of-the-line research equipment on-board.
The second year of the Tara Oceans Expedition will attempt to compare the oceanographic characteristics of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans describing in detail the large marine planktonic biodiversity from bacteria-infecting viruses to fish eggs and tiny invertebrates.
The CTD Rosette. The CTD is an electronic instrument used in oceanography to collect water samples a...
The CTD Rosette. The CTD is an electronic instrument used in oceanography to collect water samples and record salinity (by measuring conductivity), temperature, and depth (by measuring pressure). The instrument is lowered on a hydrowire from the ship. Each cylinder (Niskin bottles) has lids at both ends. They are sent down open, and triggered to close electronically at the depth that water needs to be collected. This way, water can be sampled at many different depths throughout the water column.
Dr. Lee Karp-Boss, from the School of Marine Sciences, University of Maine, specialist in phytoplankton ecology and physiology, is the Chief Scientist on-board at the time Tara stopped in Valparaiso. Dr. Karp-Boss told me:
"Using state of the art equipment the expedition is collecting physical oceanographic data, water samples and microorganisms aiming to establish a baseline data-base of current planktonic biodiversity and the structure and functioning of marine ecosystems to be able to determine the impact of climate change in future years."
“Planktonic organisms are the foundation of the food chain and any possible changes at this level, caused by changes in average ocean temperature, can affect higher trophic levels all the way to fish and humans” she added.
Dr. Lee Karp-Boss  University of Maine  Chief Scientist on board of Tara during the visit to the por...
Dr. Lee Karp-Boss, University of Maine, Chief Scientist on board of Tara during the visit to the port of Valparaiso, Chile.
Melissa Duhaime is a post-doctoral researcher working at the Dept. of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona. Part of her study during her stint in the Tara expedition relates to observations on the presence of debris in the oceans, particularly plastic. Melissa is interested in finding out if marine microorganisms, mainly bacteria, could have the capacity of somehow “digest” certain types of plastic which could result in modifications of plastic packaging material allowing potential bio-degradation of plastic debris in the oceans.
A copepod  an small crustacean. Copepods are a dominant component of the zooplankton in the oceans a...
A copepod, an small crustacean. Copepods are a dominant component of the zooplankton in the oceans and an important food source for fish, whales and birds. Screenshot of Tara image.
“There are plastic particles almost everywhere in the oceans. But, because of oceanographic currents called gyres, there are areas where debris tends to concentrate. One of these areas of high concentration is known as the ‘Great Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch’. It is not just a floating “island” of debris, but it is actually a “plastic soup” spanning across hundreds of miles where the plastic is distributed throughout the water column" said Melissa.
Melissa Duhaime  Postdoctoral Associate  Dept. of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. Courtesy of M. Duh...
Melissa Duhaime, Postdoctoral Associate, Dept. of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. Courtesy of M. Duhaime.
U. of Arizona
“Plastics in the oceans come mainly from land-based sources and have been there for decades. There is some physical degradation caused in part by UV radiation, however because many plastics have UV filters, their physical degradation is extremely slow. We are interested in the potential of bio-degradation occurring when living organisms transform the chemical bonds of the plastic. Thus far, current scientific knowledge has determined that bio-degradation plays a very limited role in the environmental fate of plastics, particularly in the oceans. We need to know more about this.” adds Melissa“ "The presence of large pieces of plastic can kill marine organisms by entrapment, suffocation and drowning. Even smaller pieces, if ingested, can cause choking or intestinal blockage. Some pieces may remains in the animal, blocking the intestinal tract, causing death. When the animal dies, the plastic is either released to be eaten again, or it is swallowed by a predator eating the plastic-ridden prey.” Melissa told me.
Bridge deck of Tara  complete with teddy bear mascot.
Bridge deck of Tara, complete with teddy bear mascot.
Marcela Cornejo, a Chilean researcher, is acting as the national observer during Tara’s cruising in Chilean waters. Marcela works at COPAS (Center for Oceanographic Research in the Eastern South Pacific) of the University of Concepción, Chile. She joined the expedition in Puerto Montt and will travel on Tara to Eastern Island.
Species of Ceratium. It belongs to the group of dinoflagellates  a very important microalgal group r...
Species of Ceratium. It belongs to the group of dinoflagellates, a very important microalgal group responsible for a significant share of the ocean`s productivity. Screenshot of Tara image.
She is taking the opportunity to carry out some research on Nitrogen balance in the ocean.
On Wednesday 9, following the 5 day stop at Valparaíso, the boat will continue its itinerary travelling west to Easter Island, then north to the Galapagos, and to the port of Guayaquil in Ecuador.
From Guayaquil, starts the long cruise westward across the Equatorial Pacific to New Zealand, Australia and, in the third year, to the Western and Eastern North Pacific, before travelling across the Arctic Ocean’s Northwest Passage to the east coast of Canada to complete the expedition back in Lorient, France, in December 2012.
The oceans are the greatest of all the world's "forests" (Le Journal N°7 Tara Oceans Expedition).
The port of Valparaíso. Chile s second port of call of the Tara Oceans Expedition (2009-2012). Next...
The port of Valparaíso. Chile's second port of call of the Tara Oceans Expedition (2009-2012). Next stop will be Easter Island, in the middle of the Southern Pacific Ocean.
More about Tara Oceans, Marine Research, Climate change
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