Ships set sail to trace tiny creatures’ carbon trail

R/V Sally Ride
With Scripps Institution of Oceanography research scientist Bruce Appelgate as their guide, participants in a NASA Social meet-up walk down Seattle’s Pier 91 with the R/V Sally Ride in the background. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

After seven years of preparation, two research vessels are heading out of Seattle to begin a 40-day voyage to track how tiny organisms in the ocean affect the world’s carbon balance — and it’s a bittersweet moment for one scientist who’s staying behind.

“People ask me, ‘Are you happy?’ ” Paula Bontempi, EXPORTS program scientist at NASA Headquarters, said today at Seattle’s Pier 91, hours before departure. “I don’t know. Are you happy when your kids go off to college?”

It’s graduation time for the EXPORTS oceanographic campaign, jointly funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation. EXPORTS stands for Export Processes in the Ocean from Remote Sensing, but the mission is really about two subjects that aren’t in the acronym: carbon and climate.

The principal focus of the sea survey is a class of near-microscopic plantlike creatures known as phytoplankton, and the slightly bigger creatures that eat them.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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