(August 11, 2017) --

On board R/V Oceanus. (Left) Allie Smith, Kaitlin Esson (Kiene Lab Tech), Tara Williams, Jess Gwinn, Dr. Ron Kiene, and Kyle Halstead.

Dr. Ron Kiene is once again leading a team of US and Canadian scientists on a research cruise to the subarctic North Pacific Ocean to study the cycling of organic sulfur compounds.  The 17-day National Science Foundation sponsored cruise will be on the research vessel Oceanus, which is based out of Oregon State University.   The cruise departed Seward, Alaska on August 11 and will end in Newport, Oregon on August 27.  

The researchers will be studying a natural chemical called DMSP, which is produced by the microscopic plants in the ocean called phytoplankton.  

Phytoplankton grow profusely in the northeast Pacific, where the cruise will take place, and they produce a lot of DMSP.  DMSP is cycled very rapidly by the microbes in the seawater, especially the bacteria.  In fact, Kiene’s work has shown that DMSP is a major 'food' source for marine bacteria and, therefore, very important in the ecology of the system.  

DMSP is also decomposed into two volatile sulfur gases that transfer from the ocean to the atmosphere.  Once in the air, these sulfur gases oxidize into tiny particles of sulfuric acid that affect atmospheric chemistry and potentially climate by affecting the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface. 

Kiene adds, “It’s all part of the natural balance of the Earth system and we need better understanding of what controls how much of those sulfur gases get produced, and how much enters the air.”  

Dr. Kiene led a similar cruise in 2016. (Courtesy: Dr. Ron Kiene)

Kiene’s group will not only measure the concentrations of the various sulfur compounds, but also their rates of production and loss by various mechanisms.  

The research team consists of six members from DISL/USA Marine Sciences (Professor Ron Kiene, research technician Kaitlin Esson, PhD students Alexandra Smith and Jesse Gwinn, and MS students Tara Williams and Kyle Halstead).   The seven other participants in the cruise are from the University of British Columbia, University of Southern California, and University of Georgia.  

Dr. Kiene is the Chief Scientist for the cruise and is responsible for the overall organization of the research expedition.  

“The planning and logistics for the cruise have taken a huge effort by me and my team over the past six months,” said Kiene.  “We packed up most of my lab into crates, and shipped it all off by truck and barge to Seward.  Once we arrive in Seward, we will have only two days to assemble all the lab gear on the ship, and get the instruments working before we sail.”  

On the dock in Seward, Alaska, Allie Smith and Kyle Halstead, graduate students in Dr. Ron Kiene’s lab transfer liquid nitrogen from big cylinders to smaller containers that will be taking on board the R/V Oceanus for Kiene’s research on sulfur gases.

“Alaska is one of my favorite places in the world so I am excited to get to spend a little time there before the cruise”, said Kiene. 

Several of Kiene’s team members will be visiting Alaska for the first time, and, fortunately, they will have a little time before the cruise to explore the area around Seward before the intensive work of the cruise begins.  

“We will all work very hard on the cruise, making the most of our valuable time at sea” said Kiene.  

The rewards include the newly gained knowledge about how the ecology and chemistry of the ocean works, and also the stunning natural beauty of the ocean off the Alaskan and British Columbia Coasts.  

During last year’s cruise, Kiene’s team were entertained by many sightings of humpback whales, orcas, ocean sunfish, and, especially, the playful dolphins that often followed the ship.  

The work is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Chemical Oceanography program.