Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Cruise: An Update from Trevor Meckley

For my Knauss fellowship year, I am serving as the NOAA Hypoxia Coordination and Transition Fellow with the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research (CSCOR) located within the National Ocean Service (NOS). My fellowship year has included a host of excellent experiences; however, I want to discuss one opportunity that did not come to fruition but became an excellent experience nonetheless.

My fellowship supports the planning, execution, and outreach efforts of NOAA’s two major competitive hypoxia programs: the Northern Gulf of Mexico Ecosystems and Hypoxia Assessment Program (NGOMEX) and the Coastal Hypoxia Research Program (CHRP). The cornerstone of these efforts is research and monitoring activities aimed at understanding and improving natural resource management in the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, the largest hypoxic area in the US.

Hypoxic zones or “dead zones” are aquatic regions with little to no oxygen. This is often caused by algal overgrowth fueled by high levels of nutrients, primarily from activities such as industrialized agriculture and inadequate wastewater treatment. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico affects nationally important commercial and recreational fisheries. The low oxygen levels cannot support most marine life and habitats in near-bottom waters. Organisms that can flee the dead zones leave the area, while those which cannot leave are stressed or die of suffocation. Reducing nutrients flowing to the Gulf would help the situation since, under historical oxygen conditions, this area supported a rich diversity of marine life, critical habitats, and a number of key fisheries.

Oxygen concentrations in bottom waters along the Louisiana shelf from July 28-August 3, 2015.
Image: N. Rabalais (LUMCON), R. Turner (LSU). Funded by NOAA CSCOR 

As part of larger regional research efforts, CSCOR provides funding for an annual hypoxia monitoring cruise in the northern Gulf of Mexico, which has been led by former Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) senior scientist Nancy Rabalais for 30 years, reaching back to 1985 (a year before I was born!). Monitoring in the Gulf of Mexico has been a roller coaster, with pulses of funding followed by regular losses in funding. Despite this, the annual cruise has been maintained as the only long-term dataset of oxygen monitoring in the dead zone, a true feat for both LUMCON and NOAA. As part of my fellowship experience, I was offered the opportunity to participate in the 31st cruise through my host office. Although I have led many projects involving research on small boats and assisted on day voyages on larger boats like the 101-foot USGS Fisheries Research Vessel, the Sturgeon, I have never gone on a multiple-day research cruise in an ocean. This would be a great new experience.

Trevor Meckley onboard the USGS Sturgeon in Lake Huron.
Image: Eric Willman

The annual hypoxia monitoring cruise serves three principal purposes:
  1. It is integral to determining what progress has occurred towards reducing the hypoxia zone to the target size of 5,000 square kilometers, a key metric of the Interagency Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Taskforce (below). The graph shows that the current 5-year average is much higher than the goal.

    Size of bottom-water hypoxia in mid-summer, with goal and current 5-year average.
    Image: N. Rabalais, R. Turner
  2. Hypoxic zone area, along with nutrient loading and discharge measurements from the Mississippi River, provides nutrient reduction guidance to the Mississippi Basin when used in a modeling framework (below). If the nutrient input is reduced upstream to the levels shown in the goal area (35-45 percent), we can expect that the hypoxic zone size will shrink to the goal size of 5,000 square kilometers. The annual cruise and models derived from it are absolutely critical to the Hypoxia Task Force (HTF) in setting and assessing these nutrient reduction goals. The HTF action plan is based on these goals.

    Nitrogen load reduction that would be required to reduce hypoxic zone area to target size.
    Image: Hypoxia Task Force Action Plan

  3. Modeling advancements have improved 3-D predictions of hypoxic zone size through time, but the cruise is imperative to ensuring that the models are performing well (below). 

    Color bar on right indicates thickness of hypoxic layer (0-14 meters). Horizontal lines are depth contours. Offshore edge of hypoxic zone corresponds to depths of 25-30 meters.
    Image: Dubravko Justic
As the time of the cruise approached, excitement grew. The importance of the cruise was clear to me, as I was part of a team developing a workshop on creating a cooperative hypoxia monitoring program in the Gulf of Mexico. I had also helped develop NOAA’s pre-cruise annual press release, which outlines the predicted zone size based on model analysis using river discharge and nutrient loading from the Mississippi River. The press release was carried by a whopping 40 news outlets, including national outlets like Time and The Washington Post. These predictions would then be compared to the results of the upcoming survey cruise and distributed in another press release highlighting the measured size of the dead zone found by the cruise (see last year's press release). My bags were packed, tickets were issued, and my email auto-response message was deployed…

…but then the unthinkable happened. Fewer than three days before we were to travel to meet the ship and only a day before the ship was to begin sailing to our port, our ship, the NOAA research vessel Nancy Foster, reported engine trouble.

Over the next 48 hours, CSCOR, the Nancy Foster crew, and LUMCON worked diligently to devise a plan for capturing enough data during the cruise, if the engine trouble could be fixed in time and despite a reduced amount of ship time. A plan was determined and all was back on track, but bad news arrived the next day: the engine trouble was worse than expected. For only the second time in the vessel’s history, the Nancy Foster would not be able to complete a planned research cruise.

The Nancy Foster is NOAA's 187-foot vessel.
Image: Conor Maginn (NOAA)
This was not the end, but just the beginning of a search for a second ship with available ship time to conduct the cruise. There are challenges to a rigid annual intensive sampling effort that must occur at the same time every year and in the same way. It is often not feasible to have a large vessel waiting as a backup in the event of a failure, and finding a vessel and transferring funds with a short lead time is very difficult. The intricacies within the effort necessary to pull this off cannot be overstated. After an exhaustive search, no capable vessels were found to be available or able to change schedules for the full duration of the cruise within the critical mid-summer period during which the cruise is conducted each year. After much deliberation, it was determined that without the ability to cover the entire region at the right time necessary to create a comparable metric to the previous 30 surveys, the survey should be cancelled for this year.

Even the backup-backup plan needs a backup plan. This setback did not prevent CSCOR and LUMCON from quickly pursuing an alternative positive outcome. We would need a good idea, a cruise plan, and funding arrangements all approved and executed within two weeks of the originally planned cruise to meet the end of the fiscal year execution deadlines. Only following an avalanche of emails and careful collaborative efforts by experts at CSCOR/NCCOS, LUMCON, Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO), NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries Program (NMSP), and US Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS), was a viable backup plan compiled and executed. Although there is no substitute for measuring and mapping the maximum zone at the same time every year, CSCOR has been furthering efforts that allow for the hypoxic zone to be estimated by models, which provided the opportunity to leverage this capability with a more limited survey cruise. NCCOS was able to find a vessel to monitor two of the long-term transects (below) and is providing funding to the Coastal and Ocean Modeling Testbed (COMT) to complete the modeling exercise.

Long-term transects C and F of the full grid will be monitored in 2016.
Image: Nancy Foster (LUMCON)
These data will allow the modelers to help determine what the size of the zone likely looked like this year. This creative initiative leveraged limited funds by utilizing prior technological investments by NOAA in modeling. It took a strong push and excellent coordination across multiple levels of the organization, all the way to the top of NOAA leadership. It is clear that in a world with limited funding for monitoring in the Gulf of Mexico, models will continue to augment limited monitoring resources. 

Even before this situation arose, CSCOR had been taking steps to build more sustainable and robust monitoring partnerships to avoid unfortunate cases like this one. During my fellowship year, I have been aiding CSCOR in the development of and follow up on a workshop (mentioned above) that invited agency, academic, and industry leaders with interest and expertise in hypoxia monitoring. The workshop was titled “Establishing a Cooperative Hypoxic Zone Monitoring Program.” The output of the workshop will be a report that identifies mechanisms and resources for potential operational commitments to a Gulf Hypoxic Zone monitoring program and steps required for implementation. NOAA has already set aside resources for next year’s cruise, and we are hoping that others will be able to augment current NOAA efforts so that additional spatial and temporal data can be collected to support state-of-the-art models and provide a reliable estimate of the hypoxic zone each year in support of the annual survey cruise.

While the loss of the 2016 cruise is regrettable and attending the long term cruise would have been exciting, I rest assured that I learned more from a research cruise that never sailed than any actual cruise could have taught me.