In New Summer Course, Students Master Modern Methods at Sea

Rod Johnson and a marine technician stand on the back deck of the BIOS research vessel Atlantic Explorer

Within the contours of oceanographic data are the stories of great ocean currents, tiny plankton, and life-sustaining nutrients at the surface of the sea.  University students learn to study ocean properties through plots and graphs of these data, but rarely do they get hands-on experience with the instruments that generated them. A new BIOS summer course aims to change that by introducing students to the methods and technologies that have become the bread and butter of modern oceanography.

The inaugural Modern Observational Oceanography course will provide senior undergraduate and postgraduate students the chance to combine theory and practice while working alongside BIOS faculty.  Education Director Dr. Penny Barnes recognized that the renowned long-term sampling programs at BIOS could give students a truly interdisciplinary view of ocean processes, as well as an opportunity to sharpen laboratory skills.  The course covers the diverse methods employed by the BATS (Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study) sampling and research program, the Tudor Hill atmospheric observatory, and the newly established glider program.  The instructors are the BIOS faculty who run these programs.

the BIOS research vessel Atlantic Explorer

“This course really shows students how to use a large suite of instrumentation to explore and ask questions of the ocean,” said Prof. Nicholas Bates, who co-runs the BATS program with Dr. Rodney Johnson and will be sharing methods for studying the carbon cycle and ocean acidification.

In the first days of the course students will be introduced to analytical methods being used in faculty laboratories.  They will also attend a series of lectures on the oceanography of the North Atlantic, the history of the Hydrostation S and BATS programs, and the essential concepts behind the research being conducted by long-term sampling programs at BIOS.

Dr. Andrew Peters, who runs the Tudor Hill atmospheric observatory and will contribute his expertise in analytical environmental chemistry to the course, highlights the fact that students in the course will be translating why the sampling is being done, to how the sampling is being done, a connection that is rarely obvious in textbooks.  He also highlights the fact that students get the incredibly valuable experience of doing real work at sea.

With a solid understanding of the research questions and new skills to apply at sea, the class will join a five-day BATS cruise on the R/V Atlantic Explorer.  On board they will observe and assist with all the routine sampling procedures.  From deploying the CTD-rosette to profile temperature and salinity and to collect samples for biogeochemical analyses, to deploying phytoplankton nets nets and retrieving sediment traps, students will have a hand in everything that happens.

Following the research cruise the class will explore how autonomous underwater vehicles, known as gliders, can collect similar oceanographic data on a different scale.  Gliders can travel thousand of miles, cruising up and down in the water along a pre-programmed route as sensors collect temperature, salinity and depth data.  Each time they surface, they relay data to scientists on shore via satellite.

“Ships are good for looking at change on timescales of seasons to decades, but gliders can capture changes in the ocean on timescales of days,” said Ruth Curry, the physical oceanographer who runs the glider program at BIOS and who will be teaching students how to prepare and pilot a glider on a research mission.  Using data from gliders that are currently deployed, as well as data from past missions, students will also analyze seasonal changes in the waters around Bermuda and view the impact of Hurricane Gonzalo on local water conditions.

For students who continue on to careers in research, Prof. Bates anticipates the practical skills honed in the course will be complemented by a deeper learning about the mosaic of forces at play in modern oceanographic research – the range of science questions, the tools needed to answer them, and the funds available.  In short, students gain a suite of skills and a way of thinking about problems that will help them successfully pursue their own research projects when the time comes.

Modern Observational Oceanography runs June 15 – July 3, 2015 and is being taught by Prof. Nicholas Bates (BIOS & University of Southampton), Dr. Rod Johnson (BIOS), Dr. Andrew Peters (BIOS), and Ruth Curry (WHOI and BIOS).  Applications are due April 30th, 2015.  For more information, including applications, please visit: /education/summer-courses/