NASA to step into the Twilight Zone

Plant-like, tiny organisms, the Phytoplankton, that habitat the ocean, rarely makes any news. Now NASA along with National Science Foundation is planning to change the conception with their expedition this August to the northeastern Pacific Ocean. The journey is expected to have better knowledge of these small animals that could be instrumental in playing an all-important role in the removal of carbon dioxide from the ocean waters. 

A team of more than 100 odd scientists and crew members from almost 20 research foundations has been planned to travel on board two research vessels – The R/V Sally Ride and the R/V Roger Revelle. Sally Ride has top end ocean mapping gadget systems, whereas, complex machinery like the Hydrographic Doppler Sonar System will be carried in the Revelle. Hydrographic Doppler Sonar System, is a system with hull mounted long range dual frequency Doppler sonar that can detect currents that are stronger than anything commercial. 

The vessels are planned to travel 200 miles west on open waters. On reaching scientists to examine plankton and find the ocean’s physical and chemical properties from its surface to half a mile below waters into what’s called as the twilight zone. 

Mesopelagic zone, as twilight zones are also called as, exists at around a depth of 600 to 3300 feet below the surface level. It is called the ‘Twilight Zone’ as a minimal amount of light reaches the zone, but not enough for photosynthesis, and not even algae can come from here. The zone turns into a place where the carbon being released from plankton is sequestered for possible periods of decades to thousands of years. 

The phytoplankton lives in the zone just above the twilight zone in the sunlit upper waters. It is here they photosynthesize with the use of sunlight and CO2 from the atmosphere into the ocean’s water, thereby producing oxygen. This photosynthesis is one of the many ways the ocean eliminates carbon dioxide on to the planet.  With the death of the phytoplankton, the remains sink into the twilight zone carrying along some of its carbon along. 

In a press release, David Siegel, lead scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara said that focus of the expedition would be to observe the three primary mechanisms via which carbon reaches the depth of the ocean from the upper levels. It is for a better understanding of the biological and ecological importance of the phytoplankton at the surface water and how these characteristics drive the transportation of carbon till the twilight zone and finally what happens with the carbon in deep water.  

Further to Siegel’s statement, he mentioned that it would allow scientists to get significant data for further studies. NASA’s satellite data shows that these ecosystems are highly sensitive to the climate’s variability. The stakes are high, as changes in the population of phytoplankton directly affect the marine food cycle as numerous big and small animal species consume this phytoplankton.