PADILLA BAY — Scientists sometimes go to great lengths for their research.
A team from the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve recently spent more than 24 hours confined to the 22-foot Edna B research vessel, afloat in the bay and packed with water sampling equipment.
Team members collected water samples every two hours, gathering data that will help document changes in the bay as the climate warms and oceans become more acidic.
Donning headlamps and equipped with snacks and coffee, the team worked through the night collecting samples.
“It’s hard work to do, but I feel like it’s kind of the ‘eating your vegetables’ of field ecology,” reserve Research Coordinator Jude Apple said. “If you’re going to draw conclusions about what happens in your estuary, you have to understand what happens with the tides.”
For Padilla Bay reserve environmental scientist Nicole Burnett and Washington Conservation Corps research assistant Ashleigh Pilkerton, the 24-hour sampling cycle marked their first overnight experience in the field.
“It was really fun. It was exhausting, but fun,” Pilkerton said.
Burnett estimates they each squeezed in about 20 minutes of shut-eye during the experience. In addition to making headway toward their research, some of the sights made it worth it.
“In the wee hours we got to see some things we’d never seen before,” she said.
From the water they had an excellent view of the sunset, sunrise and shooting stars. They also saw rarely seen marine worms and bioluminescence, a light shimmer in the water emitted by bacteria, algae or other small organisms.
“It was fascinating,” Pilkerton said.
Team members are now in the midst of painstakingly processing the samples they collected.
Burnett and a volunteer are examining about 100 samples for zooplankton, the tiny shrimp- and insect-like creatures that form the low end of the food chain.
They count how many zooplankton are on each slide under the microscope and categorize them by type. Each sample can take from 30 minutes to an entire day to tally.
Meanwhile, Pilkerton is processing other samples, filtering solid materials out of the water and then measuring how much of it is organic carbon.
That will tell them how much of the material was made up of zooplankton and pieces of plants, such as eelgrass.
Together, the lab results will provide insight into what happens to the zooplankton in Padilla Bay as the tide comes in and out.
“On a summer day when the tides come in, water temperature can be 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) and then when the tide comes in it can drop to 8 (about 46 degrees Fahrenheit),” Apple said. “There could be big changes when 12 feet of water come in over a few hours.”
The researchers are trying to determine whether the tide has a dramatic effect on how many of the tiny creatures are in the water, or at what depth, Burnett said.
If the tides don’t make a difference, that will mean the monthly data the reserve has gathered since 2007 — not always taken at the same tidal level — is a good representation of how the zooplankton in the bay fluctuate throughout the year, Apple said.
The reserve is working to ensure it has good data showing normal processes in the bay so that it is equipped to watch for signs of climate change, such as warming waters, Burnett said.
Apple is also using samples collected overnight aboard the Edna B to look at the amount of carbon dioxide in the bay to prepare to recognize ocean acidification.
He is trying to determine how much carbon dioxide is in the water and how much of that is from critters such as the zooplankton, which use oxygen and produce carbon dioxide much like humans as they breathe.
“How does the biological contribution to carbon dioxide change throughout the day and throughout the year?” Apple said. “It’s one of the pieces of the pie in understanding what changes ocean (acidity).”
Climate change and ocean acidification are caused by an abundance of carbon dioxide, which traps heat in the atmosphere and is absorbed by the oceans.