A Trip to the Labrador Sea

June 06, 2024

A group of people stand on the deck of a ship

Parker and his fellow scientists.

– Photo Credit: Matthew Parker

Parker stands inside doorway with his instrument

Parker sampled water at various depths

– Photo Credit: Matthew Parker

BATON ROUGE - Last winter, CC&E graduate student Matthew Parker went on an international research cruise to the freezing waters of the Labrador Sea. 

The Labrador Sea, which is located in the North Atlantic Ocean between Canada and Greenland, is a crucial part of the world ocean ecosystem. It is there that oxygen rich surface water is forced down deep below the ocean's surface, where it disperses to various boundary currents, oxygenating deep water around the world.

Parker, who studies in Dr. Kanchan Maiti’s Marine Geochemistry Lab, is investigating how this area also serves as a carbon sink. He talked to CC&E about his work and his time on the German made ship the R/V Maria S. Merian.

So what took you to the North Atlantic at the beginning of winter? 

There has been an increasing effort to better understand air-sea gas exchange, especially in regions where deepwater forms. The Labrador Sea in early winter is the ideal location to examine this phenomenon. It is very turbulent and stormy, which facilitates the injection of atmospheric gases, such as carbon dioxide and oxygen, into the surface ocean through bubbles from breaking waves.

I’m fascinated by how particles, such as phytoplankton and other organic matter, are sinking and what this implies for carbon sequestration in the deep ocean. This is a unique experience because researchers who typically study the biological carbon pump usually go on cruises and sample during spring and summer blooms.

Can you describe your specific research?

My specific research focuses on the biological carbon pump. This process involves phytoplankton fixing carbon dioxide into organic carbon through photosynthesis, which then sinks to deeper depths after the phytoplankton die. The depth at which this organic carbon sinks without being respired by bacteria determines the timescale of effective sequestration from the atmosphere. I am particularly interested in the efficiency of the biological carbon pump and how it differs between seasons.

Was this your first trip like this?

I have been on another research cruise before, which was in the Gulf of Mexico. That trip was meant to prepare me for this one, allowing me to learn all the necessary field and lab methods needed to successfully collect an adequate number of samples.

But the North Atlantic in December – that’ s a very different environment.

It was the total opposite in terms of the environment and working conditions. Winter storms generate off the southernmost tip of Greenland, resulting in storm cycles in the Labrador Sea every 3-4 days. This causes constant rocking of the ship, which can make lab work both fun and challenging. Nonetheless, I enjoyed working on this cruise and appreciate the unique opportunity it has provided me.

What were the best and worst parts of taking a trip like this?

The best part was seeing all the different instrumentation and lab equipment that various groups brought to measure different parameters. I enjoyed learning about the extensive research and development involved in measuring some of these gases in such a brutal environment. Additionally, working in the lab and observing how other scientists conduct their research on cruises like this was incredibly rewarding.

The biggest challenge was managing a consistent work and sleep schedule. I had to deploy my equipment at all hours of the day because the cruise schedule was constantly changing due to weather. This meant I had to be ready to work at a moment’s notice and often work for long durations to process all my samples.

What was your biggest takeaway as a scientist?  

It takes an immense amount of time, money, effort, and collaboration for a cruise like this to be successful. Even though all parties involved spent several months to years preparing for this cruise, nothing can fully prepare you for the actual conditions. This means not everything might go to plan, but that’s alright because there is always a contingency plan.

I am extremely grateful to my co-advisors, Dr. Kanchan Maiti and Dr. Junhong Liang, for providing me with the necessary knowledge and resources to participate in such a unique cruise and conduct the research I’m doing.