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Marine scientists, myself included, often cite exotic travel as one of the many perks of our job. While it certainly is, there is much to be said for making discoveries in our own backyard. And that’s exactly what twenty of my Scripps peers did this past month.
A core group of graduate students planned and executed a research trip that became known as the San Diego Coastal Expedition. Their purpose was to venture into the Pacific in search of extraordinary ecosystems on the ocean floor called methane seeps, all the while tracking interesting marine life and ocean conditions off our very own coast. As they did, the team communicated what they discovered via the internet, making their findings readily accessible to everyone back home.
As Gary Robbins reported in the UT San Diego last Thursday, the San Diego Coastal Expedition was a success. The team found clear traces of methane in sediment cores, strong evidence for a previously unknown methane seep just twenty miles off of Del Mar.
At these seeps, the chemical methane can naturally flow upward through cracks, or faults, in the ocean floor. Being that it is rich in carbon, the backbone of all life on earth, methane serves as the basic unit of food in these extremely unique ecosystems.
The team’s discovery required interdisciplinary science: geologists examined the structure of the ocean bottom, biologists identified creatures common to seeps, and chemists detected chemical signatures in sediment cores.
While finding the seep was hard, getting the opportunity to be there in the first place may have been even harder. Traveling to exotic locales for research is expensive, and while this trip was local, the need for a ship changed the game. Research vessels, such as the 279-foot R/V Melville used by my peers, are expensive to operate, leaving few opportunities for student use even when exploring our local waters.
Fortunately the team was able to apply to UC Ship Funds, a program specifically set up to provide student time on ships. Through the experience, which was overseen by a faculty adviser at Scripps, the student group went through a very similar process to that of senior scientists: applying for funds with a plan and budget, and after receiving funding, organizing and completing their sea-going research goals.
The core organizers, led by chief scientist Christina Frieder, seized upon this rare opportunity. They recruited scientific colleagues, undergraduates and volunteers from a number of nations, conducted great science and got the word out about their work.
This final point—their desire to communicate their findings—was a powerful and somewhat unique endeavor. The San Diego Coastal Expedition team created a blog and a Facebook page, and coined a Twitter hashtag. Before, during and after the trip they posted pictures and blogged often in order to keep anyone with an interest informed about their discoveries.
Through the combination of research, outreach and rapid communication the team is actively advancing an important new trajectory in science, and one that is a priority of the National Science Foundation.
In recent years, additional impetus has been put on science communication. A majority of our research is funded with federal and state dollars, thus we owe it to everyone to provide glimpses into our work. What’s more, engaging the public is an important vehicle for gaining interest in science. With a science-educated public, we can all enjoy and understand the fascination and fragility of ecosystems in our own backyard.
In December the San Diego Coastal Expedition team will return to the newly discovered methane seep to further unravel its mysteries. Stay tuned for later posts about their ongoing discoveries.