Christmas at sea
Perhaps a three-week North Sea cruise in December doesn't sound enticing at first glance - but for a team of researchers from Jacobs University, it was a unique opportunity for a new research project. They sampled the Ems, Weser, and Elbe rivers, as well as the southern North Sea, and returned to their home laboratory at the end of the year with thousands of water samples after 1900 nautical miles and 191 stations. Their research goal is to study the input of novel critical metals such as rare earths, platinum, scandium, germanium and others, which are increasingly used in green technologies and medicine, via the rivers into the North Sea. The trip diary shows how the participants experienced this exciting research expedition.
1900 miles on rivers and sea - review from the perspective of the chief scientist (by Andrea Koschinsky)
On December 29th at 9 am in the morning the RV Meteor docked at the pier in Emden. At 1 pm the truck came to pick up our boxes and transport them to Bremen, and at 2 pm the bus we had ordered arrived to take us to Bremen as well. Although everyone was of course looking forward to home, there was also a clear sense of melancholy; here we could move freely, work together and celebrate. What would await us at home? Wearing masks already on the bus - the prospect of New Year's Eve rather limited. No more bar where you could play one of the games acquired at the Julklapp with other colleagues in the evening after your shift. So we look back on a very nice and successful time - for the experienced cruise researchers a rather short trip at just under 3 weeks, for the newcomers a memorable adventure with many new experiences.
And for the chief scientist? My role as the hub between the science team and the bridge and for everything organizational regarding the cruise was not new to me. And as on previous cruises, our independently working and dedicated team, who contributed creatively and with a lot of joy toward the work, made the role of the chief scientist pleasant and easy for me. Essential was also the support of the station managers Katja Schmidt, Sophie Paul and Dennis Krämer, who led the three shifts, and the great support of the captain and officers on the bridge as well as the entire ship team, which we have already presented in various blog posts. We certainly didn't always make it easy for the bridge team with our station planning. Typically, the chief scientist comes to the bridge with a station plan that gives clear coordinates and times for the operations of the various equipment. For us, the key points were often salinities, i.e. certain salinity levels determined by the mixing ratios of river water and seawater. And since those are constantly changing due to tides and weather conditions, it was often station planning on call: "Bridge from the lab, we've now reached the right salinity, can we deploy the CTD?"
Planning and working in tidally influenced estuarine and coastal regions are completely different than working in the open ocean, where there are far fewer variable factors. But some of the ship's crew were already familiar with this dynamic station planning from our M147 meteor cruise in 2018 in the Amazon estuary, where we had all experienced it for the first time. And so, once again, through joint planning and constant adjustment of the cruise track, we fully achieved our goal: as Annika and Mirja already pointed out in their statistics, we brought back thousands of sample bottles filled with water, and with a 1900 nautical mile (equivalent to 3518 kilometers) total route, we completely sailed the German part of the North Sea several times, mapping salinity levels with the ship's thermosalinograph. This allowed us to see where the freshwater of the rivers still has an influence and thus where substances possibly carried from the rivers, such as our critical high-tech metals, can reach.
In summary, I can say that the voyage was very pleasant and successful. We would like to express our sincere thanks to Captain Rainer Hammacher and his entire team, as well as to the German Research Vessel Control Center, the shipping company Briese and the Expert Panel on Research Vessels (GPF) for making this expedition under pandemic conditions possible and thus opening up an exciting new research project for us. The Indian Ocean and Pacific research cruises that would have involved my team in the summer of 2020 and summer of 2021 have been cancelled due to the pandemic, and with the cruises the associated projects. This has created huge gaps in our research projects. With this new project, we now have the means to find out, through analyses of the hundreds of water and particle samples in the home labs, if novel critical trace metal compounds could become a problem in the future for coastal environments and, in the end, perhaps for us humans. Only if a potential problem is identified early can early action prevent it from actually becoming a problem. We will report on this in later publications.
We would also like to thank everyone who has accompanied us by reading the blog posts and we hope that we have been able to give an insight into the special life and work on board and the indispensable teamwork between scientists and ship's crew - a considerable part of the success of this cruise is due to them. We wish everyone a healthy and hopefully easier 2021, which we hope will again allow us to interact with each other as we have always considered normal, not only on the ships, but also on land.
Life on board - Follow me around (Retrospect by Mai-Brit Schulte)
I had set out for the quarantine camp, prepared for a strenuous time full of privation on the wild waves of the North Sea. As it happens, I was very wrong, because the RV Meteor has some unexpected pleasant sides.
In advance I had heard that there was neither vegan food (but officially vegetarian) nor it was particularly warm in the ship. Prepared for both, among other things with clothes with which I could also have set off to the Neumayer Station in Antarctica, I entered the deck on 11 December 2020. Our team was warmly welcomed by the crew, and in exchange for our passports we received our chamber keys. A crew member carried my suitcase, which felt like it weighed 50 kg, up to my chamber located on the 2nd upper deck (effectively the second floor). Yes, it is called chamber, not cabin. In heavy seas, it can be a chamber of horrors! The furniture groans, personal belongings fly around - only with the help of a broomstick did I get my bottle back out from under the bed - and the sound of waves crashing against the bow creates Titanic associations in my head.
However, I should also mention advantages: The 9 square meters of the chamber are in practice larger than expected and through two windows also bright - if the sun shines outside! A small bathroom, a table, desk, closet, bench, chair and two beds. Corona-related, the chambers are not doubled, so each of us enjoys a single chamber on this trip. One of the very few positive things the Corona pandemic has given us. I deliberately chose the chamber that was among the farthest forward and highest up. My ulterior motive was the great distance to the engine room and the hoped-for low noise level. I had been told that it was sometimes noisy, and that it would be a good idea to pack earplugs. Having grown up near a highway, however, I don't find that to be the case. The air conditioning is the only thing that makes continuous "noise" - it's always running; windows can only be opened when the ship is in port. Otherwise, it would probably be rather wet in the chambers on the "first floor", the main deck - because it's not for nothing that people sometimes talk about the washing machine when looking out of the porthole there. Speaking of nicknames, my compartment is one of those called the elevator. That should have given me pause for thought. Anyone who has ever been on a ship knows where swells are most pronounced. I know it now, too: in my very chamber!
Let's assume, however, that one is not plagued by seasickness. Because then there are the palate treats to enjoy, which the galley conjures up four times a day. Breakfast at 7:15, lunch at 11:15, cake at 15 and dinner at 17:15. So, quite similar to a cruise ship, you can feast your way through the day quite well. And contrary to expectations, even vegan! Unlike on a cruise ship, however, we are not here for pleasure, of course, and good, frequent meals do not serve the pure gourmet experience, but the maintenance of a healthy body and mind. After all, both crew and scientists often experience strenuous shifts. When sampling rivers, for example, we sometimes have to work quickly, as the ship is not allowed to block the shipping channel for long, but we also cannot deploy our CTD and GoFlo bottles at a speed of several knots, but at a standstill.
After a hard day's work, some people are tempted by the bar, where they like to get together. On weekdays at 6:45 p.m., tax-free spirits, drugstore items, sweets, etc. can be purchased in the duty-free store, and at 3 p.m., clothing with Meteor logos can be purchased in the boutique, which will later remind you of the strenuous but enjoyable time on board. The 1st steward Jan attaches great importance to quality, fair trade and organic labels. In theory, you don't even have to wash your clothes yourself. Gou Min, the master of such large washing machines that even a human being could get a general cleaning in them, is happy to do this for a small fee so that you can concentrate fully on the research.
However, in some things you actually have to cut back here. As soon as we move away from land, we also leave mobile phone reception behind. This means that the cell phone remains silent - but that can also be quite pleasant. And to still be able to send Christmas greetings, a landline phone (via satellite) is available on the 4th superstructure deck, or you can use the ship's WLAN and one of numerous messaging apps on your own smartphone. Further, of course, one cannot leave the ship and is therefore spatially restricted. No walks in the forest or through the Bürgerpark, no bike tours on the dike. On the other hand, we enjoy the status of "Corona-free zone" and the freedoms that come with it, and there's a small fitness room to get in some real physical exercise. Those who do not want to miss the sauna afterwards will also get their chance. This offers opportunities to switch off from the stress of work; to really sweat again after the filtration of the last sample.
Although my chamber is so far away from the machine room (hahaha), I can report about the latter. On Dec. 23, we were given an exclusive tour by Volker, the chief engineer. As an absolute technology layman, I didn't understand everything when it came to the cubic capacity of the engines, etc., but I can give you a few terms: Bow thruster (to keep the position), trash compactor (on the Meteor you don't throw trash overboard), wastewater treatment, freshwater plant with reverse osmosis, diesel electric motors. There was no need for a bridge tour, because you are always welcome to ask the officers on duty questions. Or use one of the powerful binoculars to watch seals on Helgoland when you are not on shift.
It wasn't long until Christmas Eve, which promised to be a memorable event. True. Festive dinner together, our choir performance (despite a steep learning curve we only just made it over the auditory pain threshold), cello solo by the Doc, gift giving and X-Mas party.
After the presentation of these pleasant sides of the board life it should not be forgotten why we are actually here: To do research. And we do that diligently, the research operation runs 24 hours a day, even on Sundays and holidays, and we work in a three-shift system. But how can you actually do research under such conditions, which are so different from the laboratory on land? Obviously, when the waves are really rough, you can't - fortunately, we only had to interrupt our work once at the end of the voyage. After moving into the onboard laboratories, which are located on the main deck, and unpacking the boxes, it was important to secure everything that could give way to centrifugal force in order to prevent sample bottles and clean air boxes from flying around. Even though the on-board laboratories are of course not as well equipped as those at the BGR and the JUB, they allow the initial processing of the samples. You can read many interesting things about this in the past blog posts!
If I have made your mouth water, I have to disappoint you. You cannot book a trip on the Meteor. You get your ticket by joining science (be it as a lab technician, student, scientist) or if you join the crew as a sailor, engineer or nautical officer etc.
The end is near (from Mirja Bardenhagen and Annika Moje)
The cruise is now almost finished and our well-practised workflows and routines of the everyday life on board are being mixed-up again. Now all of our equipment and collected samples will be packed and sent back.
As lab technicians we are responsible for the packing and logistics, in addition to the normal lab work. Everything that you might need, including instruments as well as materials, has to be brought on board – after all the nearest supply store is hard to reach. This includes every single piece of tissue, every little pipette tip and even things like pens.
The customs matters are quite an adventure every time as this is something entirely different our normal tasks in the lab.
MB: “I am working at the BGR (Federal Institute for Geoscience and National Resources) and just switched to the marine geology department within the BGR. It is my first research cruise and everything is new and exciting. I was also not aware of how much preparation was necessary for these kind of research cruises.”
AM: “For 5 years, I have been part of the Geochemistry group at the Jacobs University and have already worked several times at sea. This is my first time on the Meteor though and it was a really nice cruise.”
To give you a little impression of things that add up during a 20 days research cruise we did a little investigation:
• Pilots: 10
• Nautical miles: 1900
• Eggs: 1900
• Coffee: 40 kg
• Bread rolls: 1200
• Meat: 200 kg
• Fresh fruit: 200 kg
• Potatoes: 200 kg
• Fuel: 220,000 L
• Fresh water: 240,000 L
• Sampling stations: 191
• Volume of samples: 3623 L
• Data volume: 350 GB
Trainees among scientists – “Can we help?” (by Cansu Özer & Emily Schoeneich)
Although we have only been chemistry laboratory technician trainees at Jacobs University Bremen since August, four months later we are already part of a scientific team here on the Meteor. For us personally, this is an opportunity that we never expected and which we took without hesitation. In the months before the cruise, we spent a lot of time preparing for the trip. Among other things we learned how to order equipment, properly pack boxes and clean bottles of trace metal contamination in different steps. Everyday life on board is completely different from that at home. Our first big challenge was to find our place among all the scientists and experienced seafarers, as well as to learn how and where we could help the best without standing in the way. But soon we developed a good routine and became a well-rehearsed team. Given the constantly changing frequency and type of sampling, as well as special events such as a Christmas party, there is no typical daily routine. In order to bring you a little closer to life on a research ship, we have described a whole day on board of the Meteor below.
To get the most out of the cruise, samples are taken around the clock. To this end, we have divided ourselves into three groups, each working eight hours, meaning that someone is in the lab at all times. The shifts are: 04:00 am – 12:00 pm, 12:00 pm – 8:00 pm and 8:00 pm – 04:00 am.
04:00 am: After the night shift workers finish, the morning shift begins. (A full fridge is available around the clock, and everyone can take some of the leftovers to heat up in the microwave)
7:15 am – 08:15 am: Breakfast break in the mess hall. The number of people who have showed up for breakfast in the morning has steadily decreased over the duration of the cruise, as sleep is usually more important.
11:15 am – 12:15 pm: Lunch in the mess hall
12:00 pm: End of work for the morning shift, start of work for the afternoon shift
3:00 pm: Coffee and cake
3:15 pm: Choir rehearsal in the conference room for the cultural program on Christmas Eve
4:15 pm: Discussion of further cruise transects and sampling.
5:15 pm – 6:15 pm: Dinner
6:00 pm (after dinner): Get together with card games, table tennis, darts, movie nights and listening to music
6:45 pm – 7:00 pm: Canteen open (drugstore, alcohol and snacks)
8:00 pm: End of work for the afternoon shift, start of work for the night shift
Now that the cruise is coming to an end at last, we can finally say that it has been an exciting, educational and truly unique experience.
Microalgae, the microscopic giants! (by Rohit Dey)
After a bachelor degree in biotechnology and a master degree in biological and biomolecular sciences with a specialization in environmental microbiology, I was stunned when I first came across these microscopic organisms. They are primitive creatures, existing long before humans learned the use of fire and since then have adapted and evolved themselves into thousands of different species that inhabit noxious sulphur hot springs, super saline underground aquifers and even our common domestic water supplies. They are capable of surviving in absolutely any environment and under unbelievable amounts of stress.
Microalgae can be effectively used to our advantage in modern days for a sustainable way of life. I am currently interested in using them to clean waste-water sources around the world and am pursuing a PhD from Jacobs University in Oceanlab trying to figure out effective, cost efficient and innovative ways to replace non-renewable sources with these renewable omnipresent organisms. They are almost inexpensive to culture, in fact in wastewaters containing high amounts of salt, nitrogen or phosphorus, they do not need anything other than sunlight and air to grow by photosynthesis and even produce oxygen as a by-product. Their biomass can then be harvested and used as sources of food, bioenergy, bioplastic and even high value products like pharmaceutical drugs and carotenoids which are rare naturally occurring substances. During this cruise, I am collecting native species of microalgae growing in the North Sea and other German river estuaries that have already adapted to the natural environmental conditions here in hopes to take them back home and develop methods to tackle environmental pollution all over Europe and eventually the rest of the world.
3 Michelin stars: "One-of-a-kind cuisine and service - worth the trip!"
It's no secret that good food plays an important role on any ship to keep body and soul together - because a ship doesn't have many alternatives to the work program other than getting together regularly to eat. And whoever you ask - we are unanimous in our opinion - the Meteor galley and steward team is tip-top! Even getting up early after a long night shift is no problem, because you are always greeted in a friendly manner by the stewards and asked about your breakfast wishes for today - pancakes with fruit, freshly prepared eggs as desired or Hawaiian toast - and if that's too much for you in the early morning, you can help yourself to a light breakfast and fruit at the buffet - even the rolls are handmade. Only the meal times take some getting used to for most of us - after breakfast at 7:15 a.m., lunch with appetizer and main course as well as fruit or other dessert is already on the agenda at 11:15 a.m., and dinner at 5:15 p.m., which, in addition to the usual bread with cheese and cold cuts as well as salad and vegetables, also always offers a hot meal. Those who still have room in their stomachs in between can enjoy a coffee or tea and a piece of cake or cookies in the afternoon at 3 pm. Those who have to work during the official meal times or at night can help themselves to the refrigerator later and also have the warm meals stored in the pantry.
In addition to the regular menu program, a variety of vegetarian food is also offered, which includes delicious dishes cooked separately each day. Even our two vegans are considered and at each meal the stewards assign them the dishes that are suitable for them, which also look very appealing to the non-vegans and, according to the target group, taste the same. For a small bite between meals or a cosy get-together in the bar in the evening, a selection of snacks, soft drinks and a wide range of other beverages can be found in the two messes and the bar, where everyone can help themselves at any time at their own expense – just write a ticket with your name and pay at the end of the journey with the 1st steward Jan Parlow. The latter also runs a store that offers small souvenirs and a clothing collection with Meteor motifs in addition to other consumables and drugstore items at certain times on weekdays.
But this is far from the end of the stewards' workday. Between meals, they clean the public areas and the chambers, distribute bed linen and towels, and wash used items in Gou Min Zhang's laundry area. For a small amount of money, you can also have him wash and iron your private laundry - or use the washing machine and dryer on one of the decks for free.
Although we could hardly imagine that this excellent catering could be topped any further, we were pleasantly surprised on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with a special menu and holiday ambience: tables festively laid by the stewards, a beautifully decorated Christmas tree and a delicious menu program. And despite all the extra work that cooks and stewards had to do over the entire days, the service remained courteous and nice and the food served at the table, whether with meat, vegetarian or vegan, was simply delicious. After dessert and espresso in nice company at the table, we were completely satisfied - and aware of what a particularly fortunate situation we are in here on board, while our loved ones at home have to cope with major restrictions in the Corona Lockdown.
Often invisible and yet fundamental - the "machine".
They spend most of their working time in the ship's engine rooms - which is why you sometimes hardly see them. Chief Engineer Volker Hartig and his 7-member team of the ship's Technical Service make sure that the heart of the research vessel stays in time and that smooth operation is ensured around the clock. In addition to the ship's propulsion, this includes power supply, air conditioning, winches, cranes, drinking water production, sanitary facilities, garbage, laboratory equipment and a lot more - all in all like a small city.
A guided tour of the engine room gave us an understanding of this impressive and complex world underground. Electricity generation is elementary to the ship's operation. Three engine keepers take care of the four diesel engines - of which 2-4 are running constantly - in a 4-hour watch duty with an 8-hour break in between. Driving, navigation, control of the rowing machine, light, cooling... everything depends on the diesel engines working flawlessly.
The First Engineer is assisted by two Second Engineers, as well as a Deck Fitter and a Marine Electrical Technician, to carry out maintenance and repairs. Their area of responsibility includes everything that works mechanically or electrically on the ship. They have access to a very well-equipped machine shop and a wide range of materials for repairs. This is particularly important at sea, often thousands of kilometers from the nearest service, because any damage or problems that may occur must be repaired with on-board resources if possible. In contrast, the replacement propeller, which is manufactured specifically for each ship and is carried here in the hold, would have to be changed in a dry dock.
Even though we hope we will never need it, a fire-fighting system with CO2 and water as well as smoke and fire detectors is installed on the entire ship, which is also maintained and checked by the engine crew. Leak defense also includes the so-called bulkhead closing system to close compartments in the ship with watertight bulkheads and to cut off the affected part of the ship in case of a leak. Even though all these systems are only used very rarely, their functionality is regularly maintained and checked by the ship's technical service in close cooperation with the security officer.
GoFlo bottles and passive samplers – Two ways to catch trace metals in the ocean (by Katja Schmidt)
Our M169 cruise aims at sampling river water, coastal water and seawater for the evaluation of trace metal inputs from land to sea. The first challenge is to get these water samples without already contaminating them. Trace metals are not only in the water that we want to sample. May it be contaminants in tobacco smoke (such as rare earth elements cerium and lanthanum), dust particles in the air (copper, cobalt or zinc) or metal alloys (iron, cobalt and zinc), metals are everywhere, waiting to screw up our samples! As we don’t want to see any of these signals in our samples but only what is transported in the water, a successful trace metal project always starts with proper sampling.
I’m Katja and I work at the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) in the department for Marine Resource Exploration. In the past several years, I have participated in research cruises to the Central Northeast Pacific Ocean, an area where the seafloor is covered by ore deposits called manganese nodules. An anthropogenic release of trace metals into the environment is of concern here too, potentially caused by future mining activities, and the methods to investigate trace metals are quite similar to our current North Sea cruise.
To get our water samples for later trace metal analyses we use so-called GoFlo water sampler bottles (Figure 1). A GoFlo bottle is designed for trace metal sampling, without any metal parts being in contact with the water. To avoid metal contamination from the CTD rosette frame and from metal cables, we deploy the GoFlos with a so-called Kevlar cable, which is non-metallic. The top and bottom of the bottle are each equipped with a stopper ball, which has to first rotate 90 degrees to open the bottle. To get them ready for deployment is really hard work, but it saves the time at the gym (Figure 1). When the bottle reaches the sampling depth, bottle closing is quite simple: a weight is launched from the research vessel down along the cable to the bottle and triggers the closing mechanisms to close the bottle. Once back on deck, the samples are split and preserved for different purposes, while continuing to work as metal-clean as possible – which is a tough challenge on a ship made of metal. We cover metal parts in the lab with plastic (cling film), work under clean air boxes, only use ultrapure acids, and try to keep our labs as clean as possible – not a simple task when so many people work in the same lab. As the southern North Sea and especially the coastal waters are very shallow (all below 50 m depth), the sampling frequency is quite high, keeping us all rather busy during our shifts. Together with Mirja, Mai-Brit and Adrienne I worked in the night shift during the first week. Currently we do the day shift, with two of us deploying the CTD and the water samplers and the other two working on the samples in the lab, filtering and doing important first analyses.
Within the relatively shallow rivers, we use a simpler approach and pump the water through a tubing construction, instead of deploying the GoFlo bottles.
In addition to sampling water with GoFlo bottles or tubing, we also use the method of passive sampling, which is a really smart way to collect metals from the water. A membrane hangs in the water and attracts a specific part of a trace metal: that species which is not tightly bound to other components in the water and is easily taken up by organisms (the so-called labile pool). Once these metals get close, they are “caught” and stick to the membrane. That’s why it is called passive sampling.
The passive samplers collect metals constantly over time as long as they stay in the water. As they need to be in the water for several weeks to collect a sufficient amount, we obtain large volumes of water samples at selected sites in the rivers, the coastal waters, and the open seawater, and deploy the membranes in 25 L carboys (Figure 2). Additionally, we got the great opportunity to use several of the stationary underwater observatory installations in the German Bright that are maintained by different research institutions and belong to the Coastal Observing System for Northern and Arctic Seas (COSYNA), parallel to the cruise. Currently, plates with passive samplers are installed in the Elbe estuary close to Cuxhaven (Figure 3), at the Helgoland underwater observatory where the passive samplers were deployed by scientific divers (Figure 4a,b), and an underwater station close to the island Spiekeroog - all locations were we also take water samples during our cruise.
Due to constant metal accumulation over time the passive sampling technique offers a good option to overcome the low trace metal concentrations in seawater and further minimizes metal contamination during sampling and sample treatment on board and in the home laboratory. As a result, we will get the average flux of loosely bound trace metals from the rivers into the North Sea for the period of time the passive samplers were deployed. As the passive samplers selectively collect those trace metals which can potentially be taken up by organisms (and hence be potentially harmful) we further hope to get more information on the bioavailability of the metals released from anthropogenic activities.
Without them no samples – the men of action on deck
The deck crew of the RV Meteor consists of eight people: the boatswain and seven sailors. Six of the sailors are on the permanent three-shift system 12 am-4 am, 4 am-8 am and 8 am – 12 pm, as well as 12 pm-4 pm, 4 pm-8 pm and 8 pm-12 am - that is, work 4 hours, off 8 hours, work 4 hours, and off 8 hours again. The boatswain and the 7th mate are on day duty, from 8 am to 5 pm. All of them have a lot of routine and know almost all the equipment and its special operating conditions. They make sure the equipment is handled safely (for both the operators and the equipment) and work closely with the science team in launching and retrieving the equipment. In most cases, a sailor operates the winch, i.e. a cable drum which lowers the cable or wire with the equipment to be deployed into the water and then brings it back on board. In our case, this is largely limited to the CTD rosette and our GoFlo bottles to take water samples at various water depths. However, on other cruises, e.g. with geologists or biologists, this can also be sediment coring equipment, plankton nets and other equipment.
In more complicated operations, the boatswain supervises the work and sometimes performs it himself. He is the superior of the sailors and the right hand of the Chief Mate. He takes care of the implementation of the work assignments discussed with the Chief Mate and the assignment of the deckhands, as well as the cargo handling in port.
Good cooperation between the colleagues of the deck crew is important for smooth and safe work on deck. But a comradely relationship is also quickly established between the watchkeeping deckhands and the scientists performing the station work, which often facilitates necessary improvisations in the use of equipment. This was the case, for example, when we found that the high particle concentration in the Elbe River was damaging our expensive and sensitive GoFlo bottles during sampling. Together with the deck crew and the bridge, we developed a concept whereby we could attach a several-meter long acid-cleaned laboratory hose to the metal-free Kevlar rope and lower it into the water alongside the ship using a plastic-sheathed weight and a crane or winch. With the help of the pump we had brought along for ultrafiltration, the river water samples could thus be pumped directly into large sample containers.
Gallium – Aluminium and Germanium – Silicon – element(al) friendships
Ahoi! My name is David and I am a PhD student at the workgroup Resource and Environmental Geochemistry of Jacobs University Bremen.
Gallium (Ga) and aluminium (Al) are two elements which are very similar to each other and therefore also behave very similar during geological/geochemical processes. The same is valid for germanium (Ge) and silicon (Si), another element pair. You can best imagine those element pairs as twins which are sharing everything and are always doing everything together. This means for example that you can find in all different igneous rocks (e.g., magmatic rocks from volcanoes) from all around the world more or less the same ratio of Ga/Al and Ge/Si. However, just like with human twins, at a certain point in their live, twins very often start to behave more individually. Human twins likely stop wearing similar clothes, they have different groups of friends or start working in different jobs. And this is very similar to the behaviour of Ga-Al and Ge-Si in aqueous environments (e.g., lakes, river water or seawater): Gallium-aluminium and germanium-silicon start to behave differently. For example, aluminium prefers to attach to small particles which are floating around in the river water or seawater. Once these particles sink down to the floor, they take the aluminium with them and remove it from the elemental inventory of the river water or seawater. Therefore, rivers show higher Ga/Al ratios compared to the rocks through which they stream and the seawater in turn shows even higher Ga/Al ratios compared to the rivers which feed the seas/oceans.
Usually I am investigating iron rich rocks: so called banded iron formations. These banded iron formations are up to a few billion years old. For example the banded iron formation of Isua (Greenland) is ~3,800,000,000 years old while our earth in total is 4,540,000,000 years old. Banded iron formations formed in the ancient oceans and they still preserve information about seawater and atmospheric conditions from the time of their formation. In my PhD project we investigate the distribution of Ga-Al and Ge-Si in the banded iron formations to understand whether the ancient oceans were similar to those today or whether they were different. It is very important to get a good understanding of the ancient ocean, because it was here where the first life on earth developed. The question about the origin of life is probably still one of the most fascinating unsolved riddles in science today. However, the investigation of Ge-Si and especially that of Ga-Al is very new and we know only very little about their behaviour even in our modern river and ocean systems. Therefore, I am now on board of the FS Meteor and sampling river water from the Ems, Elbe and Weser and from the North Sea. I hope that the findings of our research cruise will help me understand and interpret the results I found in the old banded iron formations. This in turn then could help us getting a better understanding of the environmental conditions billions of years ago and finally it could be a part in the puzzle of the origin of life.
Scandium - a travel into the unknown
My name is Franziska Klimpel and I am a PhD student at Jacobs University Bremen. My main research interest is the behavior of scandium in aqueous systems such as rivers. Scandium is also part of the high-technology metals to which Dennis already gave an introduction. It is for example used in aluminium-scandium alloys in the aviation industry or in solid oxide fuel cells. In general, scandium’s behavior in aqueous systems is poorly understood and there is a very limited amount of data for rivers, estuaries, and the oceans available. For the North Sea as well as the rivers and estuaries we are sampling on this cruise, the scandium concentrations, its spatial distribution as well as its behavior during estuarine mixing are unknown. Therefore, this research cruise is a great opportunity to increase the data sets available for scandium in these systems as well as getting a better understanding of its behavior.
Nevertheless, it is not only a great scientific opportunity, but also for me personally as this is my first research cruise. So far it has been a great experience, despite night shifts and a few days with wind, rain and waves. As the Christmas tree is decorated and we practice some carols for Christmas evening, I am looking forward to celebrate Christmas on board in a couple of days.
Post by Timmu Kreitsmann
I had only recently started my postdoctoral researcher position at the Jacobs University when I was offered to be a part of this cruise. Due to the COVID pandemic, travelling back home was unlikely, thus it did not take me long to accept this offer and spend this year’s Christmas on the FS Meteor. Staying on a R/V for three weeks with my new colleagues seemed like a great opportunity to get to know them and have my first hands-on experience with a research cruise. In my current PostDoc project I am focusing on rare earth elements in alkaline waters. Furthermore, I am interested in ancient sedimentary rocks recording the first appearance of free oxygen in the atmosphere.
One focus of our research in this cruise is Rare Earth Elements and Yttrium (REY). The REY have wide range of application from medicine and electronics (e.g., smartphones) to high strength magnets used in wind turbines. With the push towards a low-carbon economy, the use of REY is expected to greatly increase in the future. Due to their wide use and strong geopolitical control on their supply, the REY have been also included in a group of critical metals commissioned by the European Union. In oceans the main source of REY is the riverine input. With this cruise we want to see how the REY are distributed during the mixing of fresh river water and saline North Sea water.
REY is a group of elements that behave coherently in natural systems. This makes REY an excellent tool to learn about the effects of human activity on the biogeochemical elemental cycles. It has been already shown that the human activity is, for example, responsible for the increased Gadolinium (Gd) and Lanthanum (La) concentrations in the rivers flowing through highly populated and industrialised areas. However, the effects of this contamination on the environment are still largely unclear. Thus, another aim of this cruise is to better distinguish the anthropogenic input from the natural abundance of rare earth elements in river waters and in the North Sea.
The noble story – platinum! (by Mai-Brit Schulte)
Ahoy, landlubbers! I'm Mai-Brit and I'm currently in my fifth semester of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Jacobs University. I was very fortunate to be given the opportunity to be a student assistant on this research cruise. It is certainly not the first time I have been on a ship, but it is my first time on a research vessel. After seeing a lot about the MOSAiC expedition in the Arctic on TV recently, I was enthusiastic to go on my first expedition! For me, this trip also fulfils the function of taking samples, which I will write my bachelor's thesis about in the coming semester. It will be about a very precious metal: Platinum, with a price per gram of about €37, is even more valuable than gold. Hopefully a good omen for the assessment of my bachelor's thesis - maybe I'll reach platinum standard!
Everyone probably knows platinum from its name. A musician receives the platinum record after a certain very high number of record sales. But that really doesn't seem so significant that students should write a bachelor's thesis about this metal. So why the effort? Platinum has a very low natural concentration in the biosphere of 0.5ng/g, while 80% of the platinum flux on earth is of anthropogenic origin (see Dennis’ blog post). Platinum as an environmental pollutant is a relatively new thing and therefore largely unexplored. This is because some sources of platinum pollution are applications that have only been established in the recent past.
The rare, corrosion-resistant metal is in fact very important in our daily lives now, especially here in Germany, as we are a car nation par excellence. Since the 1990s, catalytic converters, in which platinum is the main component, have been used to reduce pollutant emissions in vehicles. This is not limited to passenger cars but extends to ships and rail vehicles.
But platinum is also used in cancer therapy because of its cytotoxicity, i.e. toxicity to cells. Bad for cancer cells (unfortunately also for the "good" body cells, but that's another story). It interacts with DNA (genetic information) and interferes with the process of cell division. Platinum does not remain in the patient, though, but is excreted in the urine. So far, it is not filtered out by sewage treatment plants. Thus, platinum enters our waters via sewage and road dust, harbour water and road runoff.
The concentrations are still low, but they may rise to toxic levels in the future. It is already certain that platinum is detectable in water and marine life. For example, in mussels and dolphins - but in their bodies, just as in ours, it has no biological function. But how much is in the North Sea and German rivers at the moment is unknown. That's what we have to find out now!
One thing is already clear: this trip will certainly stay in my memory for a long time. Good food, hard night shifts, great company both from crew and fellow scientists, wave rocking from pleasant to nauseating, and a Christmas without masks despite strict Corona restrictions on land!
Time and tide wait for no man – and also not for ultra-trace metals in the environment. (by Dennis Krämer)
I am Dennis Krämer and a postdoctoral researcher at Jacobs University Bremen. In my research, I study the geochemical behavior of certain metals, so-called high-technology metals, in the environment. Primarily, I am interested in the interactions of rocks and sediments/soils with natural solutions such as river water and seawater and the interactions of these elements with plants and animals. Along this "interaction triangle" geology - water - biology, we investigate the behavior of high-technology metals such as the rare earths, the platinum group elements, gallium, germanium or scandium in the working group "Raw Materials and Environmental Geochemistry".
In order to make statements about the anthropogenic, i.e. man-made, input of metals into nature, the natural input and inventory of these metals must first be characterized in detail. This is becoming more and more complicated, since for some metals the anthropogenic input already exceeds any natural, also called geogenic, input by several orders of magnitude. Some elements occur naturally only in very, very small traces in sea or river water. The element scandium, to give just one example, has element concentrations in river waters in the range of 1-20 parts per trillion (ppt). That is, among 1,000,000,000,000 atoms, there are just 1-20 scandium atoms. Especially in the case of metals, which are very difficult to detect analytically and where even today the most modern geochemical analytical instrument quickly reaches its limits, a detection of the geogenic contents in natural systems is a great challenge. However, these (ultratrace) metals, which are actually very rare in nature, are now finding increasing application in many high technologies. Applications include, for example, exhaust gas catalysts, electromobility, renewable energies, aircraft construction or medicine, for example in cancer therapy. Here - compared to the natural background concentration in the environment - large quantities of these metals are processed and used. No matter how well recycling works for certain product groups, high concentrations of these metals are inevitably also introduced into the environment here, for example through abrasion or through process and waste water. For example, increased anthropogenic inputs of the rare earths lanthanum and samarium, which are used as catalysts in petroleum refining, have been detected in the Rhine.
For large areas of the North Sea - and for many of the high-technology metals we are investigating - there are no data on natural background concentrations or on possible anthropogenic inputs. The inventory of the southern North Sea and the Elbe, Ems, and Weser estuaries with respect to their high-technology metal contents, which we conducted during the research cruise, thus aims to address two important research questions: 1) For most elements, the natural background contents can only be determined by strictly excluding any anthropogenic input. For some high-technology metals, the application areas are (from an environmental (research) point of view, one can say fortunately) still under development and/or awaiting large-scale application, for example, of scandium in ultralight aircraft construction. Significant anthropogenic input can possibly still be largely ruled out here, and thus natural background concentrations can be determined that are later simply masked by possible anthropogenic input. 2) For some high-technology metals, significant anthropogenic inputs have already been detected in river waters. The behavior of these anthropogenic metals in the mixing zone seawater - river water, i.e. in natural estuaries, as well as in seawater differs sometimes drastically from the "natural" metals due to chemical processes (e.g. complexation). We want to investigate this behavior in detail in order to be able to make precise statements about the possible distribution of these anthropogenic high-tech metals in the systems under investigation.
WTD, DWD, Doc – especially in the beginning of a cruise, nothing much works without them
No matter how well we scientists prepare ourselves for the research cruise – as soon as we are on the vessel, we are exposed to a different reality than in our home office or in the lab. The new sensor has survived the transport to the ship – but why does the interface to the CTD not work? And how does it connect it to the software to drive the CTD? Apparently, memories of the last cruise have faded… How can I integrate my laptop in the ship-bound network? Where in the ship information system DSHIP do I find my relevant data? After the competent and prompt support of the Scientific-Technical Service (German: Wissenschaftlich-technischer Dienst, or WTD) section has solved the initial problems, we also need the support of the three members of the WTD during the rest of the cruise. The vessel’s equipment is exposed to extreme conditions and requires continuous maintenance and repair. Furthermore, sometimes our equipment brought from home does not withstand the harsh working conditions. Ordering replacement parts or returning the broken device to the manufacturer are not an option during a cruise. But most of the time the WTD can again help with creative solutions, as they have collected a lot of experience over the years. Therefore, our samples and data that we bring home after the cruise are also made possible by the service of the WTD to a significant degree.
Even though he cannot make the weather act according to our wishes – the collaborator of the German Weather Service (Deutscher Wetterdienst, DWD) maintains the installed weather measuring systems and informs the chief scientist and the nautical department about the detailed weather forecast that he receives from the team at the sea weather station in Hamburg for route and station planning. As some devices cannot be deployed at rough seas and lab work can become very difficult, this gives the team the opportunity to adapt the cruise track, if necessary. Considering that the North Sea can be a quite uncomfortable region in December, we had a rather calm start and only now, on the way into the open North Sea, can we clearly notice the difference and feel the swell of about 2 meters.
Although at first glance this relation may be unexpected, the work of the ship’s doctor, called “Doc”, also depends on the forecast of the weather technician to a certain degree. The reason is that the most prominent ailments he has to treat in the beginning of the cruises are caused by the motion of the sea. Seasickness manifests itself mostly by fatigue, nausea and disturbance of equilibrium – nothing really menacing for health, but a serious detriment to the long working shifts of the scientists nevertheless, especially when one’s eyes have to be fixed on computer screens or small lab devices for a long time. Ingested in time, harmless medicine can soothe these symptoms reliably and provide an untroubled enjoyment of the cruise. Additionally, the doc and the equipment are prepared for other health problems including serious cases, which fortunately rarely happen. There is a hospital with two beds, an examination and treatment room with X-ray and ultrasonic devices and possibilities for small operations, as well as a well-sorted small pharmacy.
Ultrafiltration: 0.015 µm is already small, but it can be even smaller. (by Nadine Weimar)
The last two days Adrienne Hollister and Matthias Ullrich already talked a lot about filtration, today I will add ultrafiltration.
Ultrafiltration has been used in research by biologists and biochemists for a long time and in recent years it has also been used more and more in our field, geochemistry. Just to name a few other possible applications of ultrafiltration: it is used for the concentration of milk for cheese, for tap water treatment and in pharmacy.
In the case of ultrafiltration, the filter sizes are described using the unit Dalton (Da). That is the unit of molecular mass. The membranes used are 1kDa or 10kDa (kilodalton). 1 kilodalton is approximately a nanometer, and a nanometer is a millionth of a millimeter. So even smaller than small!
With the ultrafiltration there are different mechanisms, and the one in use on board is a “cross-flow.” With this technique, we don't get a filter cake (contribution from Adrienne) but two liquids. Our North Sea water sample is pumped parallel to a membrane at an adapted speed and the permeate is drawn off compared to the direction of flow (passing trough the membrane). A second part does not pass through the membrane and is collected as retentate. The ultrafiltration process itself is very complex and time-consuming. To answer our research questions, and because of the low concentration of our elements in our interest, a volume of 10-25 liters is required. The filtration process can take up to 12 hours. Our team samples and processes the samples around the clock, in 3 shifts from 4 am-12 pm, 12 pm-8 pm and 8 pm-4 am.
Why all these efforts? What are we interested in? We are interested in the colloids and the truly dissolved fraction from our sample. Colloids are very small particles that remain in the water column as suspended particles and thus act as important transport agents. In the estuary, during mixing of freshwater and seawater, they can aggregate and deposit as sediment. We hope that this will help us to understand in more detail the chemical cycling processes that introduce material from the land via the rivers into the sea.
Briefly to me. I am very familiar with ultrafiltration and colloids, as it is precisely this topic that I, Nadine Weimar, am doing my PhD on with Professor Michael Bau at Jacobs University. However, my river water samples from Sweden, Iceland or Hawaii are sampled from land, so I just want to share briefly my first impressions on board with you. In addition to the exciting scientific aspects, there are the beautiful moments on the ship: when the waves rock the ship a little, the wind blowing around your nose, when the samples are pulled out of the water, the sunrise and sunset, the starry sky, if the weather allows it, and all the good conversations.
Didn't I speak of cheese and cake? It is 5:15 p.m., time for dinner in the mess. The cooks from the “Kombüse” always prepare something tasty for us, so there is something for every connoisseur.
The Bridge – Center of Mastery
All paths of a research cruise merge on the bridge. The captain and his nautical officers are responsible for the safety and operation of the ship as well as coordination of the different working areas. Exchange between the captain and the chief scientist starts many weeks before the cruise, as much of cruise logistics and course requires planning and intense preparation, such as the sampling of the rivers in our case, which demanded the integration of a pilot. The chief scientist expresses the goals and desires of the cruise to the captain and the German Research Fleet Coordination Center as well as the shipping company Briese and jointly they check the options for making the cruise a success. Since 2005 Rainer Hammacher has been a captain, and since 2013 he has sailed for science on RV Meteor. He and the majority of the M169 team already carried out a similar cruise together with chief scientist Andrea Koschinsky in the Amazon estuary in 2018. Although the dimensions of the Amazon and the Ems-Weser-Elbe rivers are clearly different, many challenges are comparable, such as the tidal influence, the shallow water depth and the restrictions e.g. due to shipping and fisheries. However, this team has never done a cruise in the North Sea before and so the briefing meetings on the bridge every morning with the chiefs of all departments are an important start to each new day.
Searching for an explanation of the unexpected (by Matthias Ullrich)
I am Matthias Ullrich, Professor of Microbiology at Jacobs University. I enthusiastically research and teach on three fronts simultaneously: I fell in love with plants, microbes and the ocean alike. This is reflected in large-scale industry-funded research on cocoa and my faculty participation in a multi-institutional graduate program for marine microbiology, as well as my passionate research on rhododendron plants and the seawater fish tank in my office.
The different dimensions of “tiny” (by Adrienne Hollister)
As a trace metal oceanographer, I want to understand the marine world at its smallest scales. I am interested in looking at metals necessary for life –for example, iron or copper – and their interaction with organic molecules known as ligands. The availability of metals is influenced by a combination of chemical properties such as ligand binding strength, and physical properties such as size. Filtration through membranes with different pore sizes gives us information on the sizes of these metals, and tells us whether they are particulate, colloidal or truly soluble.
1 micrometer (µm) is on thousand times smaller than a millimeter– too small to see with the naked eye. The metals that pass through the filters are even smaller than this: 0.2 µm and 0.015 µm! This means that biological organisms, such as bacteria and phytoplankton, as well as inorganic particles such as sediment particles, are filtered out, leaving only the smallest forms of the metals in seawater.
By sampling a range of salinities, from freshwater to seawater, we can see how the size distribution of these metals changes as a river plume mixes with the ocean. Filtration often requires patience, especially at the smallest sizes. Low-salinity waters, which are often highly productive and have large amounts of particles, can be very slow to filter. Personally, I enjoy listening to podcasts during long hours of filtration, and there is always someone in the lab to provide relief if one needs a coffee break. In the end, the pay-off is worth it for a robust dataset that provides insight into trace metal cycling in estuarine systems.
Curiosity, Transformation, Discovery – CTD (by Sophie Paul)
Curiosity, Transformation, Discovery (CTD) – are words I connect with going on cruises. I am curious about a topic, for example trace element transport and anthropogenic inputs into the North Sea. A cruise is often a transformative adventure, where you have unforgettable experiences and learn a lot about yourself and your work group during night-shifts and free-time, spending 24/7 together. Discovery hopefully comes along with a research cruise, too, and you find answers to your research questions and sometimes fully unexpected new findings. This is my personal CTD.
Here onboard the RV METEOR, most people connect the letters CTD to the Conductivity-Temperature-Depth sensor. It is one of the most frequently used oceanographic devices and it is our main gear on this cruise. We get information from the water column from this sensor when we make a water column profile. Here we are especially interested in the conductivity because it tells us how the salinity changes as we go out from the rivers (fresh water) into the North Sea (salt water). As trace metal processes are strongly influenced during this mixing process of fresh water and seawater, conductivity is our guiding parameter to decide where we take water samples. The CTD is used in combination with a water sampling frame to which we attach bottles for water samples and can close them at the desired conditions – a certain depth or salinity. All this can be controlled from the CTD lab and a computer, where the profiles from the sensor appear in real time. Once the CTD is back on deck, the different work groups come together and take their water samples for further processing in the geochemistry or microbiology labs. For the geochemistry sampling, we use specific “GoFlo” bottles that are trace metal clean. We try to protect their cleanliness as much as possible before they go into the water, therefore they are always covered with plastic bags between deployments. For even cleaner water samples, we deploy these “GoFlos” with a Kevlar wire, a special cable to avoid metal contamination from the metal water sampler frame and the metal cable from the CTD-water sampler. But more about that in the next days…
On Thursday around noon – after everyone had received the negative result of the corona rapid antigen test – we were finally brought to the port of Emden by bus after we had picked up the other newly arrived ship’s crew members from their corona camp in a second hotel. At the port, the ship’s crew members who had remained onboard after the last cruise were already awaiting us, as well as lunch and plenty of aluminum boxes containing our equipment that had been transported to the ship by truck. There was not much time for orientation, even for those who entered the Meteor for the first time – we had less than 24 hours until sailing at noon next day, and only 2 hours later the first samples were to be taken in the Ems River with a water sampling system. It was a long evening of distributing labs, unpacking boxes and storing the material in the labs, but whenever someone needed help or lost their way in the corridors of the ship, a helping hand of a crew member was close. Finally, we could enter our bunks, feeling more relaxed, but nevertheless excited.
As of Monday afternoon, all 16 scientists, as well as a substitute person, have found themselves in a hotel quarantine-camp in Leer. During this time, the group learned the pros and cons of spending 3 days isolated inside a hotel room – such as meals served to hotel doorsteps. All essential needs are met, and one can spend the entire day engaged in office work, reading or watching TV until one’s eyes glaze over. The only person allowed in direct contact with the cruise participants was the corona test provider, who collected nose and throat swabs on Tuesday. The following day, everyone received their negative test results via a smartphone app. On Thursday morning, a second corona “rapid-antigen test” will be administered. If the results are negative, all researchers will be allowed to finally leave their rooms and gather together – without any time to come in contact with other people – and be transported as a group to the ship.
Despite the excellent hotel service however, we still miss personal contact, and the hotel WiFi was not sufficient for the video-meetings that we had used for beforehand for preparing the cruise. As a replacement, we scheduled an afternoon “tea meeting” at 3:00 on our balconies, where we sipped a cup of East Frisian tea outside and exchanged a few words with our neighbors. At the first meeting, everyone was curious to see who would appear on the balcony nextdoor! However, since not all balconies were on the same side of the building, everyone is looking forward to meet the others again in person on Thursday!
Tracing geogenic and anthropogenic critical high-technology metals in the southern North Sea (TRAM)
A team of 16 researchers – 14 from Jacobs University and two from the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) in Hanover will spend Christmas at sea – more precisely, the North Sea. Our team includes two professors, several postdocs and PhD students, two technicians, two trainees and an undergraduate student. The Jacobs team includes members from the groups of Professors Andrea Koschinsky, Michael Bau and Matthias Ullrich, whose research focuses on aqueous trace metal geochemistry and marine microbiology.
Research cruise M169 with RV Meteor will lead us to the river estuaries of Ems, Weser and Elbe and the North Sea to study anthropogenic inputs of emerging, critical metal contaminants from the rivers into the ocean. The metals, which include the rare earth elements, scandium, gallium, germanium, platinum and others, are increasingly being incorporated into new technologies, such as green technologies including wind power and photovoltaics, and medicine. After entering the environment, these metals can contaminate rivers and ultimately reach the coastal sea. Our main research focus will be to characterize geogenic and anthropogenic trace metal concentrations along the salinity transects of the three rivers and at hot-spots of anthropogenic inputs in the North Sea such as Helgoland as well as incoming channel waters with River Thames and Rhine River inputs in the west of the German exclusive economic zone (EEZ). These sampling regions will be compared to more isolated regions of the North Sea around the Dogger Bank, which are expected to be less affected by anthropogenic metal pollution. Additionally, metal resistance of the microbial communities will be investigated to assess the impact of metal input on microbes as the bottom of the marine food chain.
But why a research cruise in the North Sea in December, when the weather can be expected to be very rough? The reason is rooted in the pandemic constraints which have affected both the mobility of researchers, who cannot easily enter other countries, and the research vessels, which have been unable to access foreign ports as of March. Our planned cruise participations in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean were cancelled and we instead applied for cruises in regions accessible from the German port of Emden. Before embarking at sea however, the whole team will spend four days in a quarantine camp in a hotel in Leer. Only after negative corona tests have been received will we be allowed to leave our rooms and get transported to the port of Emden. We invite our land-bound readers to join us from home on the cruise through daily blog posts about sampling river- and seawater, sample preparations in the ship’s lab, life aboard a research vessel and Christmas at sea.
Cruise preparation in times of contact restrictions
Cruise preparation in times of contact restrictions - the team of cruise M169 meets regularly via video and will only meet in person during transfer from the quarantine hotel to the vessel.