Ketchikan oceanography class has national impact

Posted: Sunday, June 06, 2010

KETCHIKAN - Ketchikan High School students participated this semester in a phytoplankton monitoring project which could help scientists worldwide.

Hall Anderson / Ketchikan Daily News
Hall Anderson / Ketchikan Daily News

Julie Landwehr's oceanography class has been collecting phytoplankton in Bar Harbor weekly since March. The students take their samples back to the classroom to identify the species and enter their findings in the National Phytoplankton Monitoring database.

"I thought it would be a neat project for students to participate in because it's entering data into a national database where they are doing real science," Landwehr said. "It's low overhead and we can do it relatively quickly. We didn't have to buy a lot of expensive equipment."

Plankton is a class of organism living in the ocean that aren't strong enough to swim. Phytoplankton are plant species which photosynthesize, creating oxygen.

Zooplankton is another kind of plankton. It is tiny animals that are weak swimmers. Zooplankton includes some marine animals such as seas urchins, sea stars and many species of fish which eventually grow out of the plankton stage.

During Kayhi's oceanography class, each of the students had a different duty during the monitoring process. Students measured salinity of the water, wind speed, air and water temperature and, of course, gathered plankton.

Senior Connor Jepson was one of the students who participated in the project. His job was to drag a small net in the water for 10 minutes to collect the phytoplankton. The net was made of a material tight enough to trap plankton. The organisms were collected in the a small tube attached to the bottom of the net.

"For a class, it's been really hands-on," Jepson said. "It's applying what you learn in the class and actually seeing it put to work."

Susie McKee's job was to measure salinity of the water in Bar Harbor. She put a drop of the sea water on a device that would display the salinity and density on a graph. "I have learned what kind of different plankton live here and which ones bloom more often," McKee said.

The students identified skeletonema and thalassiosira, among others, McKee said. Jepson said one of the interesting parts of the projects was going through the process of identifying tiny organisms they see in the microscope.

"What the objective is is to try to get an idea of what species of phytoplankton are in the area and sort of when they are blooming and how they might affect the shellfish, because we have really toxic algal blooms," Landwehr said. "So the objective is to get a database to understand better when things might be toxic and how that might affect the shellfish."

The students always went to the same spot at Bar Harbor on Thursday mornings to collect their samples. Landwehr said she will continue the research throughout the summer to help the network get data.

When asked whether the students would help out, she said they are welcome to when they have time.

"I hope to see them once in a while," Landwehr said.

The Phytoplankton Monitoring Network is a function of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

According to NOAA's Web site, the network started in South Carolina in 2001 and has since expanded throughout the country.

Landwehr attended a workshop through the University of Alaska Fairbanks for training on how to collect samples and enter information into the database.

Objectives listed on the network's site include creating an extensive survey of coastal waters throughout the year and creating an extensive list of harmful species. According to the site, another goal is to "promote an increased awareness and education to the public on harmful algal species."

That's also one of the focuses for Landwehr's oceanography students as they participated in the project.

"(Plankton is) really important for ocean systems, but it's not something everybody has a working knowledge of. They think plankton is this nebulous thing floating in the water, but understanding that a little bit better helps understand the ocean a little bit better," Landwehr said.

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