– The waves are a challenge
Students Ragnhild Beck Hestness and Erlend Mundal monitor the scientific instruments on board Statsraad Lehmkuhl, take samples of the seawater, and analyze. Their laboratory is actually a workshop.
It would have been nicer to work in a bright and pleasant room, but all the equipment is mounted down in the noise by the engine room. Sure, we are on board a sailing ship, but there are always machines running, to generate power, and keep the pumps working. Hearing protection is therefore mandatory equipment.
The noise is not the worst. The ship is never completely at rest, so Ragnhild can not just put down a small cup and expect it to stand still.
- The waves are a challenge, since everything must be done so accurately, she says.
The two collect water through an intake in the side of the ship, and filter it to collect microplastics. Microplastics are the tiny pieces that weather and wind break plastic waste into. You do not see them without a microscope, but they are scary nonetheless.
The plastic pieces are eaten by plankton in the ocean; single-celled organisms, small crustaceans, and larvae from larger organisms. They are food for other organisms, which in turn are eaten, and in this way birds, animals and fish higher up in the food chain can ingest scary amounts of plastic. We belong at the top of the food chain, and risk ending up eating our own plastic waste.
Erlend has been on board since Arendal, and believe he has seen a change along the way.
- A lot more water goes through the filter now that we are in the Atlantic Ocean compared to when we were in the English Channel. It may indicate less microplastic in the sea here?
It will be exciting to see. The filters are frozen and sent back to Norway, where they will be analyzed.
Ragnhild and Erlend also extract eDNA from the seawater; e for environmental DNA.
DNA is genetic material, and unique to the organism it comes from. Some DNA from everything that lives in the ocean floats around, and this is what the students collect in their filters. The contents of the filter are checked against large databases, and results in a list of what lives in the water the sample is taken from.
- It is a complicated procedure, says Ragnhild. We extract water, which is first passed through a filter. Then we dissolve the filter and process it in different solutions, before it is finally analyzed in a PCR machine.
Surely PCR sounds familiar? It is the same type of machine used for corona testing.
Two new ones
The assignment is over for Ragnhild and Erlend when the ship arrives in Las Palmas. Then two new students takes over the lab.
The first days in port all four are on board. Training the newcomers is provided by Ragnhild and Erlend, and it is an important part of the job. Getting a laboratory to work down in a workshop requires a lot of improvisation, and that experience is important to pass on.