A team of researchers from 13 scientific institutions including NASA and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will conduct studies on 8 different subjects during The Longest Swim. From plastic pollution to space exploration, this adventure will be a unique opportunity to collect data and learn more about the oceans and human body in extreme conditions.
Radiation from Fukushima
High Definition Water Data
The Gravity Effect
Challenging The Heart
A psychological journey
Question: How does the Great Pacific Garbage Patch affect life in the ocean and on land?
Research by Dr. Erik Zettler (Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research), Dr. Kara Lavender Law (Sea Education Association), Dr. Linda Amaral Zettler (Marine Biological Laboratory), and Dr. Tracy Mincer (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute)
Plastic debris is found throughout the world’s oceans, reaching concentrations of more than 1 million microplastic pieces per square kilometer in some regions, like the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. Using a neuston net together with water samples, the crew will make daily collections of the marine microplastic they encounter between Tokyo and San Francisco. By examining the physical and chemical characteristics of these particles, researchers will learn more about how long they’ve been in the ocean and the weathering processes that created these millimeter-sized particles from larger consumer items. This debris is also colonized by a diverse microbial community. Scientists would like to know how this community contributes to global nutrient cycling, toxic chemical transport, food web interactions, plastic degradation, and the spread of organisms that may cause disease in marine life or humans as the particles migrate across the ocean. This is the first time that samples like these will be collected and analyzed from many of the locations our team will visit.
Radiation from Fukushima
Question: Where did contaminants from the Fukushima disaster go?
Research by Dr. Ken Buesseler (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
When a tsunami flooded Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011 it initiated the largest accidental release of radioactive contaminants into the ocean in history. Scientists estimate that most of these contaminants landed on or washed into the ocean, where they were diluted and transported westward by wind and currents. Ben will follow a similar track as these currents so, thanks to a wearable “RadBand” sampling device and conventional water sampling, he and the crew will collect data on how far and how fast these contaminants are moving, as well as their concentration across the Pacific Ocean. Both the RadBand and the processing of samples collected from the boat make use of a special resin that absorbs cesium-1 34 and cesium-137, the two most abundant contaminants from Fukushima. Used together, both methods will help improve the RadBand’s design and advance research that tracks the long-term effects of this disaster.
Question: Could a giant phytoplankton influence nutrient availability at the ocean’s surface?
Research by Dr. Tracy A Villareal (University of Texas at Austin)
Half of the world’s oxygen comes from primary producers living in the ocean. Elements like nitrogen, phosphorous, and iron are essential for photosynthesis, and their relative abundance significantly influences the productivity of microscopic marine plants, called phytoplankton. Because photosynthesis requires sunlight for energy it predominantly takes place in the ocean’s upper layer. However, if nutrients at the surface are depleted, photosynthesis (and oxygen production!) could slow or stop. Some of the giants in the phytoplankton world may avoid this problem by migrating to deeper water to harvest nitrogen, then rising back up for photosynthesis. Ben and the crew will record any sightings of this phytoplankton they make during the swim, as well as sample large aggregations for later analysis. Learning how this species acquires nutrients can help scientists understand large-scale nutrient cycling in our oceans, as well as the future impacts of global warming.
High-definition Water Data
Question: How is human activity changing the properties of the Pacific Ocean?
Research by Dr. Michael DeGranpre (University of Montana), additional equipment provided by Assure Controls
The pH, temperature, and conductivity of seawater relative to its depth might seem like basic information, but these properties can help scientists understand large-scale activity in our oceans. For example, researchers use pH data to track the absorption of anthropogenic carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Salinity data can be combined with temperature measurements to calculate seawater density, which is a primary driving force in the movement of major ocean currents. Every day of the cruise, The Longest Swim crew will use the i-SAMI Ocean pH Sensor prototype and a conductivity, temperature, and depth (CTD) device to collect data on the properties of the Pacific Ocean. This provides essential environmental measurements for several projects taking place during the swim and also helps researchers investigating the effects of ocean acidification, a result of climate change that is harmful to coral reefs and other marine life. The crew will also evaluate water quality at key points during the swim, like in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or near land where pollutants are found in higher concentrations, using a novel light-cycling technology provided by Assure Controls.
Question: How does extreme exercise affect the bacteria in and on our bodies?
Research by Dr. Jack Gilbert (Argonne National Laboratory)
The bodies of extreme endurance athletes like ultra-marathon runners (or trans-Pacific swimmers!) undergo many changes during and after competition. Since digestion is not a priority during strenuous exercise, blood can be shunted away from the gastrointestinal tract; however this can cause problems like abdominal cramps and diarrhea when athletes have to fuel up along the way. This kind of distress can alter the body’s natural bacterial communities, also called the microbiome. To measure the changes to Ben’s microbiome the crew will take periodic samples from all over his body, including the surface of his skin, to see how his body interacts with the marine bacteria it encounters. This will help scientists better understand systems biology, as well as what effects these interactions may have on physical performance.
The Gravity Effect
Question: How does low gravity affect your bones and vision?
Research by Adrian LeBlanc (Universities Space Research Association) and Dr. Benjamin Levine (Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine)
During his swim Ben will be immersed in water for eight hours a day, which will eliminate two gravitational gradients: head-to-foot and front-to-back. This creates a unique analog to long-term space travel (like a mission to Mars) that is better than more traditional, land-bound research protocols. Researchers want to know if the non-weight bearing exercise Ben will be doing can help protect against the loss of bone density in altered gravity conditions, as well as how his posture out of the water can help prevent or reduce vision loss due to increased eye pressure. Both of these are important health concerns for astronauts during and after space travel.
Challenging the heart
Question: Can extreme exercise hurt the heart?
Research by Dr. Benjamin Levine (Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine)
One of the current controversies in cardiology is whether extreme athletic performance has a harmful effect on the heart. Using the same remote guidance echocardiography NASA uses to monitor astronauts on the International Space Station, the crew will help doctors in Dallas, Texas keep track of any changes to Ben’s heart during his six month swim. Echocardiograms are usually performed by highly trained individuals called sonographers, but remote guidance echocardiography allows a sonographer to guide a modestly trained individual through the procedure when they’re in a remote or inaccessible location — like the middle of the Pacific Ocean! Before departing for his swim, Ben will have baseline echoes and advanced cardiac MRI of his heart taken for comparison after his return.
A Psychological journey
Question: How will the demands of his swim affect Ben’s emotions?
Research by Eduardo Marques (Institute for Systems and Computer Engineering, Technology and Science)
Ben will submit to extreme physical and psychological stresses during the course of his six month swim across the Pacific Ocean. He will not only be participating in several scientific studies concurrently, but also interacting with the public through social media platforms and the Longest Swim Logbook. Researchers will evaluate how interpersonal contact with the crew and the larger audience around the world impacts his emotional state. They’ll also look at how environmental conditions affect his confidence and which ones have the most influence over his emotional and physical fluctuations. This serves as an exploratory study to help build a model that can provide indices of the balance between mental and physical fatigue and adaptation to conditions in elite athletes.
The notion that plastic pollution in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch looks similar to a landfill – mainly large pieces of debris like bottles or trash bags – is incorrect. Instead most marine plastic in this area of the ocean has been broken down by physical, chemical, and biological processes to particles smaller than 1 millimeter. At this size it is much easier for these plastics to be ingested by marine organisms, where it can then be slowly accumulated in their tissues over time.
North Pacific Gyre
In oceanography, a gyre is a large system of rotating currents. The North Pacific Gyre is one of five major oceanic gyres and it covers most of the northern Pacific. Trash, chemical pollutants, and other debris are trapped by the four currents that make up this gyre, leading to the formation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
A type of marine sampling net commonly used to collect neuston, small organisms that live right at the water’s surface. It has a wide, rectangular mouth with a collection jar at the end of a mesh net that can exceed 10 feet in length. A boat will tow the neuston net at a moderate rate of speed before pulling it back on board, replacing more labor intensive collection methods like hand nets. For The Longest Swim, our crew will use a neuston net to collect any microplastics floating on or just below the ocean’s surface.
cesium-134 and cesium-137
These two radioactive isotopes were the most common contaminants released during the Fukushima disaster. Cesium-134 decays relatively quickly, so any that’s found in the environment must have come from a recent source: Fukushima. Both isotopes were also released in equal amounts, so once scientists know how much cesium-134 is in the ocean, they can calculate how much cesium-137 in a sample came from Fukushima.
A metabolic process in primary producers like plants, algae, and some bacteria that converts carbon dioxide and light energy from the sun into sugar and oxygen. The oxygen molecules are released as a “waste” product for the photosynthesizers, but are actually essential to the survival of humans and other respiratory species.
Conductivity measures water’s capability of passing an electrical flow. Because dissolved ions like the salts found in ocean water increase both salinity and conductivity, these two parameters are mathematically related. Instead of measuring salinity directly, oceanographers use a tool that detects a conductivity value which is then converted into salinity.
Gravity gradients measure the changes in gravitational acceleration (or the force on an object due to gravity) that occur over small distances. For example, the gravitational force acting on the head of a person standing up has a small, but measurable, difference from the force acting on their feet! In total, three gravity gradients are at work on us here on Earth: head-to-foot, front-to-back, and side-to-side.
Often referred to as a “cardiac echo” or “echo”, an echocardiogram is simply a sonogram of the heart. It bounces sound waves with frequencies higher than human hearing can detect off of tissue to produce pictures of internal structures. Echocardiograms can provide doctors with information about the size and structure of a patient’s heart, as well as detect deterioration of the heart muscle that could lead to heart failure. This technique is non-invasive, which means you don’t break the skin to perform it.