April 26, 2011

Prof. Bruce Monger: Logger Gone Oceanographer

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Growing up in the small town of Shelton, Wash., Professor Bruce C. Monger, earth and atmospheric sciences, always enjoyed the outdoors. Monger did not think about becoming an oceanographer or attending college until after two years of working as a logger after high school. “I thought, there’s gotta be something more out there. I wanted to see the world. And the ocean touched every place in the world,” Monger said.Monger pursued the study of oceanography, earning his bachelors and masters degrees at Washington University and his Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii. He then completed internship programs at NASA Goulder, where he was exposed to the field of biological-physical interactions in the ocean. After these years of training, he finally found his passion: studying the physics of the ocean on a global scale and observing the biological response of the ocean to wind and heat activity. For his current research, he mainly uses polar orbiting satellites which have sun-synchronous orbits. The satellite takes photographs as the Earth rotates 780km beneath it. By measuring different electromagnetic radiation, the satellite can give a multitude of measurements; the visible spectrum gives the color of the water, infrared gives information on temperature, and microwaves tells us about windspeed. For example, some satellites with radiometers, are sensitive to green and blue colors. The greener the photograph, the more phytoplankton there are. The preciseness of the satellites allows scientists to estimate chlorophyll concentration within 30% of error.Currently, Monger is involved in three projects. One project, funded by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, deals with northern right whale conservation in the Gulf of Maine. Monger works with the University of Maine’s Dr. Andrew Pershing, using satellite data and numerical modeling to detect zooplankton density. Northern right whales, which consume them, aggregate in areas of high zooplankton density. The near real-time information from the satellite can be used to control boat traffic or fishing in the area to protect the northern right whales, the most endangered marine mammals under the protection of the U.S. government, with only about 350 individuals remaining.Monger also studies the timing and magnitude of spring phytoplankton blooms. Copapods, a zooplankton, have a fairly constant timeline of when they come out of diapause, or hibernation during the winter. “If the algal bloom comes too late, the copapods are unhappy. And if the copapods are unhappy, then it affects the higher trophic levels and the whole North Atlantic ecosystem,” Monger explained.Another of his large scale project deals with measuring the photosynthesis of the ocean. The photosynthesis by marine phytoplankton as a result of the fluxes of carbon dioxide into and out of the ocean is a large fraction of all photosynthesis on Earth. With imminent threats of global warming disrupting the global carbon cycle, primary production in the ocean is an important factor.  A factor that limits the rate of primary production in the ocean is limiting nutrients. The ocean is divided into a warm, phytoplankton-rich, top layer and a cold, but nutrient-rich bottom layer. Mixing these two water layers greatly enhances photosynthesis. A prime cause of such mixing is cyclic ocean eddies, which Monger also studies. These complicated currents, which he calls “the weather of the ocean,” are caused by wind and clashing of ocean currents. They can draw water from the sea bottom and out through the surface. Such mixing greatly enhances the ocean’s primary production.Monger teaches a wide spectrum of classes, from Earth and Atmospheric Sciences 1540: Introductory Oceanography to EAS 7500: Satellite Remote Sensing Training Program in Biological Oceanography. The training program, geared toward graduates, is “a unique class none like any other in the country [and] draws people from all over the world!” Monger said with a smile.He is also enthusiastic about the introductory class, in which students write letters to Congress to promote ocean conservation at the end of the semester.  Monger described, “[When an environmental disaster strikes], we all tend to feel bad, but it’s almost like someone else’s house got broken into. You flip the page, and you forget about the news,” Monger said. “But it’s not true! This is your house! You should get mad when someone is fishing from your ocean, when someone is dumping carbon dioxide into your atmosphere.”Monger hopes that this sense of ownership, as well as the information that his students have, will prompt Cornellians to voice their opinion on better management of the ocean as part of their civic duty to this country.“All the things you’re use to working with as an engineer or as a physicist can be applied to the ocean, and you can start asking grand, global scale questions. The ocean is huge!” he encourages. “Dream of a big future and then set sail.”

Original Author: Yoshiko Toyoda