Monday, February 20, 2012

UMaine researchers help lead 81,000-nautical-mile scientific ocean expedition

Photo courtesy of C. Sardet/Tara expeditions - University of Maine marine science professor Lee Karp-Boss (sitting, right) explains part of the scientific research behind the 2 1/2-year Tara Oceans Expedition to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (sitting, second from right) and his wife, Yoo (Ban) Soon-taek (sitting, left). Sitting next to the secretary general's wife is French fashion designer Agnes B., the owner of the Tara and a financial contributor to its research.

By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff

ORONO, Maine — A 2½-year ocean-trotting scientific expedition is nearing its end, and a University of Maine researcher is gathering some of the last bits of data on a journey that spans 81,000 nautical miles and 60 ports of call.

Lee Karp-Boss, a marine science professor at UMaine, left New York City on Feb. 12 aboard the 118-foot schooner Tara, where she will serve as chief scientist on one of the last legs of the journey, according to her husband and fellow UMaine professor Emmanuel Boss.

This leg of the journey will take 15 crew members and scientists from New York to Bermuda, Boss said from his home Saturday morning.

Tara set sail from Lorient, France, in September of 2009 and has been gathering data and organism samples ever since in an effort to reveal more about biodiversity in oceans that cover 70 percent of the planet.

Data gathered on the Tara’s expedition could help researchers determine the organization of ocean ecosystems and how global climate change might be affecting ocean organisms, Boss said.

Karp-Boss specializes in the study of phytoplankton and their form, function and relationship to the environment.

Boss’s expertise is ocean optics, which uses the color and clarity of ocean water identify and learn about the organisms that live in the water. He was chief scientist on a separate leg of the Tara expedition that went from Panama City, Panama, to Savannah, Ga.

“We have satellites in space that look at the ocean, and the only way we can see the ocean and the effect of biology on the ocean on a daily scale is through the changes in the color of the ocean,” Boss said.

Equipment on the ship measures the properties of the water while seven nets with different pore size gather samples of organisms, Boss said. That information can give scientists a better idea of how organisms affect the oceans they inhabit and allow researchers to determine what’s living in the water based on images from a satellite.

Work onboard the Tara has drawn interest from the United Nations, which has kicked in funding for the expedition and sent UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on a tour of the Tara after a New York City conference on Feb. 9 that highlighted the importance of ocean research, Boss said.

Karp-Boss used a water tank filled with salt and fresh water to demonstrate ocean stratification — or the layering of ocean water because of varied properties such as salt content — and help explain why the Tara’s work is important to revealing more about ocean life, Boss said.

Karp-Boss and Boss co-authored a booklet highlighting ocean-related experiments such as the one the Tara scientists showed Ban during his hour-and-a-half-long excursion on the schooner. That booklet is available for free at

Rotating crews of seven scientists stay on board for one leg, which typically lasts three weeks, sampling several stations along the way, which typically run 18-36 hours. The captain is replaced every six months, crew members switch off every three months and the scientists work on one-leg shifts, according to Boss.

There are 50 laboratories from 15 countries collaborating on the research. Most of the expeditions backers are based in France, where Tara got its start.

The Tara is owned by French fashion designer Agnes B., a supporter of environmental causes who has invested more than $3 million euros — or nearly $4 million U.S. — each year of the expedition, according to Boss.

The expedition is mostly funded by European groups, but NASA, the U.S. Navy, UN and several American universities, including UMaine, also have contributed. Even the prince of Monaco pumped funds into the venture.

The Tara will return to France on March 31, where it will be on display as an educational tool for students and the public. Plans are in the works for an expedition to the Arctic in 2015 and another expedition to study coral reefs a few years later, according to Boss.

More information about the Tara expedition and its research may be found at

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