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The engine of the ship Afina, our home on the From Kurils with Love expedition, was quiet. The only noise making its way into our cabins came from the sound of waves slapping against the hull of the ship. As I emerged from below deck, I saw it was misty that day. The only sense of direction I had was a vague one- we were somewhere in the North Pacific, a few hundred kilometers northwest of Japan, in a place that you would never have found on a map if not for the likes of Google maps: Tyuleny Island.
Getting ready<div id="7d623" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="be56cd2146f7e0dae0ef75de64fdc12a"><blockquote class="instagram-media" data-instgrm-captioned data-instgrm-version="4" style=" background:#FFF; border:0; border-radius:3px; box-shadow:0 0 1px 0 rgba(0,0,0,0.5),0 1px 10px 0 rgba(0,0,0,0.15); margin: 1px; max-width:658px; padding:0; width:99.375%; width:-webkit-calc(100% - 2px); width:calc(100% - 2px);"> <div style="padding:8px;"> <div style=" background:#F8F8F8; line-height:0; margin-top:40px; padding:50% 0; text-align:center; width:100%;"> <div style=" background:url(data:image/png;base64,iVBORw0KGgoAAAANSUhEUgAAACwAAAAsCAMAAAApWqozAAAAGFBMVEUiIiI9PT0eHh4gIB4hIBkcHBwcHBwcHBydr+JQAAAACHRSTlMABA4YHyQsM5jtaMwAAADfSURBVDjL7ZVBEgMhCAQBAf//42xcNbpAqakcM0ftUmFAAIBE81IqBJdS3lS6zs3bIpB9WED3YYXFPmHRfT8sgyrCP1x8uEUxLMzNWElFOYCV6mHWWwMzdPEKHlhLw7NWJqkHc4uIZphavDzA2JPzUDsBZziNae2S6owH8xPmX8G7zzgKEOPUoYHvGz1TBCxMkd3kwNVbU0gKHkx+iZILf77IofhrY1nYFnB/lQPb79drWOyJVa/DAvg9B/rLB4cC+Nqgdz/TvBbBnr6GBReqn/nRmDgaQEej7WhonozjF+Y2I/fZou/qAAAAAElFTkSuQmCC); display:block; height:44px; margin:0 auto -44px; position:relative; top:-22px; width:44px;"> </div></div><p style=" margin:8px 0 0 0; padding:0 4px;"> <a href="https://www.instagram.com/p/B0EALrUlVsF/" style=" color:#000; font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; font-style:normal; font-weight:normal; line-height:17px; text-decoration:none; word-wrap:break-word;" target="_top">Login • Instagram</a></p> </div></blockquote></div><p>The film crew, myself included, scrambled to get ready that morning. We were pushing through the chaos of the end of the trip- exhaustion, scattered gear, and the slight hangover that comes from time spent on a ship with old (and new) friends.</p><p>Dr. Vladimir Burkanov, our unexpected guest on the journey, was already drifting into the fog in a zodiac. It was laden with 42-gallon barrels filled of water that would supply the research station on Tyuleny Island. </p> We struggled to catch up with him, but a few minutes later, I was on another zodiac speeding off into the mist towards the island. All around me the heads of dozens, if not hundreds, of northern fur seals snuck out of the water surface. They silently stared at us, curious at the sight of the vessel passing by, before dipping back into the depths.
The smell of nature<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMDQyOC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MDcwNjc3NX0.x_lwjXRWhOLAg9tIELuLEp8g4yyze1q0OMyDnukAXGc/img.jpg?width=980" id="057f0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f5bb763bc18572c4891dafb4b1773a57" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2560" data-height="1919" />
Renan Ozturk<p>Soon after the island came into view. The Tyuleny Island Research Station sat behind the slope of a narrow, boulder filled beach. At first glance I remember thinking that the boulders were moving. And sure enough, they were, but they weren't boulders- almost every corner of open space was covered with sprawling masses of the northern fur seals and Stellar sea lions.</p><p>It wasn't long after that I noticed the smell- not an unfamiliar one to me, but… one that seemed stronger than I had experienced before. Much stronger. </p><p>It was the smell of not tens, or hundreds, or even thousands of northern fur seals and Stellar sea lions, but <em>tens of thousands. </em>50.000 of them, to be precise.</p><p>If, at this point in the story, you are wondering how and why so many large animals can make a living on an island that doesn't even reach 650 meters at its longest point- you are asking the right question. </p><p>The changes in the population of northern fur seals and Stellar sea lions here, along with their behavior and mating habits, are the exact reason Vladimir and his team spend months at the Tyuleny Island research station. </p>
No kitchen, no heating - pure research<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMDY4OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MjI0MzgwNH0.F3ez4YrZkGsPEdK0RNJG227BhcekzK58Y8SHsOklHrU/img.jpg?width=980" id="50410" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4b1520c5e3a53d3b19fefdec070cd80c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2000" data-height="1333" />
Chris Burkard<p>As I walked into the Tyuleny Island Research station, a building without heating or a working kitchen, I was surprised to see Vladimir's students and colleagues inside one of the rooms with computer screens dotted with aerial imagery and complex computing software.</p><p>The team inside the room was a small one: besides Vladimir and his colleague and the field station leader Ivan Usatov, efforts on Tyuleny are built upon the work of Anya Kirillova, a researcher from Nizhniy Novgorod; Dasha Gerasimova, a veterinary student from Irkutsk, Egor Vasyukov, a student from Kirov, and Sasha Igitov, volunteer from Kirov. </p>
The Challenge: Studying 50.000 marine mammals<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMDQ2NC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2NjMxMjI0OX0.jXMlelgXVu4p_u8kNVRWFZcDQQT-j6caDM2NcqAikmE/img.png?width=980" id="f7d11" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="445e6e28c3e9b7a271ecf60eef38c535" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2543" data-height="1695" />
Taylor Rees<p>Studying such a large population is a daunting task. Simply navigating through the cacophony of sounds and smells while weaving through the moving maze of seal and sea lion bodies was a challenge for us as one-day visitors to the island. As an ocean scientist myself, I couldn't imagine the amount of labor that would be needed to get regular counts of the population here and how it changes on a week-to-week and day-to-day basis. On top of that, the team on the island is a small team with limited resources, supported only by occasional supply runs, making it all seem like an impossible task. Each survey would take days of intense work, and in order to get the best quality of data, this process would need to happen ad infinitum during each field season.</p><p>But Vladimir and his team have found a way to survey the populations anywhere from four to six times a day. How?</p>
The technology behind the research<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMDQzMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2OTIyOTEyM30.8tanVRBYpLsFp-U8TGs0trhpJLG_ORhotSAYLwBHhoA/img.jpg?width=980" id="fd10e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8f873373a0608d88d522078dd3a1a2b8" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2000" data-height="1333" />
Chris Burkard<p>It all started when Vladimir's colleague Ivan taught himself to use U-Net: a type of convolutional neural network, originally made for medical purposes, which is designed to work with limited numbers of images as a training set.</p><p>Using U-net alongside existing drone technology, Vladimir and his team can capture aerial imagery suited to specific research questions. In some cases, for example, the team wants counts of Stellar sea lions and northern fur seals by age/sex (pups, juveniles, mature adults). Data related to other behaviors is also captured, like how many males and females have territory, tracking specific individuals with brands or injuries, or estimating body size. </p>
Taylor Rees<p>Each of these surveys requires a huge amount of data, and getting the surveys right takes practice. Test flight paths have to be developed in order to find the best altitude, speed, time of day, and image overlap that maximizes the image quality of the drones. Anywhere from one thousand to three thousand images are collected per survey - again, with 4-6 surveys a day. Once the images are all normalized to the same scale and stitched together -often called an orthophoto plan, in technical terms- an application in the statistical programming language R created by Ivan Usatov automatically processes the images and collects the relevant information.</p><p>With that, a survey that might take days of labor can now be processed from start to finish in just six hours after the images are collected, all with an error rate in the range of 4-8%. </p><p>So what are the implications of this new integration of drone technology into Vladimir's work? </p><p>While we chose to integrate technology can be complicated, it became clear that the use of drones and modern computing techniques on Tyuleny has an outsized impact in their capacity to understand marine mammals in the region. With a bit of luck and a lot of effort, the strategic use of technology by the team here may one day help conserve the natural beauty in this tiny corner of the planet. </p>
Understanding the impact of climate change
All around us, it seems like things are changing too fast to keep track of. From social media bombardments, constantly updating news cycles, and daily reminders about the threat of climate change, usually accompanied by images that are hard to look away from. Temperatures are rising. Ice caps are melting. Ecosystems everywhere seem to be threatened by local impacts and global climate change.
Climate change illustrated
Pixabay<p>It is all so overwhelming that by the time we look away from our screens, we are so consumed by the big picture impacts that we overlook the smaller – yet not less important - parts of our planet that are also affected by climate change. The parts of planet that are both figuratively, and literally, hidden from us.</p><p>In many ways, it's these tiny, invisible worlds that keep our ecosystems - and us as humans that rely on them - moving along and functioning. But they're hard to see and even harder to study. It's what keeps these tiny organisms, that form our planet's foundation, largely a mystery to scientists who have spent decades studying them.</p>
Phyto... what?<p>This is exactly the case for phytoplankton, tiny plant-like organisms that photosynthesize in the ocean and produce most of Earth's newly supplied oxygen. Most of them aren't strong swimmers, and they simply drift along ocean currents. Phytoplankton make up the very bottom of marine food web, meaning that the health of everything else - from fish, octopus, squids, and mammals like dolphins, otters, and whales - all directly or indirectly depend on them. </p>
A Continuous Plankton Recorder
Making the invisible visible<p>This type of research formed the foundation of incredibly important ocean science, but its cost and labor intensity limited researchers' ability to assess phytoplankton communities in detail. For example how the communities responded to long-term ecological changes like global warming, seasonality, and even day-to-day differences driven by weather, precipitation, or ocean currents.</p><p>In other words, their size made most patterns in phytoplankton communities hidden from researchers. All this has started to change with a new wave of ocean technology that has been combined with advances in <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Machine_learning" target="_blank">machine learning</a>. Opening up new possibilities and finally allowing ocean scientists to make what was once invisible to us, visible.</p>
Big data becoming meaningful<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1ODE3Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTQ2NzE0N30.Y6Bli2OOlIyIhHBDTCuoDIdzrYNK62p8YCHFccNzRSk/img.jpg?width=980" id="36cb0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4df6d770fae00d293d0ced0fae343411" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Scripps Plankton Camera, built by the Jaffe Lab, anchored to a pier piling at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography collects tens of thousands of images every day. Image courtesy of the Jaffe Lab.<p>Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California are using new <a href="http://spc.ucsd.edu/" target="_blank">underwater microscopes</a>, that can spend weeks below the surface with little maintenance. The system captures images of particles floating pass by the camera, including phytoplankton. They are imaged at an impressive rate of up to 8 pictures per second.</p><p>"Over the last four years, the camera collected nearly 1 billion images of suspended particles drifting onto the microscope. Collection of such a huge amount of data, as exciting as it is to any scientist, comes with a lot of challenges related to data storage and processing," said Dr. Kasia Kenitz, a postdoctoral researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography working on the ecology of phytoplankton communities in the ocean. </p><p>"The next challenge is identifying which organisms are depicted in every single image and how can we use this information in a way that will provide meaningful insights into the ecology of these tiny organisms. This is where recent advances in computer vision and machine learning become an integral part in collecting biologically meaningful data."</p>
The diversity of phytoplankton. (Images taken by the Scripps Plankton Camera courtesy of the Jaffe Lab).
So what comes next?<p>Dr. Kenitz expects that this line of research will become increasingly relevant to humans and how they interact with oceans. "These new underwater technologies have revolutionized the way we observe these tiny-but-mighty organisms. It's especially important to start using these tools for coastal populations that rely on seafood, as uncontrolled growth of some phytoplankton can produce toxic substances, generate huge economic losses and lead to public health issues. We're now working with a community of experts in plankton identification to help us build better, cost-effective ecosystem monitoring."<br></p><p>In the end, this new technology helps us remember that some of the most spectacular parts of our planet are hidden from us. These images, taken in a way previously impossible, help us understand that we can't afford to forget about the people, plants, and tiny organisms living in worlds we aren't able to see. </p><p>Even in the midst of what sometimes feel chaotic, we all have a chance to understand the effects of the smallest change in our world just by staying curious. </p><p>More about Rishi Sugla you can read <a href="https://www.tomorrowunlocked.com/rishi-sugla" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">here</a> or follow him on <a href="https://www.instagram.com/rishisugla/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Instagram</a>.</p>
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Rishi Sugla is a PhD Candidate at Scripps Institution of Oceanography with expertise in interdisciplinary research. His main focus is long-term changes to Earth's geosphere and biosphere. Beyond his research, Rishi focuses on climate and environmental justice organizing and activism while working on projects in Southern California, Chile, and Argentina. He deeply believes that community-drive, decolonial science with a focus on forming relationships is an important path forward. Rishi is slowly growing his skillset as a communicator so he can better tell nuanced stories about the roots of our climatological and ecological problems and the people they impact most.
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