Chemical engineer Jordan Young has found his happy place on a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s looking for changes in ocean acidity following the Deepwater Horizon spill. As the oil biologically degrades, some of it oxidizes to carbon dioxide and may increase acidification.
The Earth’s oceans have maintained a relatively stable pH level for millions of years. Scientists suspect that the 2010 oil spill may have made the Gulf more acidic, but they need more data to determine that. That’s where Jordan comes into the picture.
Jordan recently completed his master’s degree in chemical oceanography at Texas A&M University when he was a GoMRI scholar with the GISR consortium. He shared his journey from upstate New York to the Gulf of Mexico and his research on the Gulf’s health.
Jordan grew up near the border between New York and Canada. Most of his childhood memories included the St. Lawrence River, and he loved being on the water. His interest in water quality grew and influenced his decision to pursue a chemical engineering degree at Clarkson University. Jordan found a way to put his passion to work by joining a Texas A&M research team that was developing a nutrient sensor to measure nitrate and phosphate levels.
Jordan took a four-month internship after graduating in 2010 with Raytheon, a missile-building defense company. Uncomfortable with helping to put more weapons into the world, Jordan took a process engineering position with Corning Glass. Thousands of miles away, he watched the news about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill unfold with a feeling of powerlessness.
“I kept thinking, ‘I’m in the wrong job,’” Jordan recalled. “I should be down there helping, and instead I’m sitting at a desk watching and reading about it.”
He was pleased to learn that professor Shari Yvon-Lewis, a marine and atmospheric chemist, and other Texas A&M scientists had become involved in Gulf oil spill research. Jordan applied to their chemical oceanography master’s program and joined the GISR research team in 2012.
Evidence in recent years points to marine waters around the globe becoming increasingly acidic. Ocean acidification can have wide ranging consequences, affecting the health of coral and other sea life, and oxidation of dissolved organic carbons like those in oil might contribute to this phenomenon.
Jordan’s research focused on understanding inorganic carbon’s behavior in deep water during and after the spill by painting a picture of a relatively healthy water column. He participated in multiple research cruises, collecting hundreds of water samples per expedition to measure carbon dioxide, dissolved inorganic carbon, and alkalinity levels.
He worked on the R/V Manta and the R/V Pelican, going out for days and sometimes weeks at a time, even venturing into Mexican waters once. His research team used a CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth profiler) equipped with a rosette water sampler and collected water samples at discrete depths around the Gulf. Each sample takes about an hour to process, so a week at sea requires three months or more for laboratory analysis.
The research cruises appealed to Jordan in part because they are not all work and no play. He used down time to troll using a line or net. Sometimes he provided fresh fish for dinner, and other times he caught interesting species for the crew to investigate. In one GISR blog post, Jordan described sighting a wahoo only to discover later that it was a barracuda. He also described technical difficulties they encountered, such as an overheating engine that required on-the-fly repairs. His engineering background really helped at these times.
Jordan intended to obtain his Ph.D., but after discovering his love for field work, he switched to a master’s program. He explained that many doctorates direct studies from an office, planning experiments, crunching numbers, and preparing reports. Jordan learned quickly after completing his bachelor’s degree that office work was not for him. “I want to go out and take the samples and help analyze them. I want to actually do the work, rather than directing it,” explained Jordan.
Jordan said that he loved working on field data-gathering missions when multiple science teams went out simultaneously. He worked alongside researchers from all over the country, specialists in different marine science fields, and learned everything from new sampling techniques to details about their specialties.
Jordan attended the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science conferences in both Mobile and Houston. He enjoyed seeing the related research presented together and explained that although he focused on the water column, he was equally interested in learning how ocean acidification might impact coral reefs or oyster beds. Attending the conferences made him “super excited” about ongoing research and the work he could do when he finished his degree.
Jordan defended his thesis in June and taught a summer oceanography lab course at Texas A&M. He spent his free time looking for a job that used field work to benefit the environment.
He found a position as Marine Tech/Junior Scientist at the University of California, Davis’ Bodega Marine Laboratory. Working in Dr. Tessa Hill’s lab, Jordan analyzes the alkalinity and spectrophotometric pH of seawater samples for numerous projects. He takes weekly water samples a few hundred meters offshore to help understand the changing water chemistry throughout the year. Recently, he participated in running a tide pool experiment to learn about possible long-term impacts of changing ocean acidification.
Jordan is pleased to be using his research skills to improve our knowledge about ecosystem processes and health and to help mitigate negative effects going forward.
Praise for Jordan
Shari Yvon-Lewis reported that Jordan successfully worked in her lab from his first semester at Texas A&M. Regarding field work, she said that he handled going to sea very well, particularly considering that he had to “master a temperamental instrument to analyze his samples.”
Jordan’s research with GISR has made important contributions. “His results have implications for understanding the role of oil and gas degradation in the inorganic carbon chemistry of the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico,” said Yvon-Lewis.
The GoMRI community embraces bright and dedicated students like Jordan Young and their important contributions. The GoMRI Scholars Program recognizes graduate students whose work focuses on GoMRI-funded projects and builds community for the next generation of ocean science professionals.
Visit the GISR website to learn more about their work.
This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Gulf of Mexico Integrated Spill Response Consortium (GISR).
The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) is a 10-year independent research program established to study the effect, and the potential associated impact, of hydrocarbon releases on the environment and public health, as well as to develop improved spill mitigation, oil detection, characterization and remediation technologies. An independent and academic 20-member Research Board makes the funding and research direction decisions to ensure the intellectual quality, effectiveness and academic independence of the GoMRI research. All research data, findings and publications will be made publicly available. The program was established through a $500 million financial commitment from BP. For more information, visit http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.