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Robotic floats tracking ocean health and impacts of climate change

Posted at 2:53 PM, Mar 01, 2022

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — According to scientists, the ocean is protecting us from some of the worst effects of climate change, absorbing more than 90% of the heat from human-caused global warming and about one-third of our carbon emissions.

“Every person in the world should care about the oceans because they play such a fundamental role in our climate," says Sarah Purkey, an assistant professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

Without the ocean, Purkey says, our atmosphere would have warmed by astonishing numbers over the last few decades. She's part of an international effort to monitor and forecast the effects of ocean warming and ocean acidification on sea life.

"There are parts of it that are really remote. We have to be able to measure space and time. And it’s a big space and varies pretty heavily with time.”

A multi-institutional effort, the Global Ocean Biogeochemistry Array (GO-BGC) is a project to build a global network of chemical and biological sensors to monitor ocean health. With support from a $53 million grant from the National Science Foundation, researchers in the US are working to deploy 500 robotic ocean-monitoring floats around the globe.

“The classic way to measure is using ships," said Dan Rudnick, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography professor. “We can have quite a few, but not the number we need to make measurements all the time, everywhere. That’s where robots come in handy.”

This network of floats will collect data on the chemistry and the biology of the ocean from the surface to a depth of 2,000 meters, enhancing the existing Argo array that monitors ocean temperature and salinity.

“They connect via the Iridium satellite system. So, basically, like a cell phone, they’re going to text their data back. And this, in real-time, is for scientists but also goes into your weather forecast. And is used by a whole bunch of different systems internationally and in the US," said Purkey.

The data will help scientists monitor elemental cycles of carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen in the ocean through all seasons of the year.

They'll be able to monitor microscopic plankton, which in addition to supporting most of life in the ocean, supplies oxygen to and removes carbon dioxide from the sea and the atmosphere.

The Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling project (SOCCOM) is the world's first large-scale biogeochemical Argo deployment. The NSF-sponsored program focuses on unlocking the mysteries of the Southern Ocean and determining its influence on climate.

“Global warming is a thing. The ocean is warming gradually. But what's interesting is different regions are warming more rapidly, and different regions are more or less taking turns increasing more rapidly," said Rudnick.

The robots are also inspiring the next generation of ocean explorers. Students can engage directly with world-class scientists through the Adopt-A-Float program and learn about their research by naming and tracking floats.

George Matsumoto of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute pairs interested classrooms with SOCCOM scientists scheduled to deploy floats in the Southern Ocean. Teachers are provided with background materials on the Southern Ocean and on the specific work being done by SOCCOM researchers.

“All these data are made public as soon as we collect them," said Rudnick. “I think that’s important for science, to make our science as open as possible.”