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What’s climate change really doing to the ocean? Ask the robots
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What’s climate change really doing to the ocean? Ask the robots

Part of a glaciar breaks off into the ocean


Part of a glaciar breaks off into the oceanCalving glacier. Photo by NOAA.

In an international effort known as “International Robotic Flots”, scientists have deployed thousands upon thousands of robotic floats with temperature and salinity sensors to the ocean since the 1990s. The Argo program. These floats have already collected more ocean profiles that all scientific cruises together. They show how ocean temperature and circulation patterns change over time and shed light onto the extent to which humans have contributed to these changes. But to monitor the impact of climate change on the marine ecosystem—from productivity to fisheries to ocean acidification—scientists need a greater variety of chemical measurements. Research groups from around the globe have collaborated to develop additional sensors for the Argo floats’ bodies, which can be used to turn them into automated biogeochemical flotillas.

This effort began in 2000 with the invention of oxygen sensors. Other sensors have been developed to measure acidity, nutrients and pigments. Argo program biogeochemical. These robots collect data that allows scientists to see changes deep under the ocean, down to 2000 m. This is impossible with satellites that focus on the surface. The floats can freely drift with the ocean currents and move up or down in the water. This allows them to cover larger areas than stationary buoys. Many of these biogeochemical floating floats were released in areas of the ocean that are sensitive to climate change.

ocean float suspended over the ocean
A floating object is about to be released into the ocean. Photo by Natalie Freeman

Monitoring the ocean is crucial for understanding the climate crisis. The ocean plays a vital role in our planet’s health. It generates more than half of Earth’s oxygen and mitigates the human impact on the climate by regulating the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It is responsible for about 25% of the carbon dioxide that is released from human activities. Taken up by the ocean. The ocean constantly exchanges chemical elements such as carbon and oxygen with the earth, the atmosphere and living organisms, because the Earth functions as one system. Scientists must collect as many data as possible from every environment to understand how climate operates in its entirety. They also need data right now to be able to compare the future with it. This is important because the climate is changing rapidly.

Although there is a lot of information needed about the ocean, it is still not well-explored. The ocean covers about 70 percent of the planet’s surface, but humans know less about its floor than the topography of Mars. It’s not for lack of trying. Over a century ago, scientists conducted marine expeditions. More recently, satellites, buoys, and automated robots like the floats have been integrated into what scientists call the Earth’s observing system. Combining robotic technology with research cruises, scientists are now able to sample hard-to-access oceanic areas all year. This observation system produces high-resolution information, which means that large areas of the ocean can be sampled for extended periods of time and new information is generated every few hours. This vast data collection allows us to answer complex climate-related questions like: How much carbon does it absorb? Is there a faster rate of acidification in some regions than others? Are polar waters heating at a faster pace than the rest of the globe? Are the seasons changing in oceans just like they do on land? If so, how does this affect the ecosystem and the food web

At the end of 2014, there were 442 active oceanic biogeochemical floats. Since 2014, the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and ModelingHundreds of robots have been sent to the Southern Ocean by the company. These robots have already increased the amount of data collected around Antarctica and led to amazing discoveries: Scientists discovered that different regions of Southern Ocean capture. Different amounts of carbon dioxideThat is why the waters of the polar region are becoming increasingly salubrious. Warmer, saltier and more deoxygenatedDue to changes in meltwater quantities and wind patterns. They also discovered that computer models are still unable to accurately simulate these changes. Therefore, it is important to have more float data in order for computers to make these changes more realistic. Climate modeling.

diagram of a biogeochemical float
Karen Romano Young’s Float Scheme. Source:

The life cycle of a float. Biogeochemical floating organisms are programmed to sink to 1,000 meters, then drift along the ocean’s current. When it’s time to sample, they descend to 2,000 meters and then begin ascending while simultaneously profiling the ocean using the full suite of sensors. They repeat this cycle approximately every five to 10 days. Once they reach the surface, the data are sent via satellite and then to scientists on earth who can begin processing the data. High-quality data are available in real-time and free to the world. These amazing robots will continue to function until their batteries are exhausted in approximately five years. There have been some record-breaking performances!

For example, float #1901155 was deployed in January 2011 at 46 degrees south of Africa’s equator. The intrepid float travelled east with the prevailing currents, and circumnavigated almost the entire Southern Ocean for almost a decade. Every 10 days, the float would wake up and descend over a mile into deep ocean waters before rising to the surface. It measured pressure, temperature, salinity and oxygen along the way. Scientists could see that the ocean and deeper waters were mixing due to strong winds and colder temperatures during winter storms, and this brought nutrients to the surface. The amount of sunlight reaching the ocean surface increased as winter turned to spring and summer. These two factors are conducive to phytoplankton development through photosynthesis. Phytoplankton also produce oxygen when they grow. The oxygen saturation of the ocean’s surface is approximately 100 percent. This means that the ocean is in close equilibrium with the atmosphere. The ocean becoming supersaturated in oxygen indicates an increase in plankton productivity. As you can see, the supersaturation is caused by seasonal plankton blooms.

map of the path of a biogeochemical float
Path of the #901155. Each circle represents a sample time. The colors represent the oxygen saturation at the time the samples were taken. Credit: Josh Plant

The National Science Foundation will fund the funding in 2020. Global Ocean Biogeochemistry ProjectThe partnership of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Princeton University, the University of Washington, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is called. In five years, 500 biogeochemical floating devices will be deployed in the ocean. The North Atlantic Ocean’s northern portion was the first to be deployed. 36 more floats have since been released. These floats will enable scientists to monitor ecosystem change, at least for the next ten years, with extraordinary spatial and temporal coverage.

Robotic ocean monitoring has many benefits.The data from floats from previous independent projects gives a glimpse of what these robots could do: Scientists estimated the potential of these robots using oxygen data from the entire fleet. Global marine primary productivityThe amount of atmospheric carbon that phytoplankton has captured over a one-year period. It’s the same process that happens on land in terrestrial plants. Changes in productivity due to global warming could change the ocean’s capacity to produce and store carbon. Also, less productivity would mean less food for the entire food web, which includes fish and whales. Scientists now have a baseline marine primary productivity so they can track future changes.

As extreme events become more frequent due to climate change autonomous robots are already powerful tools to monitor their impact on the marine ecosystem. Between 2013 and 2015 A giant heatwave known as the BlobIt reached the northeast Pacific Ocean and the US-Canadian west coasts. It caused mass death of marine organisms and seabirds, created harmful algae blooms, and impacted fisheries. It also lowered the birth rate of whales. A few biogeochemical flotillas were in the area during, after, and before this huge event. Thanks to the long time series of data provided by the floats, scientists were able to conclude that two consecutive years of warming decreased the amount of nutrients available in the ocean’s surface, ultimately Carbon production is crashingSequestration in deep ocean. Floats have also been able to track the impact on extreme weather events, such as typhoon Trami that passed near Japan in 2018. little effect on the ocean’s productivity.

The data collected will ultimately help lawmakers and stakeholders make informed decisions about where to allocate resources to minimize economic loss, such as those suffered in the case of the collapsed economy. Blob on the West Coast. During that event, fish stocks moved hundreds of miles from their usual spots, seeking cooler temperatures, and fishing boats couldn’t find them. If scientists had known, fishermen could have recalculated the route they took and caught more fish thanks to these floating robots.

When the Hunga-Tonga underwater volcano erupted in January 2011, it released tons of ash into the air and ocean surface. Volcanic ashes have been shown to fertilize the ocean by providing nutrients to marine phytoplankton. However, they also reduce light availability. It is too early to determine the local impact of this volcano on surrounding waters. However, two biogeochemical floating floats, #6903024, and #6903025, are already collecting information about the area. Scientists can only monitor ecosystem changes through continuous data collection throughout the ocean. One never knows when or where the next natural disaster or heat wave will occur.


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