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UW receives $23.5M grant to monitor oceans with autonomous floats

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UW receives $23.5M grant to monitor oceans with autonomous floats

Over 80% of the world’s oceans are unexplored, but a team of researchers from the UW and their partners around the globe will soon be changing that. On Oct. 29, the UW was granted $23.5 million as part of a $53 million multi-institutiongrant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build and deploy robotic ocean monitoring floats.  

The floats are one-meter-long yellow cylinders that drift 1000 meters below sea level. If you’re wondering what that looks like, just picture a large, bright yellow can of Pringles potato chips the length of a baseball bat floating 11 football fields underneath the surface of the ocean. 

Every 10 days, the floats drop down to 2000 meters below sea level, and then rise up to the surface while taking measurements. Once they reach the surface, they transmit the data via satellite into the hands of researchers.    

The floats built with this grant will join the ranks of 4000 other ocean-monitoring floats that are part of the international Argo ocean monitoring program. Past Argo floats have measured temperature, pressure, and salinity. This NSF grant provides the funding to build floats that also measure the biogeochemical (BGC) properties of the ocean.

BGC floats are important for improving our understanding of the role that the ocean plays in carbon cycling and climate change, and how climate change may be affecting marine life.

“We are putting a lot of carbon into the atmosphere … about a quarter of [the carbon] goes into the ocean,” Alison Gray, assistant professor of physical oceanography at the UW, said. “Obviously, that has a big impact on what stays and remains in the atmosphere, and thus impacts everybody who lives in the atmosphere, which is all of us.” 

Gray hopes to use the data from these floats to understand how carbon is being stored, where it’s being stored, and how long it’s being stored in the ocean.

The data will also be important for informing policymakers about the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems. The BGC floats will be able to measure variables that directly affect marine life, such as oxygen, acidity, nutrients, and phytoplankton abundance. 

“In a lot of cases we don’t even have a baseline understanding of what [BGC variables] are or what the natural variability is,” Gray said. “The ability to sort of monitor these things over all seasons and all these different places will enable us to see how they’re changing, and that can both help us predict future changes [and] can maybe lead us to changes in how we act now.”

Using floats to monitor the ocean allows researchers to collect more data than from traditional research boats. Unlike boats, the floats are not limited by weather conditions, collect data year-round, and are much less expensive.

Stephen Riser, a professor of oceanography at the UW, who has spent four cumulative years of his life on research boats, stressed that the floats provide a great opportunity to collect a large amount of data at a scale that would not be possible with traditional research vessels. 

“You can do a lot of the things we used to do from ships — not all of them, but most of them or many of them, you can do with these [BGC floats],” Riser said.

The data collected by BGC floats will not only be used by scientists and policy makers; it will also be used for outreach and education. All of the data will be publicly available. This is a key part of the Argo ocean monitoring program. There are 32 nations contributing to the worldwide array of monitoring floats, and the promise of open-source data keeps nations committed to the project.

“Everybody is working for the good of the whole world, and making all the data available,” Argo data management team co-chair and scientific coordinator Megan Scanderberg said.

A team at the UW has already started assembling the BGC floats. Over the next five years, 500 floats will be built and deployed. As soon they enter the water, these floats will begin exploring untouched regions of the ocean, sending back data that will be used to help educate the world and to better understand and address the effects of climate change.  

Reach contributing writer Nuria Alina Chandra at Twitter: @AlinaChandra

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