Robot surfboards collect climate change data

s_topTEMP325x350-7420Three wave driven drones are being dropped off in Southcentral Alaska waters this week as part of a summer long study on sea water conditions both in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska. The vehicles are called wave gliders by their manufacturer, Liquid Robotics, and are owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and operated by a NOAA team based in Seattle.

The project, funded mainly by NOAA, brought UAF research Wiley Evans to Seward where a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ocean-going research ship was set to ferry the drones to their drops. Together with Evans, a couple NOAA engineers spent several days setting up the equipment before loading it aboard the USFWS Tiglax last Friday.

The preparations drew spectators from Seward’s Aluutiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery which is also a partner in the study. Jeff Hetrick, hatchery director, explained that increasing ocean acidification is of particular concern in terms of shelled sea creatures as it interferes with shell formation and can prevent the animals from growing shells at all.

Another partner in the survey is Seward tour boat operator, Major Marine Tours, who made one of their vessels available for the installation of sampling equipment by the NOAA team last month.

The instruments will test glacial runoff in sea water near the base of glaciers as regularly scheduled tours are conducted. The data from the three drones and the tour boat will be relayed continuously to the research team via satellite.

Evans and another UAF project leader, Jeremy Mathis, have been collating the data to show whether the the process of ocean acidification is more pronounced around tidewater glaciers.

According to a UAF press release, scientists estimate that the ocean is 25 percent more acidic today than it was 300 years ago, largely due to increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and changes in land use. Because cold water can absorb more CO2 than warm water, acidification can disproportionately impact coastal regions around Alaska.

“The glacier melt plumes have some really unique chemistry that can exacerbate ocean acidification and impact the environment in Prince William Sound and out into the Gulf of Alaska,” Mathis said. “Our goal is to use the latest technology to find out what’s happening so we can communicate that to Alaska residents and stakeholders.”

The surfboard-like platforms use almost no power as they convert wave motion to propel themselves. Solar cells provide electricity for instruments, a satellite phone and to control the rudder and submerged control planes.

The robots will operate silently with two staked out in separate areas in Prince William Sound and another running back and forth along a line in the Gulf of Alaska off the southern shore of the Kenai Peninsula.

When study concludes in early September, researchers say that it will have collected the longest continuous observations of ocean acidification in Alaska to date.

“We are very proud to have the opportunity to partner with the Alaska Ocean Observing System and be the leaders in glider technology in Alaska,” said Mathis. “This work could be a game-changer in our understanding of how ocean acidification will impact our state.”

Wolfgang Kurtz, The Seward Phoenix Log, 8 May 2014. Article.

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