UA seeks answers from the deep (text and video)

The UA's Becki Beadling (left) and Joellen Russell have been working on a $21 million collaborative project, whose goal is to understand the Southern Ocean's acidification, heat uptake, and carbon and nutrient cycling. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)

The UA’s Becki Beadling (left) and Joellen Russell have been working on a $21 million collaborative project, whose goal is to understand the Southern Ocean’s acidification, heat uptake, and carbon and nutrient cycling. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)

From the Southern Ocean, professor Joellen Russell is collecting big data that is expected to tell us more about the Earth and its climate.

Clad in an orange life jacket and hard hat, Becki Beadling hustles to the stern of the research ship. She hears the hum of the engine and the sound of the swells slapping against the hull. She takes in the scent of the sea, that of the Southern Ocean, a scent quite unlike that of the Jersey Shore, not far from where she grew up.

It’s a little before sunrise, and Beadling and other researchers on the ship’s midnight-to-noon shift have just liberated a svelte, 55-pound, banana-colored robotic float from its wooden storage box stowed on deck. The researchers tie a rope around the device, hoist it just above the ship’s rail and then gently lower it over the side. They watch it drift away, prostrate. Soon enough, the float rights itself, its sensors and its satellite antenna pointing skyward.

Beadling is a graduate student in the University of Arizona’s Department of Geosciences. Her graduate adviser is Joellen Russell, associate professor of geosciences and Thomas R. Brown Distinguished Chair in Integrative Science. Beadling has a rare opportunity at the UA to do impactful research with Russell, a preeminent oceanographer.

Russell is helping to lead SOCCOM, the Southern Ocean and Climate and Carbon Modeling Program, a $21 million collaborative project, whose goal is to understand the Southern Ocean’s acidification, heat uptake, and carbon and nutrient cycling. The program is in its early stages of a years-long mission to employ 200 robotic floats to collect big data, data on the Southern Ocean’s chemistry, data that speak to the health of the Earth and its climate.

SOCCOM is the biogeochemical portion of a program known as Argo, a global array of 3,800 battery-powered floats that monitor and transmit data on the temperature and salinity of the world’s oceans. The data are used chiefly to forecast weather events, such as whether a hurricane is going to blow up or whether a storm is going to dump a lot of water or a little, Russell says.

“Argo is integral to our prediction system for the weather on land,” she says. “The ocean is 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, so if you want to do weather predictions, you have to know what’s going on at sea.”

SOCCOM is funded through the National Science Foundation’s Polar Program. Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is providing half of SOCCOM’s float, which unadorned are the same as Argo floats. That is, the floats from Argo are equipped with sensors for temperature and salinity only. But Russell and her team are adding additional sensors to the mix: one for oxygen, because the ocean’s oxygen is decreasing with warming; one for nitrate, which drives the ocean’s productivity; and one for pH, which indicates the level of acidification of the ocean and is dependent on carbon uptake.

Once the sensors are added, they are deployed in the Southern Ocean.

“They sink to 1,000 meters, where it’s dark and cold and nothing grows on them to foul up their works,” Russell says. “Every 10 days, they drop down to 2,000 meters — that’s 20 football fields — and make a full profile of measurements as they return to the surface.”

Some might wonder how studying an ocean that hugs Antarctica can help scientists understand the Earth’s weather and climate. But the Southern Ocean is unique. It is comprised of the waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans and is known for its powerful current, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, and as such its deep-ocean upwelling.

Russell refers to the Southern Ocean as “Earth’s fiercest ocean,” but it’s a friend to Arizona. It buffers changes to our climate. In fact, two-thirds of the anthropogenic heating from greenhouse gases and half of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide are taken up by the Southern Ocean.

“The mixing is so fast down there that the deep ocean sees only glimpses of this human-made atmosphere,” Russell says. Glimpses it has never seen before.

Robin Tricoles, University of Arizona, 28 February 2018. Full article and video.

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