Rutgers professor works with glider technology to test water acidification and its effects on ecosystems

The first integrated glider platform and sensor system that samples the pH of water has been created at Rutgers.

Grace Saba, a professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences, is using glider technology to study ocean acidification which will soon lead to a commercially available glider pH sensor suite.

This autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV, is tasked with measuring pH throughout the water column, the conceptual column from the water’s surface to its bottom sediments. It has the ability to cut through water, dive and climb vertical speeds of 20 cm per second in a sawtooth pattern and can collect high data density and full water column coverage leading to a higher resolution measurement of the water’s pH, Saba said.

The AUV is a Slocum Webb gliders developed and constructed by Teledyne Webb Research. The AUV is 1.5 meters and can dive to 1000 meters, collecting data all at the same time, which is crucial to the research of ocean acidification.

Saba is involved in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Association Coastal Ocean Observation System and is the co-coordinator of the Mid-Atlantic Coastal Acidification Network.

“Through all of these endeavors, it has become very clear that there is a great need for technologies that can better monitor acidification in our local waters to increase understanding of it in our region … The success of this project ensures that this sensor could be integrated into any glider used by anyone around the world and thus would make great strides in the development of a real-time national/global coastal ocean acidification monitoring network,” she said about the AUV project.

The main focus of the project is to create a technology with the capacity to monitor water acidification. This is essential because seawater absorbs excess carbon dioxide, which causes complex chemical reactions, lowering the pH of water and making it more acidic, she said.

Acidification can lead to the impairment of many important marine habitats and risks the lives of organisms who use the carbonate ions destroyed by excess carbon dioxide, Saba said.

Along with using gliders, Saba has also worked on other projects in the past.

“In the past, my research approach has been primarily experimental through laboratory or field experiments. Just these past few years I have started this glider-focused project, as well as another to ‘fish with robots’ that used a glider equipped with an acoustic sensor to determine zooplankton and fish abundance and distribution in the western Ross Sea, Antarctica,” she said.

Saba has been a member of the Rutgers University Center for Ocean Observing Leadership (RU COOL) since 2010 where she cultivated her passion for the field.

She said it has been challenging to begin using these new approaches, particularly developing new sensors and learning how to use them and she depends on a strong technical team to assist in the operation of these new projects.

“The best part about it is watching our undergraduate and graduate students master the glider-related technology and complex data analysis required,” Saba said.

The creation of this glider will allow scientists to better understand and manage essential habitats in the future. The data produced from the glider will also allow the community to identify high risk regions and populations of commercially important species that are prone to the effects of reduced pH.

Saba traced her interest in oceanography back to her childhood.

“I grew up on a farm in Kansas, well away from the ocean. But I was always outside, particularly fascinated by the crawdads and the tadpoles in the creek behind the barn. My mom bought me Jacques Cousteau’s ‘The Ocean World’ when I was eight, and that marked the beginning of what I’ve now become,” she said.

Saba is primarily focused on how marine animals, such as plankton and fish, interact with their environment. Her goal is to better understand climate variability and how long-term change can affect food webs.

The completion of the pH sensor’s integration into the glider will be completed by early May.

Saba said that with all the work she juggles, balancing her life with the hefty research she conducts can be challenging.

“Well, it’s not easy and often times I feel I’m not balancing as well as I should. But I’m surrounded by a team of supportive family, especially my husband who is also a scientist and knows that our works comes in waves. We are the very definition of a good tag team,” she said.

Emre Ugurlu, The Daily Tragum, 11 April 2018. Article.

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