Gliding into the future of ocean acidification observing

In 1943 two University of Pennsylvania professors, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, built the grandfather of digital computers, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator (ENIAC). The ENIAC fills half a warehouse and weighs more than 25 tons (as much as some of the heaviest dinosaurs). And for all that, it could carry out 5,000 instructions per second. The modern smartphone or smartwatch, weighing in at a few ounces? 25 billion instructions per second.

The technology used to observe ocean acidification – the shift in ocean chemistry driven by an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities – has followed the same trend of innovation and scaling as computer technology. Measuring ocean chemistry traditionally involves a team of scientists to collect samples at sea and an entire lab team to analytically determine the carbonate chemistry by measuring multiple parameters, including pH. While these methods are still being used, innovations in technology have made continuous pH sampling in our ocean possible. Dr. Grace Saba, an assistant professor at Rutgers University, has worked to develop a new sensor and is leading a project that will combine this new technology, existing data, and modeling to optimize the ocean acidification observing network in the Northeast US.

There are tradeoffs in all ocean observations as to where and how often they are able to happen. Buoys on our ocean’s surface or instruments at the sea floor can measure continuously, but only in one location while flow-through systems onboard ships cover a wide area, but only sample surface waters. Dedicated research cruises can cover a large area and can sample a wide range of depths but can be costly and occur only once every few months or years.

Dr. Saba’s team has plans to combat these challenges to measure carbon chemistry over larger areas, depths, and timescales that far exceed that of traditional sampling from ships and moorings. They will be deploying remotely operated underwater gliders, which have been used for decades to gather temperature, salinity, and depth data, and will now include newly-developed pH sensors. These sensors are small enough and strong enough to function at greater depths and provide consistent high quality data for weeks at a time. Existing acidification observations in the Northeast US currently lack the time, space, and depth scales needed to capture episodic events and seasonal trends of acidification in this dynamic coastal region. The gliders operate by diving and climbing through the water in forward motion and provide measurements at small regular intervals, thereby creating a more robust picture of the carbonate chemistry in nearshore or deep sea environments.

The use of these new pH sensors on the gliders will help researchers track pH and salinity simultaneously which can be used to calculate other chemistry variables and provide an understanding of how the carbonate chemistry is changing. Understanding how the coastal and ocean processes, such as river inputs and ocean currents, impact the carbonate chemistry is particularly important in the coastal Northeast US, a region with iconic fisheries. Dr. Saba expects that “this project will improve our understanding of the variability and importance of carbonate chemistry in the region. Additional sensors on the glider will also allow us to investigate the relationships between carbonate chemistry, biological activity, and other potential stressors including low dissolved oxygen. We ultimately intend for our data and model output to be used in the development of forecast models to help fisheries and hatcheries make important management decisions.”

Technological breakthroughs are often a team effort and this project will also bring together a slew of great minds to strengthen the Northeast regional OA observing (for a complete list of team members see below). This effort represents unique partnerships with two Regional Associations of NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observing System(IOOS), Mid-Atlantic (MARACOOS) and Northeast Atlantic (NERACOOS), and their respective Coastal Acidification Networks (MACAN, NECAN). By partnering with the IOOS associations in the region, the project will be able to combine the new data collected from the glider observations with larger data sets found in the IOOS databases to be used in the project’s biogeochemical model and communicate the results of the project to the larger community through the acidification networks.

Dr. Saba and her team are leading the way in ocean acidification monitoring with their constant push for innovative sampling techniques. This research will use new technology to understand how Northeast and Mid-Atlantic waters interact with each other and how current conditions and future changes may impact the many important fisheries in the Northeast US.

Grace Saba, Lead and John Wilkin (Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey); Charles Flagg, Janet Nye (Stony Brook University); Joe Salisbury, Doug Vandemark (University of New Hampshire); Neal Pettigrew (University of Maine); Gerhard Kuska (Mid-Atlantic Regional Association Coastal Ocean Observation System, MARACOOS); and John R. Morrison (Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems, NERACOOS)

NOAA Ocean Acidification Program. Article.

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