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Scripps Oceanography is part of $53 million grant to study ocean health through 500 new robotic floats

A float to study ocean health is about to be deployed by marine technician Colin Brayton on Oct. 27 off the coast of Chile.
(Courtesy)

UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla is part of a consortium of research institutes recently awarded a $53 million grant from the National Science Foundation to build and deploy 500 robotic floats around the world.

The floats — carbon fiber tubes about 5 feet long — are designed and programmed to measure ocean health through sensors attached at the top and sides.

The grant is a “major increase in our ability to observe the ocean,” said Lynne Talley, a professor of physical oceanography at SIO since 1984. “We’ve been measuring temperature and salinity since 2004 with floats like these.”

There are 4,000 such floats in use, Talley said. The original float was developed at SIO in the 1990s.

The NSF grant will allow Scripps Oceanography researchers, along with scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, University of Washington, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Princeton University, to add new, re-engineered floats.

The new floats should be built by the end of 2021, Talley said.

The grant is part of $125 million the NSF awarded for three projects in what it calls mid-scale infrastructure. The mid-scale program seeks to enable scientific breakthroughs “that can only be achieved by this scale of investment,” according to a statement from NSF program manager Kandace Binkley.

The two other programs funded are a UC San Diego grid-connected testbed for “integration of renewable and distributed energy resources into the power grids of the future” and a high magnetic field beamline to research design and implementation of cutting-edge X-ray and magnet technology at Cornell University.

The National Science Foundation has awarded UC San Diego a $39 million grant to build a testbed to connect and monitor energy resources on a large scale.

The new network of robotic floats, which cost $100,000 each, is called the Global Ocean Biogeochemistry Array. It is a “scaling up” of the previous programs, Talley said, “since we will be deploying many more floats each year all around the world.”

The floats will collect data on temperature, salinity, oxygen and nitrate, an essential nutrient for life, Talley said.

The floats also will measure pH, which indicates acidity. “That’s critical,” Talley said. “It’s amazing, even looking at five years of pH data.”

“We talk about the carbon cycle in the ocean; we care about fossil-fuel burning and increases in carbon in the atmosphere,” she said. “About one-third of that carbon ends up in the ocean,” which cleans the excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere but results in more ocean acidity, “a problem for the whole food chain.”

Talley said having more floats gathering more data means “we will be able to characterize [the increase of carbon in the ocean] globally, which is really exciting. That helps us build better computer models of the climate and understand how everything interacts.”

“We also measure chlorophyll, which is related to plant life,” Talley said, as well as “backscatter, which is particles in the water.” This information is “really critical for fishing,” she said.

The information collected from the floats works like “a weather observing system,” Talley said. The information, processed through two global data centers in Florida and France, is free and open to the public.

Talley said the floats are deployed by ships in various locations worldwide. They plunge to depths of about 6,500 feet, covering the upper half of ocean depth. Every 10 days, the floats surface, connect to GPS and transmit their collected data through a communications satellite.

The set of floats deployed by Scripps Oceanography is controlled by SIO scientists, though Talley said “we do almost nothing with them. The floats drift with the currents, which tell us where the currents are, which is really important.”

A map shows the planned distribution of the floats (large gold dots) funded by the National Science Foundation grant.
(Courtesy)

The location of the floats is tracked on a map online.

“If they look like they’re in a bit of trouble, we may change how frequently they profile or what depth they park at. We don’t like to mess around with them,” Talley said.

The floats are powered by lithium batteries. A bladder of oil pumps to change a float’s depth.

The batteries can power the floats for three to six years, after which the floats will cease to collect data and will float on without monitoring. The cost is considered too high for ships to collect each one.

Talley said there also is an “adopt a float” program in which a school class can name a float, draw a picture to be added to it and work with an outreach group to learn through virtual presentations and other lessons. For more information, go to bit.ly/adoptafloat.