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Scripps Oceanography unveils research simulator to study ocean/atmosphere exchanges

Scripps Institution of Oceanography researchers join officials to cut the ribbon on the new SOARS facility Nov. 29.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography director Margaret Leinen, state Sen. Toni Atkins, SOARS principal investigator Grant Deane, co-principal investigator Dale Stokes, UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, state Assemblyman Chris Ward, UCSD Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Elizabeth Simmons and co-principal investigator Kimberly Prather cut the ribbon on the new Scripps Ocean Atmosphere Research Simulator on Nov. 29.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography this week unveiled an “unprecedented” ocean simulator that can look at ocean chemistry, biology, physics, waves, atmospheric changes, chemical exchanges and more, all under one roof.

Using ocean water pumped in from the Pacific and sunlight captured in solar panels, the Scripps Ocean Atmosphere Research Simulator, or SOARS, can replicate what happens in the ocean, from the polar ice caps to the tropics.

“It is a unique facility,” UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla told those gathered for the Nov. 29 ribbon cutting. “When you think about climate change research, you think about oceans and atmosphere interacting. The only way to understand what is happening out there is to be there, on a boat. But you can’t control what’s happening there. The goal of this facility is to bring the ocean into the building, so this facility will take actual seawater, creating waves and understanding ocean atmospheric interaction by instrumenting it very completely and asking questions.”

Researchers using SOARS can generate winds up to 62 mph, which are storm-level speeds on the Beaufort scale. The instrument also can chill winds to -20 degrees Celsius and water to -2 degrees Celsius, which is enough to allow sea ice to form.

Scientists can pump carbon dioxide into the channel to simulate how the climate of the future is going to change nature, and grow phytoplankton under natural light provided by skylights in an ocean warmed to temperatures found in equatorial waters.

The room-sized Scripps Ocean Atmosphere Research Simulator
The room-size Scripps Ocean Atmosphere Research Simulator, or SOARS, includes pumps, wave simulators, heating and cooling equipment and more.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Before SOARS, “we would conduct experiments using facilities that would make one of the things we need. It might make wind and waves or it might grow the biology correctly, or it might do the chemistry correctly,” principal investigator Grant Deane told the La Jolla Light. “But they were done separately. Now we can combine them all together.”

“This is the first machine that can reproduce [ocean conditions] with the level of accuracy that we can at the sheer scale that we can,” Deane said. “We have a broad range of controls in one machine. That is unprecedented.”

“The world’s oceans always have and always will be critical to the fate of humankind.”

— Grant Deane

The facility was partially funded by the National Science Foundation, which gave $2.8 million, with the rest of the $4 million price tag supplied by UC San Diego. Scripps Oceanography director Margaret Leinen noted that many National Science Foundation proposals ask for $500,000 or less, but this project not only was funded to the requested amount but funded after the first request.

“Everyone realized this idea of being able to not only create the ocean in this instrument but to be able to control the temperature, the composition of the water, the atmosphere and grow phytoplankton and look at all those interactions with the state-of-the-art instrumentation is just incredible,” Leinen said.

Other speakers at the ribbon cutting included state Sen. Toni Atkins, who said “the data that Scripps is able to bring forward [will] help us as policymakers understand what we need to focus on.”

State Assemblyman Chris Ward said the data from the facility “is going to help us understand so many of those air-quality solutions and anything else we would want to understand.”

That quest for better understanding is “why we built SOARS,” Deane said.

“The world’s oceans always have and always will be critical to the fate of humankind,” he told the gathering. “The surface of the ocean, where the water greets the air, covers 71 percent of our planet. Ninety percent of the heat trapped by human-emitted greenhouse gases passes through the surface of the ocean into the ocean. … This and other exchanges at the ocean surface play a critical role in weather and climate and human health.”

SOARS principal investigator Grant Deane demonstrates its wave-making abilities.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

In the open ocean, wind makes waves, Deane explained.

“The waves grow into the atmosphere until they crash and break in an explosion of spray and bubbles,” he said. “The bubbles force gas into the ocean, carbon dioxide included. The spray contains water, salt, chemistry and the life of the ocean itself [and goes] into the atmosphere, where it catalyzes the formation of ice and clouds. Those ice and clouds can heat the planet or cool the planet. … It’s this dance that goes on between chemistry, biology and physics.”

He said scientists are “aware of this dance, but what we don’t understand is the future of this complex system as we continue to change the environment on the planet.”

“What is going to happen to these exchanges as we pump more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? We don’t know yet,” he said. “What’s going to happen as the ice coverage continues to recede in the Arctic? How will that influence exchanges across the ocean and change the climate of those regions … and ultimately cause sea-level rise here in California? These are pressing questions we need to know the answer to.”

The first major experiment at SOARS will be run by a team led by atmospheric chemist Kimberly Prather that will look at the effects of increased levels of carbon dioxide on the chemical composition of the droplets that come out of the ocean and form clouds and ice at sea. ◆