Souped-Up Robots Will Soon Be Able To Tell Us What’s Happening In The Middle Of The Ocean

Earlier this week, the National Science Foundation awarded a $53 million grant to a team of institutions in the United States conducting oceanic research. The funds will be used to deploy 500 autonomous sensors that will collect oceanographic data across the world’s oceans, known as the Global Ocean Biogeochemistry Array (GO-BGC Array).

Once deployed, the robots will collect information about the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the local ocean environment. And, within a day of being collected, the data will be accessible from the robotic float and streaming worldwide. These floats provide additional resolution on complementary data that are aggregated by satellites, but are only able to collect information from the ocean’s surface.

The sensors will also be descending from the ocean surface to 2,000 meters below (a little over 1 mile deep), making observations along the way. Measurements across this depth range are especially critical because recent research indicates that the temperature of seawater in this segment of the ocean is rapidly increasing. The oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon data they collect will not only be critical for climate change research, but will also inform our understanding of more fundamental mechanisms, such as how these elements cycle through the ocean and atmosphere.

The GO-BGC Array expands on the international Argo program that was launched in 2000, where 3,900 floats were deployed to measure temperature and salinity profiles across the ocean (but none of the biological or chemical metrics this newly funded array will gather). The data from the Argo sensors have since been used in over 4,000 scientific publications.

Over the next five years, scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), Princeton University, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, University of Washington, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will be working together to launch the autonomous sensors approximately 1,000 kilometers (over 600 miles) apart from one another. And, the eventual plan is to double the number of floats so that 1,000 of them deployed across the planet.

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