500 new floats to expand global ocean monitoring program

A new fleet of 500 robotic floats will be launched throughout the global ocean for monitoring ocean health—key to the health of all life on Earth. Chemical and biological sensors on the floats will collect observations between the surface and a depth of 2,000 meters (6,600 feet). Data streaming from the float array will be made freely available within a day of being collected, and will be used by scores of researchers, educators, and policy makers around the world.

Illustration of the instruments on a GO-BGC biogeochemical profiling float. Illustration: Kelly Lance © 2016 MBARI

This new Global Ocean Biogeochemistry Array, called GO-GBC for short, was made possible by a five-year grant of $53 million from the National Science Foundation. It will extend biological and chemical observing worldwide and build upon two highly successful ongoing efforts to monitor the ocean using robotic floats. Similar to the Biogeochemical Argo program, these new floats will be deployed around the world, and like the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling Project (SOCCOM), the floats will include additional biological and chemical sensors.

Scientists use the data from these floats to monitor the growth and respiration of phytoplankton (drifting algae and microbes that use sunlight as a source of energy) and the nutrients and light that control these processes. Phytoplankton fundamentally support the majority of life in the ocean, including commercial fisheries. These microscopic plankton also significantly impact the climate through their contributions to carbon dioxide uptake. Moreover, the new floats will provide firsthand data on long-term changes in the ocean, including ocean acidification and the expansion of low-oxygen zones.

The grant brings together five leading oceanographic institutions. MBARI will coordinate the project, refine the sensors, take the lead in processing data from the floats, and perform outreach for the program. The University of Washington, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will build and deploy floats in collaboration with commercial partners. Princeton University will contribute to the array design and project management, and ensure that the data are linked to global computer models of Earth’s ocean and climate. Additionally, this program will substantially impact the ocean technology industry, including several commercial suppliers of ocean sensors and profiling floats.

Soccom float carry

Earle Wilson, a former postdoctoral student at the University of Washington, prepares to deploy a SOCCOM float. Researchers have been deploying biogeochemical floats in the Southern Ocean as part of the SOCCOM program since 2014. The new GO-BGC grant will provide money to deploy similar floats in all the world’s ocean basins. Image courtesy of SOCCOM (NSF Award PLR-1425989).

A broad public outreach program—including workshops, web-based curricula, and hands-on activities—will help scientists, teachers, students, and others use these data. In an expansion of the existing SOCCOM Adopt-A-Float program, the floats will be adopted by elementary- to college-level classes. Student activities will be developed through a partnership with the national Marine Advanced Technology Education program.

“GO-GBC will transform our ability to observe and understand the chemical and biological cycles that are the foundation of marine food webs in the vast majority of ocean areas that are rarely sampled,” said MBARI Chemist Ken Johnson, one of the principal investigators on the project. “These observations will establish the baseline rates of photosynthetic production, respiration, and nutrient supply in present ocean ecosystems, and they will alert us to possible changes in the future.”

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