“Valuing Every Piece of Data”: My Experience Living on a Boat to Monitor the Ocean’s Respiration.
The sun is setting and I am currently situated on the upper deck of the research ship Maria S Merian, in the bridge area. This serves as the main control room, with large windows allowing for a clear view of the rough ocean in all directions. The walls are lined with screens and maps, displaying information gathered from inside, outside, above and below the ship. It is crucial to closely monitor nature’s activities while out on the open sea. The lights are turned off to allow for better visibility of the waves with adjusted eyes, and the first officer is playing smooth jazz over the speakers to create a relaxed atmosphere.
I am gripping onto the railing below the window tightly with both hands. One of my legs is propped against the desk behind me as the ship rises up a wave that reaches about 8 meters (26 feet) high. Then, it quickly drops down the other side. It feels similar to being on a large rollercoaster ride. As the ship reaches the top of the wave, you feel weightless, but then you must brace yourself for the extra pressure from the floor as it hits the bottom.
Although the scenery is striking, our location in the Labrador Sea is due to an imperceptible force. Positioned in the northwestern region of the Atlantic, nestled between Greenland’s southern tip and Newfoundland, we endure the harsh and relentless winter weather to immerse ourselves in a unique scientific phenomenon for several weeks. Our purpose is to gain insight into a crucial process that drives our planet’s mechanics. As we observe our surroundings, we witness the ocean taking in a deep breath – quite literally. During the months of late November to February, the cooling temperatures facilitate a significant mixing between surface and deep waters, enabling the essential transportation of gases. I am part of the UK team collaborating with an international group of scientists to investigate this occurrence.
2), oxygen (O2), and nitrogen (N2)
Our culture often sees the large bodies of water depicted on maps as simply a place for marine life. However, this is far from accurate. The interconnected world ocean is a powerful force, a constantly evolving 3D system with its own internal structure that plays a significant role in shaping our planet. It serves as a vast storage for heat and important gases, including carbon dioxide, oxygen, and nitrogen.2
The atmosphere and the ocean contain various gases, such as carbon dioxide, oxygen, and nitrogen. These gases can move between the two through the interface of the sea and air, altering their levels in both mediums.
2 concentration can be
At the equator, specifically, the concentration of CO2 may be higher.2
When it leaves the water and goes back into the atmosphere, the process is reversed in the higher latitudes. Currently, there is an imbalance in these processes as the ocean is absorbing more CO2 than usual.2
As a result of burning fossil fuels and changing the land surface, the atmospheric concentration has risen. Fortunately, our oceans are helping by absorbing extra carbon from the atmosphere. However, we still have limited knowledge about the surface processes involved and how they may be affected in the future.
The ocean currents in the Labrador Sea are significant because they allow for a direct connection between the surface and depths, which is rare in most parts of the global ocean. In this specific region, the cold winter temperatures cause the surface water to mix with the deeper, denser water due to frequent storms. This creates a pathway for anything that enters the sea to sink into the deep ocean, contributing to the “overturning circulation” that moves seawater between the surface and depths. As a result, even creatures living 2/3 of a mile below the surface without access to sunlight, such as lanternfish and giant squid, are still able to obtain oxygen.
Major winter storms in this area contribute oxygen to the top layer of water. This oxygen then moves downwards, sideways, and eventually spreads throughout the middle layer of the Atlantic Ocean, increasing its oxygen levels. However, our most advanced computer models do not accurately reflect the amount of oxygen that is transferred through this process. This is significant because the entire global ocean is experiencing a gradual decline in oxygen levels, with a decrease of approximately 2% since the 1960s. To make predictions about future changes and their effects, it is crucial to comprehend the mechanism responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the ocean.
The German research vessel, Maria S Merian, has a total of 46 individuals on board, including 22 scientists and 24 crew members. These scientists come from Germany, Canada, the US, and the UK, each focusing on a specific aspect of the intricate breathing process. To make progress, it is essential to monitor the ocean’s physics and chemistry, as well as the activity of the surface and atmosphere. Once we return to land, we must piece together the collected data like a jigsaw puzzle. There have been limited experiments that directly measure gas exchange between the atmosphere and stormy open waters, with the last one occurring 10 years ago (in which I also participated).
After ten years, we now have improved and more precise tools for measurement and understand the importance of investigating a broader scope of connected procedures. This presents a significant chance, and we are mindful that we may not have another opportunity for a considerable amount of time due to logistical and resource limitations. However, none of this will be simple: these are unprecedented trials in a tumultuous setting; there is no assurance that any equipment lowered into the water will return unharmed, or that the elements will permit us to execute our objectives. Therefore, every piece of information we gather is invaluable.
T2 concentrations, and the other from drifting buoys that record changes in CO2 levels
There are two ways to measure the ocean’s breathing. One method involves using a tall mast on the ship’s bow to track wind direction and CO2 levels with great precision. The other method involves using drifting buoys to monitor changes in CO2 levels.2
We are currently studying concentration levels of inert tracer gases that were introduced into the water 10 days ago. This is being done by continuously collecting water samples from the surface and various depths while the ship moves in a zigzag pattern. We are also using underwater and surface vehicles to gather data on the 3D structures of the water beneath us, which can be distinguished by temperature or salinity.
I am observing the bubbles created by breaking waves on the surface and tracking how their sizes change over time. This is important because it is believed that these bubbles facilitate the transfer of certain gases into the water. However, the challenge is that the most interesting bubble processes occur within the top 2 to 3 meters, while the surface itself moves up and down by 5 to 10 meters. To overcome this obstacle, the mechanical engineering workshop at University College London, where I am located, created a buoy for me. The buoy is essentially a large, hollow, yellow stick with a heavy base that remains upright and mostly submerged, allowing me to study the top layer more effectively.
This system allows me to observe and listen just beneath the surface of the water with the help of specialized bubble cameras, acoustical devices, and dissolved gas sensors. It is capable of remaining afloat in rough seas for multiple days while monitoring its surroundings. Due to limited daylight, the buoy is always deployed at night. Deploying it safely into the ocean requires a large crane and a team of seven people. Once in the water, only the top 2 meters and its flashing white light are visible above the waves.
There is typically full cloud coverage, resulting in a black sky and sea that blend together. The small blinking light disappears into the dark, as all the effort and planning put into it are left to rely on engineering. The beacon at the top sends me email updates every 30 minutes, quietly accompanying my day as I push aside thoughts of how wind speeds of 50mph and wave heights of up to 10 metres may impact the buoy. The feeling of relief upon retrieving it a few days later is overwhelming.
In this era of impressive technology and constant access to information, data may seem abundant. However, the vastness of our global ocean presents challenges when it comes to collecting and analyzing data. Marine science still lacks significant amounts of data, despite the fact that the ocean plays a crucial role in climate modeling. While computer models may be powerful, their accuracy can only be determined by comparing them to real-world measurements. This is why it is crucial to conduct complex measurements and challenge our understanding of the world around us. Nature is diverse and stunning, but it is not always orderly or convenient, and we must acknowledge and accept this reality.
I am hopeful that this project will lead to a deeper understanding of the processes that drive gas movement in turbulent oceans. This will enable us to accurately calculate carbon and oxygen budgets for the ocean. However, this information does not add to the already substantial evidence against burning fossil fuels. We already have enough scientific knowledge and technology to make the necessary changes and prevent the most severe climate consequences.
This will assist in comprehending and anticipating a transformed ocean, allowing for more informed choices regarding how to handle the outcomes of our previous behaviors. As inhabitants of a predominantly aquatic planet, it is crucial that we acknowledge and incorporate this aspect into our sense of self. Neglecting the sea is not a viable option, therefore enhancing our knowledge of it is a necessary measure towards a brighter tomorrow.
The book “Blue Machine: How the Ocean Shapes Our World” by Helen Czerski is available for purchase at Transworld for £20. To support the Guardian and Observer, you can order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery fees may be applicable.