Scientists Call for a New Strategy for Polar Ocean Observation

Ocean glider in Antarctic waters

Credit: Jason Orfanon
Rutgers/Webb-SLOCUM glider deployed from a Zodiac near Palmer Station Antarctica.

6/17/2010

In a report published in this week’s issue of Science, a team of oceanographers outline a polar ocean observation strategy they say will revolutionize scientists’ understanding of marine ecosystem response to climate change.

The approach, which calls for the use of a suite of automated technologies that complement traditional data collection, could serve as a model for marine ecosystems worldwide and help form the foundation for a comprehensive polar ocean observation system.

The complexity of marine food webs and the “chronic under-sampling” of the world’s oceans present major constraints to predicting the future of and optimally managing and protecting marine resources.

“We know more about Venus than we do about the Earth’s oceans,” says Hugh Ducklow, of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. "We need an ocean observation system analogous to meteorological monitoring for weather forecasting, but it’s harder to do in the ocean.”

The document's lead author Oscar Schofield is a professor of marine science and co-director of the Coastal Ocean Observation Laboratory in the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, part of the Rutgers University School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. His co-authors are Ducklow; Douglas G. Martinson, of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; Michael P. Meredith, of the British Antarctic Survey; Mark A. Moline, of the California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo; and William R. Fraser of the Polar Ocean Research Group in Sheridan, Mont., who does most of his work at the National Science Foundation's Palmer Station.

In polar oceans in particular--including the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) where team members conduct research as part of NSF's Long-Term Ecological Research project--high operation costs and harsh conditions restrict the coverage provided by research ships, where much of the data on this ecosystem is collected.

To overcome these hurdles, oceanographers around the world have been developing technologies to complement traditional data collection by research ships. The coordinated use of these technologies will enable sustained observations throughout the year in the polar oceans and could form the foundation for a comprehensive observation strategy the team says.

In their report the scientists, describe a multi-platform approach to ocean observation, where data is collected by a host of automated sources including glider robots that measure ocean characteristics continuously for weeks at a time and tourist vessels, ferries, and other “ships of opportunity” outfitted with chemical and biological sensors.

The authors also encourage the deployment of oceanographic instruments on animals such as elephant seals and penguins to provide information on animal behavior and oceanographic conditions. Recent tagging of Adélie penguins nesting near Palmer Station has helped scientists understand the link between nutrient upwelling and penguin foraging.

“We’re looking for ways to use our existing capabilities to obtain data,” says Ducklow. “Our goal is to make things cheaper and get a lot of them out there. This will help to narrow down uncertainty about the effects of warming on the polar oceans in the coming decades to century.”

Read the rest of the story here.