NOAA Plans for Expanded Network of Ocean CO2 Monitors

Thomas Schueneman

NOAA is expanding its network of ocean and atmospheric CO2 monitors on remote mooring stations at sea.

Since they soak up as much as one quarter of all carbon annually emitted by humans the world's oceans are often characterized as a carbon "sponge."

Earth: Oceans and Sky

But the changing climate may be altering the ocean's ability to absorb carbon, and monitoring that change is one of the tasks of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Changing ocean temperatures, wind, and circulation patterns all effect the ocean's ability to act as a carbon sink, and understanding those changes is an important element in better understanding global climate change. Chris Sabine, an oceanographer for NOAA, explains: "We need to understand what's going on with the oceans to know if that's (carbon sink) going to change."

To help with that understanding, Sabine has 18 CO2 monitors fitted to moorings in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, each able to measure ocean and atmospheric CO2 levels. But Sabine and his colleagues at NOAA need more of those monitoring devices, up to 50 or 60 networked across the globe, to "contribute to NOAA's growing climate observation system."

The technology for the CO2 monitors was first developed in the 1990's at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and transferred to NOAA for deployment. Despite interest among independent scientists, Sabine has been unable to sell the devices commercially, one consequence of which being that Sabine must produce each device on his own, making the task of deploying a network of up to 60 monitors daunting - until now.

To the rescue comes Batelle, a non-profit research and development firm that is teaming up with NOAA and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute to manufacture the devices commercially from its Dublin, Ohio manufacturing facility.

The project is off to a promising start, with the first production run of 20 devices already sold out. Spencer Pugh, Battelle's manager for the project, expects to sell several hundred more to NOAA and other scientists researching the rapid changes occurring in the world's oceans.

The monitoring device relays real-time data via satellite to shoreside research stations, operating remotely for up to a year before requiring a new battery. The ability to continuously monitor specific areas enables researchers to capture short term trends of weeks or even days. Such detail isn't generally possible with the usual method of CO2 monitoring aboard commercial and scientific ships, limited as they are of the time they can spend in one area. "Someone can deploy it in their favorite body of water and remotely keep track of what's happening there," said Pugh.

Future instrumentation developments for the mooring stations include measuring ocean acidity, providing an even more complete picture of ocean conditions and the degree to which climate change is impacting its health.

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