UW receives $23.5M grant to build and deploy fleet of robotic ocean-monitoring floats

UW oceanography professor Stephen Riser, left, and a colleague drop a float in the Southern Ocean in 2017 in order to collect chemical, physical and biological observations as part of the SOCCOM Project. (SOCCOM Photo)

The University of Washington is receiving a large chunk of a massive new grant from the National Science Foundation to build and deploy robotic ocean-monitoring floats to be distributed around the globe. The instruments will help scientists monitor the chemistry and biology of the world’s oceans for decades.

The NSF approved a $53 million, five-year grant on Thursday for a consortium of oceanographic institutions. About $20.5 million goes to the UW to build and deploy 300 of the 500 total floats, with another $3 million for maintenance.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI); Scripps Institution of Oceanography; the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; and Princeton University are part of the effort along with the UW.

“This will be one of the largest awards that NSF has ever given in ocean sciences,” said Stephen Riser, a UW professor of oceanography. “It will allow us to create and deploy an ocean observing system that will operate for decades and will influence our ideas about the carbon cycle, in the same way that the basic Argo program has helped our understanding of the physics of ocean circulation.”

The floating ocean sensors can control their buoyancy to change their position. They spend most of the time at 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) depth, then occasionally drop to 2 kilometers (1.24 miles) depth and then rise to the surface to transmit data to computers on shore. (MBARI Graphic / Kim Fulton-Bennett)

The network of floats, called the Global Ocean Biogeochemistry Array, or GO-BGC Array, will collect observations of ocean chemistry and biology from the surface to a depth of 2 kilometers, or 1.24 miles, according to UW News. When the floats rise every nine days to the surface they will transmit data that will be made freely available to the public within a day of being collected for use by researchers, educators and policymakers around the world.

The floats will help scientists monitor carbon, oxygen and nitrate in the ocean through all seasons and will improve computer models of ocean fisheries and climate. They also will monitor and forecast the effects of ocean warming and ocean acidification on sea life.

UW oceanography professor Stephen Riser, top left, in his lab with oceanography students and a disassembled model of a SOCCOM ocean-monitoring float. (UW Photo / Dennis Wise)

Scientists can use satellites and research vessels to monitor oceans, but data-collection is limited as is time at sea, leaving large regions of the Earth’s oceans unvisited for decades. A single robotic float costs the same as two days at sea on a research ship and can collect data autonomously for over five years, in all seasons.

“These observations will provide an unprecedented global view of ocean processes that determine carbon cycling, ocean acidification, deoxygenation and biological productivity — all of which have a critical impact on marine ecosystems and the climate of our planet,” said Alison Gray, a UW assistant professor of oceanography.

The new GO-BGC floats are similar to floats deployed since 2014 by the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling (SOCCOM) program.

A broad public outreach program is planned to engage scientists, educators and students, including the expansion of an existing SOCCOM Adopt-A-Float program for elementary- to college-level classes.

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