Berkeley Lab

Berkeley scientists embarked on a 10-day research voyage funded by the National Science Foundation to test robotic floats in studies of the ocean's biological carbon pump, and they brought along a Berkeley Lab science writer to document the trip. Read the daily dispatches to get a sense of what it takes to conduct ocean research off the coast of California, and learn how robots at sea could be used to collect data that will help us better understand climate change.

The Clock is Ticking

time-lapse_screenshot300The time was 5:55 a.m., and I was wondering whether I should wake up Berkeley Lab engineer Tim Loew, who had nodded off at the table in the middle of assembling a polarizer for the robotic float. I wanted to let him sleep long enough for me to reach for my camera, but he woke up before I got the shot. Maybe next time.

The original departure time for the Oceanus was 7 a.m., but that was pushed back yesterday when it became clear that not all parts were ready to go. It was clear weeks ago that things were running behind. Parts broke or didn’t work as expected, special screws needed to be ordered, each sample collection tray required 12 hours in a 3-D printer.
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Setting Sail to Study Ocean Carbon

Berkeley Lab researchers test an earlier version of the robotic float used to measure carbon dynamics in the ocean. The R/V New Horizon is in the background. (Credit: Roy Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab)The countdown has begun. In less than 24 hours, I will be boarding a ship with a team of scientists and engineers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California, Berkeley, as they prepare to set sail on a 10-day voyage to study the ocean’s biological carbon pump.

Leading the 13-member team is biogeochemist Jim Bishop, a faculty senior scientist at Berkeley Lab’s Earth and Environmental Sciences Area and a professor at UC Berkeley’s Department of Earth and Planetary Science.

Bishop notes that much of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is sequestered in the oceans through the actions of microorganisms, but there is much about the process that remains poorly understood. The biological carbon pump operates on time scales of about a week, so detecting changes and disturbances in the cycle would require ongoing monitoring that is currently impractical and cost-prohibitive to do with humans on a ship.

Robotic floats would be ideal for such applications since they could ultimately be left out at sea for months or even a year at a much lower cost. Read More »