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A fleet of high-tech mini-labs that can perform chemistry experiments at extreme depths. Sensors that hitch a ride on fishing gear to gather real-time information about environmental conditions in shellfish and lobster habitats. Innovative ship-based lab techniques to measure iron uptake in phytoplankton communities. A water vapor-filtering device that combines with a "smart" camera to create an accurate picture of how carbon dioxide is exchanged between the air and sea surface.
These futuristic instruments each have specific goals, but they have one thing in common: they will enable more precise estimates of the causes and impacts of global climate change. It's all part of an effort to advance knowledge at the intersection of oceans and climate, formally known as the Ocean Climate Innovation Accelerator (OCIA). Launched in April 2021 by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and Massachusetts-based semiconductor company Analog Devices, Inc. (ADI), these five projects were the first to benefit from nearly $1 million in funding. ADI has committed to a total of $3 million in "incubator" and "accelerator" grants through 2024.
"This consortium will bring a diversity of thought, skills, and expertise to our shared challenge of the climate crisis," says ADI chief technology officer Dan Leibholz. "What makes the OCIA unique is that it's drawing attention to the important role the ocean plays in climate change and is seeking members from different industries and sectors to bring together their expertise, resources, and voice to deliver meaningful impact."
In the glass-windowed beehive of innovation that is WHOI's AVAST technology hub, these big-picture ideas are beginning to take form. Settling into a 3D printer workstation, WHOI associate scientist Matt Long and MIT-WHOI joint program student Solomon Chen pore over plans for an underwater incubator that can measure changes in carbon concentration over time. Placed on moorings or underwater vehicles, the soda bottle-sized Continuous Reconnaissance In-situ Twilight zone Tiny Respirometer (CRITTR) is essentially an autonomous lab capable of measuring carbon flux at twilight zone depths of up to 1,000 meters (3,280 feet). It can also collect a variety of oceanographic data, including dissolved oxygen, temperature, and light levels.
In a way, this idea is not new: Long and his marine chemistry and geochemistry colleague Ben Van Mooy have developed similar instruments for studying coastal and deep water, respectively. But over the past year, they combined forces to develop a nimble, cost-effective instrument that would work in any underwater environment. With a $100,000 "incubation" grant through OCIA, their daydream is set to become a reality by this summer.
Deployed across a wide area, the long-term in-situ data gathered by a fleet of CRITTRs may lead to better estimates of carbon exchange between the surface ocean and depths. Figuring out this crucial, yet still-fuzzy, piece of the ocean carbon cycle would vastly improve climate models-and validate carbon dioxide removal (CDR) efforts, says Van Mooy.
"We need to accelerate our ability to observe the ocean and climate change in light of CDR," says Van Mooy. "If there are carbon dioxide removal efforts in the ocean, this instrument will be absolutely key to that."
With its small and modular design, Long says CRITTR may be adapted to measure a variety of changes, from carbon turnover in the deep ocean to phytoplankton dynamics at the surface. An array of ultra-violet LED lights reflecting off every Teflon-coated surface will withstand the assault of microbes-known as biofouling-that plague most underwater sensors, he adds.
"We're on to the fifth generation of this sensor, so we know all the ins and outs and all the applications and pitfalls," says Long. "This funding gives us a leap forward to answer different science questions."
Another OCIA-funded sensor will monitor ocean acidification and low-oxygen zones in coastal fishing grounds. Working with WHOI senior engineer Fritz Sonnichsen, WHOI marine chemists Zhaohui "Aleck" Wang and Jennie Rheuban, and physical oceanographer Glen Gawarkiewicz, are designing a pH sensor that's more robust, faster, and user-friendly-while also much less expensive-than current off-the-shelf technologies.
Wang says that OCIA funding fosters the innovation needed to bring the technology to scale. "The crucial thing about this seed money is that it gives us leverage to demonstrate that we can do it," says Wang, who anticipates that mass production could bring costs down to less than $1,000. "If we can do a good job with the prototype, we may be able to commercialize the technology."
Working with the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation Shelf Research Fleet to deploy the sensors on fishing gear, Wang, Rheuban and Gawarkiewicz envision building a "coastal carbon observing network" to fill gaps in scientists' understanding of how changes in ocean chemistry affect fisheries. They first plan to target lobster and sea scallops-the two most valuable fisheries in the United States-off the Northeast Continental Shelf, and eventually expand the network to national and international scales. This kind of collaborative research makes sense for both scientists and fishermen, says Wang. Fishermen can use the sensors to test bottom water chemistry before setting their traps or deploying a dredge. Outfitted with WiFi or Bluetooth, the sensor will allow anyone with an Internet connection to monitor the chemistry of water along the continental shelf in near real-time.
"This is a time of incredibly rapid change," says Rheuban. "This project tries to fill a major data gap in trying to understand the reasons for and implications of that change so we can assess the health of these systems and the potential impact on our natural resources."