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Advancing a solutions-based approach to critical climate problems

2021 WHOI Ocean and Climate Innovation Accelerator (OCIA) Research Awards

With the support of Analog Devices, Inc. (ADI), OCIA awarded grants to five internal proposals in 2021: three Incubation Awards, each providing up to $100,000 in seed funding to support design, exploration, and/or early execution of new, cutting-edge scientific initiatives; and two Acceleration Awards providing up to $300,000 each to expand successful or mature programs of cutting-edge scientific initiatives.

funded projects

OCIA Incubation Awards (up to $100k each)

Develop and deploy a new generation of low-cost carbon and pH sensors to enable cost-effective fishery- and community-based carbon observing networks

Principal Investigators:
Zhaohui Aleck Wang and Jennie Rheuban (Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry), Glen Gawarkiewicz (Physical Oceanography)

Senior Engineer:
Fritz Sonnichsen (Applied Ocean Physics & Engineering)

The problem:
The coastal ocean plays a key role in the global carbon cycle and, hence, the planetary climate system by taking up disproportionate amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide relative to other marine ecosystems and storing it in sediments and coastal vegetation and by exporting dissolved organic and inorganic carbon (DOC and DIC) into deeper waters. But coastal waters and near-shore ecosystems are undergoing significant changes worldwide as a result of human activity that may reduce the ocean’s ability to mitigate climate change or to adapt to predicted future changes. Understanding these changes as a step towards reducing negative human impacts is hampered by a lack of robust, high-quality sensors capable of making meaningful measurements over extended periods of time in an environment as dynamic as the coastal ocean. In addition, deploying large numbers of sensors is an expensive and time-consuming activity.


The solution:
This group aims to develop a prototype of a low-cost, easy-to-produce sensor capable of making high-frequency measurements of such variables as dissolved carbon dioxide (pCO2), pH, and dissolved oxygen (DO) to close this technology gap. They will also work to leverage WHOI’s existing relationships with marine-focused communities and commercial sectors, beginning with the Shelf Research Fleet organized in part by co-PI Gawarkiewicz, to deploy instruments on fishing vessels and other ships of opportunity working in coastal waters of New England and beyond. In addition to forming the foundation of a wirelessly connected, open-access coastal carbon network, it will provide fishers with environmental data to help them operate more efficiently and sustainably. The project will also help place WHOI at the forefront of community-wide efforts to democratize ocean observations and to make data and data collection more accessible by a more diverse group of organizations and individuals.


Accelerate exploration and understanding of carbon’s path through the ocean’s twilight zone: A Continuous Reconnaissance In-situ Twilight zone Tiny Respirometer (CRITTR)

Principal Investigators:
Matthew Long and Benjamin Van Mooy (Marine Chemistry & Geochemistry)

The problem:
Biological activity in the ocean’s mesopelagic, or twilight zone, plays an important role in controlling the transport of heat-trapping carbon from the atmosphere and surface waters into the deeper ocean. The depth (roughly 200 to 1000 meters below the surface) and extent (about two-thirds of Earth’s surface), as well as the complexity and patchiness of biological processes spread across such a large volume of the ocean, have contributed to a lack of detailed understanding and long-term measurements of carbon transport and storage in the region. This has hindered scientists’ ability to accurately model this critical part of Earth’s climate system.

The solution:
To close these gaps in resolution and accuracy of measurements in the ocean’s mesopelagic region, this project will build on the PIs’ experience with in-situ incubators to develop a low-cost, low-power CRITTR that will make direct measurements of biological uptake of carbon in the twilight zone. These next-generation instruments will be designed to incorporate commercially available components and to operate on existing moorings, gliders, floats, and other autonomous platforms. Eventual mass production CRITTRs will create a widely distributed fleet capable of making ocean carbon flux measurements distributed over time and throughout the ocean’s volume without the need for complex, costly ship-based expeditions. Ultimately, this data will greatly expand understanding of ocean carbon cycling and transform efforts to predict the future of Earth’s climate system.


A zero-power-return buoyancy engine for long-term ocean observations

Principal Investigators:
Paul Fucile and Robert Todd (Physical Oceanography)

The problem:
Understanding the global carbon cycle depends on long-term, global-scale observations of biogeochemical processes from the surface to the deep ocean that govern the movement of carbon around the globe. This is a task well-suited to an autonomous profiler such as the fleet of more than 3,000 Argo floats in operation at any given time, driven by variable-ballast engines. But even these workhorses of modern oceanography are limited by the battery power they carry, which often constricts their profiling frequency to once every ten days—a period that can miss critical phenomena such as the spring phytoplankton bloom. In addition, existing variable-ballast systems operate in a manner such that a loss of power at depth often results in a loss of the vehicle as it is unable pump against the pressure of the ocean to return to the surface.

The solution:
BEAM (Biology, Electronics, Aesthetics, and Mechanics) is a class of robotics that typically incorporates analog elements to enable unusually simple designs that are robust, efficient, and that facilitate the robot's response to its working environment. This engineer-scientist team with long experience designing and operating low-power autonomous gliders aims to develop a new variable-ballast engine based on BEAM principals that will address some operational limits of existing designs. A primary tenant of BEAM designs is the ability to supplement power supply demands by way of environmental energy harvesting. This new platform will support wave or solar energy intake while the robot is at the surface to enable a degree of “self-healing” that will allow extending mission life cycles. In addition, a key feature of this design will be a near-zero-power return capability in which a near- or total loss of the primary power source will enable the instrument to ascend to the surface.


OCIA Acceleration Awards (up to $300k each)

Revealing the impacts of oceanic iron on biological productivity and atmospheric carbon dioxide removal with stable isotopes

Principal Investigators:
Tristan J. Horner and Mak. A. Saito (Marine Chemistry & Geochemistry)

The problem:
Marine phytoplankton spread across wide areas of surface waters naturally convert large amounts of dissolved carbon dioxide into organic carbon and oxygen via photosynthesis, but phytoplankton growth in many parts of the ocean is limited by the availability of the micronutrient iron. As a result, ocean iron fertilization has been discussed as a potential method of enhancing atmospheric carbon dioxide removal. Despite significant research on this topic in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, previous experiments on the feasibility of the idea identified a number of uncertainties that prevent accurate estimates of carbon removal in response to iron availability. Specifically, it proved challenging to account for modifications to iron quotas by phytoplankton physiology, to predict limitations placed by other nutrients, and to quantify new biomass production in response to iron.

The solution:
To better measure the response of phytoplankton to iron, this team proposes an innovative solution employing stable isotopes of iron and to leverage an upcoming research expedition to the eastern Tropical Pacific in 2022. Specifically, the PIs intend to conduct controlled, enclosed shipboard laboratory incubation experiments using iron-57 as a marker to trace the incorporation of iron within phytoplankton communities. Because much of the iron in these experiments will come from the marker isotope, it will be possible to attribute and track resultant growth directly based on the iron isotope ratio in the resulting biomass. This will provide an important step toward a quantitative accounting of iron’s influence on biogeochemical processes by focusing on the fate of iron within complex marine systems.

Direct measurement of air-sea carbon dioxide exchange and whitecap activity over the coastal and open ocean

Principal Investigators:
James Edson and Seth Zippel (Applied Ocean Physics & Engineering)

The problem:
The exchange of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and ocean surface is an essential, but under-appreciated, component of the carbon cycle, one that must be better understood as a first step towards viable atmospheric carbon dioxide removal strategies and a “net zero” carbon emission pathway. However, the natural exchange of carbon across the air-sea interface is governed by many small-scale, widely distributed processes, including molecular, turbulent, and bubble-mediated exchange, that are not accounted for in coupled ocean-atmosphere models. The exchange of atmospheric carbon dioxide is also a vital component of the biological and solubility pumps that naturally sequester carbon in the deep ocean and seafloor for centuries or more. Despite the importance of carbon dioxide exchange, direct measurements remain challenging due to its small signal-to-noise ratio over the open ocean. The scientific community has made it clear that without accurate measurements of air-sea carbon dioxide exchange and its drivers, this vital part of the Earth system will remain inadequately represented in climate forecasts and mitigation planning.

The solution:
This team intends to accelerate the development of more sophisticated measurements of air-sea carbon dioxide exchange to enable standardized and minimally supervised use on research vessels or other vessels of opportunity. To do so, they will combine high-quality, continuous carbon dioxide flux measurements with concurrent measurements of wind stress, wave breaking, solubility, and carbon dioxide disequilibrium between the ocean and atmosphere (ΔpCO2) to improve model parameterizations and climate forecasts. Central to these efforts is a closed-path carbon dioxide gas analyzer, which will address the problem of water vapor contamination that causes errors in many commonly used systems. These high-fidelity flux measurements will be augmented by a novel whitecap camera that leverages advancements in machine vision hardware to produce real-time image analysis of bubbles at the air-sea interface. When combined with direct measurements of carbon flux, this whitecap data will prove invaluable in parsing the bubble-mediated transfer processes from purely wind-driven gas transfer, which will lead to more accurate measurements, parameterizations, and predictions of air-sea carbon dioxide transfer on a global scale. Ultimately, the acceleration of these critical, real-time sensing technologies will play an important role in the ability of a “networked ocean” to accurately monitor and predict a key component of the global carbon cycle.

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“Through OCIA, we are committed to engaging ADI’s engineers and technologies to advance knowledge of the oceans, in order to gain a better understanding of how oceans are impacted by climate change and to develop solutions to restore ocean health. By doing so, we hope to drive meaningful impact on the global fight against climate change.”

- Vincent Roche, ADI

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