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Pushing the boundaries of research at NOAA in the ocean

Pushing the boundaries of research at NOAA in the ocean

Part two of a two-part series on innovative and emerging projects supported by NOAA Oceanic and Atmospheric Research

Thursday, February 4, 2016

by Caroline Mosley (NOAA Research Communications)

Taking risks is a necessary part of advancing science. NOAA recognizes the need to invest in these emerging research areas and recently supported several inventive and high-risk projects. In 2013, leadership at NOAA Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) recognized the importance of early-stage, high-risk research and sought project proposals that would be led by OAR and involve collaboration between at least two labs and/or programs.

Nearly two years later, four of these projects are providing great rewards for the initial investment, with many generating new partnerships and creating opportunities for longer term projects that help NOAA better research everything from the atmosphere and ocean, to the weather and climate.

"There is a need to support appropriate high-risk projects at NOAA so we can explore new approaches and technologies that have the potential to transform NOAA's products and services, our understanding of issues and the way NOAA conducts its work."said Steve Fine, Ph.D., OAR deputy assistant administrator for laboratories and cooperative institutes.

Two projects supported by OAR seek to improve NOAA’s fisheries management through global climate prediction systems and enhance how scientists measure ocean chemistry at great depths.

Managing Marine Resources Using Climate Predictions

Ocean health depends on sound management of marine resources. But managing these resources is often easier said than done, and climate change only increases the challenge of understanding the long-term effects of changes in the ocean on marine life’s biology and chemistry. Many marine management decisions are made on shorter timescales, with the effects of climate change often masked by year-to-year climate fluctuations. Fisheries are very sensitive to this environmental variability, and NOAA scientists realized that in order to improve fisheries management, climate predictions at appropriate time scales need to be incorporated into the management framework.

Bluefine tuna

Bluefine tuna

(Credit: NOAA)

Support from OAR and NOAA Fisheries Office of Science and Technology (S&T) brought together scientists with different backgrounds from across NOAA to brainstorm how novel global climate prediction systems can be used to anticipate changes in marine ecosystems and be used to better manage fisheries.

This undertaking required several steps. First, scientists assessed exactly what ecosystem-relevant physical climate variables, such as ocean temperatures, can be accurately predicted in coastal areas with current models. Scientists at NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) and National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) had already made strides in predicting certain ecosystem variables on a seasonal scale, such as predicting changes in temperature due to El Niño. Next, climate scientists worked closely with fisheries scientists in a multi-day workshop in June 2015 to discuss how best to use climate prediction models for marine resource management.

Sardines schooling

Sardines schooling

Sardines schooling around kelp in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. (Credit: Robert Schwemmer, NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries)

“The goal of this work is to help us be more effective in managing resources.” said Charles Stock, Ph.D., a research oceanographer and modeler at GFDL and project lead. “We’re working to use short-term climate forecasts to help fishermen catch more fish while protecting the marine environment.”

In the coming year, scientists will continue to collaborate and look at case studies to best find where climate prediction can be used in the fisheries management process. Case studies on fisheries such as bluefin tuna and sardines will allow scientists to come up with potential guidelines to help marine resource managers make better informed decisions to preserve the ocean.

Prowling the Ocean Depths

Conducting research in the expanse of an ocean is a difficult task. Often scientists only capture a snapshot of what’s happening in the water at any given time. NOAA uses stationary moorings anchored throughout the world’s oceans to better understand the ocean’s biogeochemistry and how it is linked to carbon cycling. But these stationary moorings provide only part of a picture.

The PRAWLER

The PRAWLER

Recovery of the PRAWLER in Puget Sound, WA. (Credit NOAA/PMEL)

With support from OAR headquarters, scientists were able to kickstart the idea of a PRAWLER (a Profiler + Crawler) that would ‘prowl’ up and down the mooring line in the water to get more comprehensive measurements of the ocean’s chemistry. Scientists at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) had been thinking of an instrument package that would use these moorings to capture a more complete picture of ocean biogeochemistry, especially with respect to the flux of carbon dioxide between the ocean and atmosphere. This flux is critical to understanding the role of the ocean in the global carbon cycle and its impact on climate change and ocean acidification.

For the PRAWLER, scientists combined existing sensors with newly developed sensor packages that would offer better estimates of carbon in the ocean. The instrument uses wave energy to climb up mooring lines and can ‘park’ at specific depths in the water column or make a continuous profile.

Loading the ship

Loading the ship

Loading the PRAWLER on the USCGC HEALY with the mooring in July 2015 (Credit: NOAA/PMEL)

“Like with any ambitious project, there were difficulties, but we were able develop a robust instrument,” said Chris Meinig, director of engineering at PMEL and the project lead.

The instrument provides high-quality, low-cost observations using existing mooring lines while ‘prowling’ down around five football fields, or 500 meters, into the depths of the ocean. The PRAWLER is also energy efficient, using less than 1/100th of the power of an underwater glider profile for 500 meter depths.

The PRAWLER has also shown its durability, from the frigid waters of the Chukchi Sea near Alaska to the balmy waves of the Gulf of Mexico. In 2015, the PRAWLER was deployed in the Puget Sound and successfully made thousands of profiles. For the coming year, NOAA is participating in NASA’s SPURS-2 project with two PRAWLER deployments in the eastern tropical Pacific to look at salinity differences in the upper ocean to improve basic understanding of the water cycle over oceans and how it ties into climate.

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