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Never Missing an Opportunity, Ship of Opportunity That Is, to Collect Carbon Dioxide Data
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Never Missing an Opportunity, Ship of Opportunity That Is, to Collect Carbon Dioxide Data

By Bonnie Myers NOAA Research Office of Communications

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words carbon dioxide? Is it the ocean? In this day and age, it should be. The ocean absorbs about one fourth of the extra carbon dioxide in the air that is released through human activity, according to a researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide can have negative effects on ocean habitat and sea life due in part to ocean acidification—changes in ocean chemistry as a result of carbon dioxide absorption. To better study and understand these changes, scientists must monitor levels of carbon dioxide in seawater. However, collecting data hundreds of miles off the coast in the middle of the ocean is a daunting task.

“Observations of carbon dioxide data in the oceans are essential for the development of algorithms and techniques that monitor and model ocean acidification,” said Dr. Ruben van Hooidonk, Postdoctoral Researcher with University of Miami’s Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies (CIMAS).

A team of researchers with NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) are one component of a global effort to monitor and measure carbon dioxide in the ocean to study the global carbon cycle among carbon stored in the land, air, and seawater.

Collecting data out at sea can be expensive and time consuming. To counteract the costs, AOML is part of an initiative called the Ship of Opportunity Program. The Ship of Opportunity program is an economically efficient way to increase carbon dioxide monitoring in different parts of the ocean, according to Dr. Denis Pierrot, Associate Researcher from CIMAS with the Carbon Group and the lead of the Ship of Opportunity Program at AOML. Pierrot recruits private industry and academic institutions to voluntarily host an automated system that records carbon dioxide data on their ships.

Since 1997, AOML’s Ocean Chemistry and Ecosystems Division Carbon Group has installed, maintained, and collected data aboard ships of opportunity using an automated system, called a pCO2 system. These systems measure the difference between the partial pressure of carbon dioxide (pCO2) in the air and seawater, which reveals the amount of carbon dioxide being absorbed in a particular area, noted Robert Castle with the Carbon Group. Scientists seek to identify areas in the ocean that absorb higher levels of carbon dioxide, referred to as sinks, to better understand the global carbon cycle.

Currently, the Carbon Group manages five pCO2 systems on NOAA and industry vessels. The group has installed instruments on 17 ships total over 17 years including NOAA-commissioned ships like the Ronald H. Brown, as well as private industry cargo ships, university research vessels, and even a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. 

At any given time the group can manage instruments on one to seven ships, as ships get decommissioned and the instruments must be removed. Pierrot is always scouting new companies and institutions willing to participate in the program, because the more instruments out on the ocean, the more data the team can collect. According to Pierrot, everyone uses the data from ocean acidification scientists to climate researchers.

“I have been using AOML's pCO2 data for over 10 years in my research. This data set is extremely valuable for me to define boundary conditions and identify CO2 sources and sinks in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea in two of my published peer-reviewed articles,” said Dr. Aleck Wang, Associate Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. 

Ultimately, the Carbon Group wants to provide the most up-to-date and accurate carbon dioxide data from the North Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and beyond to researchers like Wang.

Every day the systems transmit carbon dioxide data via satellite back to the Carbon Group, which then provides the real-time data on their website. “The most important thing about this project is that people have access to the data and that the data is timely,” said Betty Huss, who is in charge of maintaining and managing the Carbon Group’s website. 

“From a societal standpoint there [will be] great value in the pCO2 measuring system for quite a while,” said Kevin Sullivan, Senior Research Associate with AOML and CIMAS, Monitoring won’t ever be unnecessary,” and neither will the ships that make the data collection possible.

The Ship of Opportunity Program is a part of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS).  Similar to AOML, NOAA’s PMEL Carbon Program team manages pCO2 systems aboard vessels through the Volunteer Observing Ship program, another component of the GOOS. The main goal of the GOOS is to place scientific instruments aboard industry cargo ships and research vessels to collect oceanographic data around the world.




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Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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