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U. to receive part of $53 million NSF grant for development of ocean health-monitoring robots

<p>Researchers submerge a single SOCCOM robotic float into the Southern Ocean. Several floats constitute an array that communicates collected biogeochemical data with satellites that hover over the Southern Ocean. Courtesy of SOCCOM Project, Princeton University</p>

Researchers submerge a single SOCCOM robotic float into the Southern Ocean. Several floats constitute an array that communicates collected biogeochemical data with satellites that hover over the Southern Ocean. Courtesy of SOCCOM Project, Princeton University

Princeton University has been named among one of several institutions to receive a $53 million grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF). On Oct. 29, the grant was formally awarded to a consortium of scientists at five institutions — Princeton University, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), University of Washington, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution — to subsidize the construction and deployment of 500 robotic floats for monitoring ocean health.

The project builds off of the work of the Princeton Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling (SOCCOM) Project, which is located at the University and overseen by the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. Its mission is “to drive a transformative shift in the scientific and public understanding of the role of the vast Southern Ocean in climate change and biogeochemistry.”

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The new fleet of Global Ocean Biogeochemistry (GO-BGC) robotic floats has been designed to monitor the biological and chemical properties of the Southern Ocean environment. The GO-BGC  floats will survey the depths of the ocean up to 2,000 meters from the surface to quantify the salinity, temperature, depth, pH, oxygen concentration, nitrate, chlorophyll, sunlight, and microscopic water particles of this multifaceted aquatic ecosystem.

Since 2014, the SOCCOM Project has relied on nearly 200 floats that exclusively monitor the salinity, temperature, depth, and certain biochemical features of the ocean environment. The novel GO-BGC floats expands upon these capabilities and offers an unprecedented opportunity to examine the dynamic elements of the ocean as this environment continues to adversely respond to the impacts of climate change.

Furthermore, the GO-BGC floats will be more widely dispersed, such that their population density will be smaller relative to that of the fleets currently monitoring ocean health.

Jorge Sarmiento, the George J. Magee Professor Emeritus of Geoscience and Geological Engineering and the director of the SOCCOM Project, noted in an email to The Daily Princetonian that the fleet of GO-BGC floats will be able to document changes in the ocean environment in real time and explained that the capabilities of the robotic fleets surpass those of other biogeochemical ocean-monitoring technologies.

“Traditional ship-based technology makes possible only the most coarse-grained decadal timescale observations of these changes, and vast swaths of the ocean have never been studied, especially in the winter,” he wrote.

In contrast, the GO-BGC floats are capable of unilaterally amassing information pertaining to the different elements of the Southern Ocean environment for more than five years at a time, regardless of season. 

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Sarmiento added that, for the first time, the GO-BGC floats will be capable of detecting “changes in nutrient supply that impact biological activity, changes in photosynthesis that can diminish the productivity of fisheries, and changes in the habitats of marine ecosystems in response to climate warming, ocean acidification, and deoxygenation/oxygen loss.” 

In addition, the floats will quantify global carbon dioxide uptake on a monthly basis with a precision unmatched by current ocean-monitoring fleets.

The Princeton SOCCOM Project will work in conjunction with scientists at the four other institutions that have also received the NSF grant to construct and deploy the GO-BGC fleets. Specifically, participants at the University have been tasked with substantial roles in the float design, project management, and the integrity of the global computer models that convey the data accrued by each robotic float.

Currently, the SOCCOM Project’s live robotic float data can be accessed online and has served as the basis for countless research papers and publications regarding ocean biogeochemistry and its fluctuations due to climate change. 

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The SOCCOM Project additionally oversees a program known as “Adopt-A-Float” that serves to enhance elementary and secondary school students’ understanding of the biogeochemical features of the Southern Ocean environment by allowing classrooms around the world to collectively “adopt'' a float and track its progress in coordination with paired SOCCOM scientists. 

With the eventual deployment of the GO-BGC floats, the SOCCOM Project plans to expand this program to allow high school and college students to make use of the unique opportunities from adopting one of the many floats gathering insightful data about ocean health.

Regarding the projected finalization date of the GO-BGC floats, Sarmiento wrote that “the project will build up the full 500-float observing system over five years, but each float will be operational and ready to broadcast data as soon as it is launched and starts its profiling mission.”

He wrote that “[through] these new observations, a global biogeochemical float-based monitoring system would enable a transformative leap in our understanding of the role of the ocean in climate change, the global carbon cycle and marine life.”

A previously published version of this article contained several factual inaccuracies and has since been updated. The Prince regrets these errors.

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