AP

An ocean first: Underwater drone tracks CO2 in Alaska gulf

May 25, 2022, 8:06 AM | Updated: Jun 1, 2022, 12:07 pm

This May 4, 2022, photo shows oceanographers Andrew McDonnell, left, and Claudine Hauri, middle, al...

This May 4, 2022, photo shows oceanographers Andrew McDonnell, left, and Claudine Hauri, middle, along with engineer Joran Kemme after an underwater glider was pulled aboard the University of Alaska Fairbanks research vessel Nanuq from the Gulf of Alaska. The glider was fitted with special sensors to study ocean acidification. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

(AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

SEWARD, Alaska (AP) — In the cold, choppy waters of Alaska’s Resurrection Bay, all eyes were on the gray water, looking for one thing only.

It wasn’t a spout from humpback whales that power through this scenic fjord, or a sea otter lazing on its back, munching a king crab.

Instead, everyone aboard the Nanuq, a University of Alaska Fairbanks research vessel, was looking where a 5-foot (1.52-meter) long, bright pink underwater sea glider surfaced.

The glider — believed to be the first configured with a large sensor to measure carbon dioxide levels in the ocean — had just completed its first overnight mission.

Designed to dive 3,281 feet (1,000 meters) and roam remote parts of the ocean, the autonomous vehicle was deployed in the Gulf of Alaska this spring to provide a deeper understanding of the ocean’s chemistry in the era of climate change. The research could be a major step forward in ocean greenhouse gas monitoring, because until now, measuring CO2 concentrations — a quantifier of ocean acidification — was mostly done from ships, buoys and moorings tethered to the ocean floor.

“Ocean acidification is a process by which humans are emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through their activities of burning fossil fuels and changing land use,” said Andrew McDonnell, an oceanographer with the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks

Oceans have done humans a huge favor by taking in some of the C02. Otherwise, there would be much more in the atmosphere, trapping the sun’s heat and warming the Earth.

“But the problem is now that the ocean is changing its chemistry because of this uptake,” said Claudine Hauri, an oceanographer with the International Arctic Research Center at the university.

The enormous amount of data collected is being used to study ocean acidification that can harm and kill certain marine life.

Rising acidity of the oceans is affecting some marine organisms that build shells. This process could kill or make an organism more susceptible to predators.

Over several weeks this spring, Hauri and McDonnell, who are married, worked with engineers from Cyprus Subsea Consulting and Services, which provided the underwater glider, and 4H-Jena, a German company that provided the sensor inserted into the drone.

Most days, researchers took the glider farther and farther into Resurrection Bay from the coastal community of Seward to conduct tests.

After its first nighttime mission, a crew member spotted it bobbing in the water, and the Nanuq — the Inupiat word for polar bear — backed up to let people pull the 130-pound (59-kilogram) glider onto the ship. Then the sensor was removed from the drone and rushed into the ship’s cabin to upload its data.

Think of the foot-tall (0.30-meter) sensor with a diameter of 6 inches (15.24 centimeters) as a laboratory in a tube, with pumps, valves and membranes moving to separate the gas from seawater. It analyzes CO2 and it logs and stores the data inside a temperature-controlled system. Many of these sensor components use battery power.

Since it’s the industry standard, the sensor is the same as found on any ship or lab working with CO2 measurements.

Hauri said using this was “a huge step to be able to accommodate such a big and power hungry sensor, so that’s special about this project.”

“I think she is one of the first persons to actually utilize (gliders) to measure CO2 directly, so that’s very, very exciting,” said Richard Feely, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s senior scientist at the agency’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. He said Hauri was a graduate student in 2007 when she accompanied him on the first acidification cruise he ever led.

The challenge, Feely said, is to make the measurements on a glider with the same degree of accuracy and precision as tests on board ships.

“We need to get confidence in our measurements and confidence in our models if we are going to make important scientific statements about how the oceans are changing over time and how it’s going to impact our important economic systems that are dependent on the food from the sea,” he said, noting that acidification impacts are already seen in the Pacific Northwest on oysters, Dungeness crabs and other species.

Researchers in Canada had previously attached a smaller, prototype CO2 sensor to an underwater drone in the Labrador Sea but found it did not yet meet the targets for ocean acidification observations.

“The tests showed that the glider sensor worked in a remote-harsh environment but needed more development,” Nicolai von Oppeln-Bronikowski, the Glider Program Manager with the Ocean Frontier Institute at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said in an email.

The two teams are “just using two different types of sensors to solve the same issue, and it’s always good to have two different options,” Hauri said.

There is no GPS unit inside the underwater autonomous drone. Instead, after being programmed, it heads out on its own to cruise the ocean according to the navigation directions — knowing how far to go down in the water column, when to sample, and when to surface and send a locator signal so it can be retrieved.

As the drone tests were underway, the U.S. research vessel Sikuliaq, owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by the university, conducted its own two-week mission in the gulf to take carbon and pH samples as part of ongoing work each spring, summer and fall.

Those methods are limited to collecting samples from a fixed point while the glider will be able to roam all over the ocean and provide researchers with a wealth of data on the ocean’s chemical makeup.

The vision is to one day have a fleet of robotic gliders operating in oceans across the globe, providing a real-time glimpse of current conditions and a way to better predict the future.

“We can … understand much more about what’s going on in the ocean than we have been before,” McDonnell said.

___

More Associated Press climate change stories can be found here.

___

Follow Mark Thiessen on Twitter: @mthiessen

___

Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Houston storms cause widespread damage on Friday...

Associated Press

Some in Houston facing no power for weeks after storms cause widespread damage, killing at least 4

Houston storms cause widespread damage on Friday, May 17. Thunderstorms hit the southeastern part of Texas, killing at least four people.

6 hours ago

Man gets 30 years in prison for attacking ex-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband with a hammer...

Associated Press

Man gets 30 years in prison for attacking ex-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband with a hammer

A man has been sentenced to 30 years in prison for attacking the husband of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with a hammer.

7 hours ago

audio from President Joe Biden’s interview about classified documents blocked...

Associated Press

GOP advances Garland contempt charges after White House exerts executive privilege over Biden audio

The move to release audio from President Joe Biden’s interview about classified documents was blocked on Thursday by the White House.

1 day ago

Asylum processing for new migrants: Changes could come soon...

Associated Press

The Biden administration is planning more changes to quicken asylum processing for new migrants

The Biden administration is planning to quicken the asylum processing for new migrants as an interim step rather than an executive order.

2 days ago

Record-setting rally for U.S. stocks reflects inflation slowing down...

Associated Press

Stock market today: Asian shares advance after another round of Wall St records

The S&P 500 jumped 1.2% to top its prior high set a month and a half ago. This move reflects a record-setting rally for U.S. stocks.

2 days ago

This combo image shows President Joe Biden, left, Jan. 5, 2024, and Republican presidential candida...

Associated Press

Biden and Trump agree to hold presidential debates in June and in September

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have agreed to hold two campaign debates, on June 27 hosted by CNN and on Sept. 10 hosted by ABC.

2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Beat the heat, ensure your AC unit is summer-ready

With temperatures starting to rise across the Valley, now is a great time to be sure your AC unit is ready to withstand the sweltering summer heat.

...

DESERT INSTITUTE FOR SPINE CARE

Desert Institute for Spine Care is the place for weekend warriors to fix their back pain

Spring has sprung and nothing is better than March in Arizona. The temperatures are perfect and with the beautiful weather, Arizona has become a hotbed for hikers, runners, golfers, pickleball players and all types of weekend warriors.

...

COLLINS COMFORT MASTERS

Here are 5 things Arizona residents need to know about their HVAC system

It's warming back up in the Valley, which means it's time to think about your air conditioning system's preparedness for summer.

An ocean first: Underwater drone tracks CO2 in Alaska gulf