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Citizen Scientists Can Help Save the Oceans While Sailing the Seas

Researchers want to attach cheap sensors to sailboats and other vessels to collect data on the impact of climate change on the world's oceans.
Sep 10, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired, Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

The ocean is vast—so huge that scientists struggle to collect adequate amounts of data on its health, even with the aid of satellites, autonomous robots, and networked buoys.

Now scientists are proposing a simple solution to the data-gathering challenges on the seven seas: Ask sailors for help.

That would mean attaching cheap sampling instruments to sailboats, yachts, or cargo vessels. The data collected would help scientists craft more accurate climate change computer models, make more precise weather forecasts, or even find planes lost at sea.

“Our idea is to take the cheap instrumentation that’s already available and put them on sailboats that are already going out into the ocean,” said Joseph Grzymski, an associate research professor of computational biology and microbiology at Nevada's Desert Research Institute and coauthor of a paper published in the journal PLOS Biology.

Grzymski said that most oceanographic research happens in the top 330 feet of the ocean, which is the most biologically dynamic part of the sea and also has the most contact with the atmosphere.

Scientific research vessels carry complex machines to take deep samples and analyze them in real time, but such ships can cost about $30,000 a day to operate. Still, much can be learned from simple measurements, including sampling the bacteria that live near the ocean’s surface, taking temperature measurements, and even monitoring debris.

The researchers are working to ruggedize and automate an ocean-sampling device so citizen-sailor scientists can collect bacterioplankton samples.

They estimate the device will cost $1,500 per sample after collection, sequencing, and analyzing.

Grzymski imagines a fleet of sensor-enabled boats making commonly sailed routes—like the Coconut Milk Run from California to Tahiti—to help scientists understand microbes, which make up 90 percent of the ocean’s biomass.

“The typical time scale of research is based on funding, so it’s difficult to go and sample over a month[long] period to understand the dynamics of the ebb and flow of these organisms as they grow and die off,” said Grzymski.

Having sailors regularly collect samples could give scientists more insight into the impact of acidification as the oceans absorb ever-growing amounts of carbon dioxide.

Some sailors are already eager to help scientists, as Grzymski discovered when he sailed with a colleague from Cape Town, South Africa, to Phuket, Thailand, as part of a pilot study of citizen oceanography.

He said that such data collaboration could also help sailors.

“We met people with an amazing connection to the sea, and if they’re captaining a sailboat or a cargo ship, they travel in any conditions—so it would help them to have better predictions of what the ocean is doing.”