UW robots may change what we know about the climate crisis

SEATTLE — Researchers at the University of Washington are preparing to build and launch hundreds of underwater robots to monitor the world’s oceans. The multimillion-dollar venture, funded through a grant via the National Science Foundation, is expected to give scientists a better understanding of the ocean’s biology and increase understanding of everything from climate change to forecasting fisheries.

While the world has often looked to the skies for innovation, it still has blind spots here on Earth. Water covers more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, and large portions of it remain unexplored – and understudied.

“This stuff is in its infancy,” said UW professor of oceanography Stephen Riser, pointing at a robot, “but I fully expect 10 years from now, this will be used all over the world.”

The robots are essentially floating drones. The ones Riser’s team is working on is low-tech in theory, but what they lack in tech is far outweighed by their usefulness.

In order to study the ocean, you need a lot of money. It takes a large research vessel, a crew, scientists, gear and countless hours to travel — and that gets you a few readings in specific areas. The aim of this latest project — The Global Ocean Biogeochemistry Array, or GO-BGC Array for short — is to build and deploy 500 robots around the world to get a complete snapshot of the changing oceans.

Unlike a research vessel, this isn’t a journey that spans several days. GO-BGC Array will collect snapshots of data from each robot every 9-10 days for five years, giving scientists a larger view of the ocean than ever before.

“There’s measures of air temperature all over the world. It’s one of the few things countries collaborate on,” said Riser. “In a way, we’ll be able to do the same thing with the ocean, except instead of the weather — which we’ve figured out how to do with older instruments — we could do things like forecast fisheries; we can forecast acidification, nutrients or things like the next El Nino events.”

The beauty of this project is that all of the information becomes public. Every few days, new data will be uploaded online via satellites, and scientists can use it to fine-tune developing sciences because while a lot is known about how the world is changing, it’s not always known how quickly the changes are happening.

“What happens in the ocean far, far away on the other side of the planet could have impact on the temperatures in Seattle — that, to me, shows we need to make sure we understand what’s happening everywhere,” said Alison Gray, an assistant professor of oceanography at UW.

Gray’s research in 2018 is a good example of how views are changing. A previous study on floating robots did the once unthinkable — collecting mass amounts of data in the middle of the winter near Antarctica.

In the dead of winter, the Southern Ocean is difficult to access, let alone study. UW tackled the challenge with a similar set of robots, and Gray’s research changed what was understood about how the area played a role in climate change.

The Southern Ocean was long considered a massive carbon sink — soaking up large amounts of carbon and heat. But per her research, it wasn’t behaving the same way during the winter months. That’s important — because if the Southern Ocean isn’t taking on the amount of carbon scientists previously thought, the already small window of time to avoid worst-case climate scenarios is shrinking faster than originally believed.

“We were underestimating it before,” said Gray. “We didn’t have the observations. We were basically extrapolating and missed a big part of the signal.”

Gray notes she’s hopeful that new research can find a portion of the ocean reacting the opposite way, adding hope – regardless of what’s found — that it will help world leaders forecast changes and make better plans.

As for Riser, he tells KIRO 7 that the first step is building the hundreds of robots that are needed. Unlike past projects, they’re looking at the possibility of working with commercial groups to scale up and begin dropping the robotics into the ocean next year.

The project itself is planned to last for five years, but the data obtained could be used to form a better understanding of oceans for years to come. Similar projects have led to hundreds of scholarly journals, and this next round of research is expected to give an unprecedented world view.