Ocean science thumbs a ride

Two thick, rusty chains are connected to a third by a single large ring. The chains are suspended in the air above the ocean waves.

Ocean science thumbs a ride

Dalhousie University’s Doug Wallace is outfitting commercial vessels with sensors to help gather data about changes in one of the most important regions of the world’s oceans
February 11, 2015
An orange inflatable boat, seen from above. Several figures in hardhats and orange jumpsuits are standing inside.

Researchers from Nova Scotia’s Bedford Institute of
Oceanography retrieve the Icycler, a device used
to measure temperature, salinity and chlorophyll
levels under Arctic ice. Doug Wallace and his team
from Dalhousie University plan to deploy similar
sensors in the Labrador Sea.
Credit: M.Vining, CERC.OCEAN

The complex swirling patterns of life in the world's oceans, from blooms of plankton to the viability of commercial fisheries, are all driven by three chemical elements: carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. Human activities are now impacting the natural biogeochemical cycles of these elements in unprecedented ways. For example, about half the fossil fuel-derived carbon dioxide produced over the last 200 years has been absorbed by the ocean, resulting in the production of carbonic acid and ocean acidification. Keeping track of these changes — and understanding their implications — is the goal of the Dalhousie University research team led by Doug Wallace, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Ocean Science and Technology.

The main challenge is one of scale. Dedicated research vessels, besides being very expensive to operate, can really only provide a snapshot of a certain area. “The oceans are vast, and difficult to access,” says Wallace. “What we need are new technologies and clever platforms from which we can make our measurements and get a handle on the problem.”

One promising strategy is to partner with commercial ships that would be making the trip anyway. For example, the Atlantic Condor is an offshore supply vessel that makes weekly return trips from Dartmouth, N.S. to the Deep Panuke gas platform off Sable Island, 300 kilometres southeast of Halifax. The route takes it over the Scotian shelf, an ecologically important area that serves as spawning and nursery grounds for many key fish and shellfish species. Funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation has allowed Wallace’s team to purchase a series of custom-made sensors that can be added to the cooling water intake of the vessel to collect data without impacting the vessel’s schedule or operation. Starting in 2015, these will monitor levels of dissolved oxygen, carbon dioxide and other gases, as well as salinity, temperature and even chlorophyll levels, which in turn provide an estimate of how much life is present.

Turning the Atlantic Condor and others like it into “volunteer observing ships” allows Wallace and his colleagues to not only cover more ground, but also to monitor changes from season to season, or from year to year. The monitoring data can be complimented with lab studies. For example, if the team notices a peak in a particular dissolved gas level at a particular time, they can collect water samples from the area and check to see what organisms might be producing them.

No research program will be able to cover the whole ocean, and Wallace is quick to underline the importance of international cooperation. But he says that Canada can offer unique insights thanks to its geography. For example, the Labrador Sea is one of only a handful of regions where surface waters sink into the abyss, carrying dissolved oxygen and other key nutrients. “The ocean takes a deep breath in the Labrador Sea every year,” says Wallace. “The Northwest Atlantic Ocean happens to be an incredibly important region, not just for Canada, but for the whole planet.”

WATCH: Find out more about the Canada Foundation for Innovation.