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The New Ocean Explorers

While we may feel today that Planet Earth has been pretty well explored easily ninety-five percent of the ocean – which already covers more than seventy-five percent of the globe – is unknown. In an effort to plug gaps in knowledge about key ocean processes, the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s division of ocean sciences has awarded nearly $1 million to scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. According to U.S. News, the Scripps marine scientists will develop a new breed of ocean-probing instruments. Jules Jaffe and Peter Franks will spearhead an effort to design and deploy autonomous underwater explorers, or AUEs. AUEs will trace the fine details of oceanographic processes vital to tiny marine inhabitants.

While oceanographers have been skilled in detailing large-scale ocean processes, a need has emerged to zero in on functions unfolding at smaller scales. By defining localized currents, temperature, salinity, pressure and biological properties, AUEs will offer new and valuable information about a range of ocean phenomena.

“We’re seeing great success in the global use of ocean profiling floats to document large-scale circulation patterns and other physical and chemical attributes of the deep and open seas,” said Phillip Taylor of NSF’s division of ocean sciences. “These innovative AUEs will allow researchers to sample the environments of coastal regions as well, and to better understand how small organisms operate in the complex surroundings of the oceans.”

The miniature robots will aid in obtaining information needed for developing marine protected areas, determining critical nursery habitats for fish and other animals, tracking harmful algae blooms, and monitoring oil spills. For marine protected areas, AUEs will help inform debates about the best areas for habitat protection. With harmful algal blooms and oil spills, the instruments can be deployed directly into outbreak patches to gauge how they develop and change over time. In the case of an airplane crash over the ocean, AUEs should be able to track currents to determine where among the wreckage a black box may be located.

“AUEs will fill in gaps between existing marine technologies,” said Jaffe. “They will provide a whole new kind of information.”

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