Upper-ocean systems

The ocean is home to many fantastic forms of life—blue whales are the largest animals ever to exist, sailfish swim as fast as cheetahs run, and bull sharks bite with the force of 6,000 newtons. But life in the ocean depends on some of its smallest, most unassuming organisms: phytoplankton. Phytoplankton live near the surface of the sea, where sunlight can penetrate and stimulate photosysnthesis, but their life cycles have implications for even the deepest, darkest corners of the ocean. These tiny organisms therefore make the Upper Ocean a highly important area of research and study.

As these billions of small marine plants take up nutrients, grow, die, sink and decay, they:

  • produce over half of the world’s oxygen
  • exchange carbon and other elements between the atmosphere and the ocean
  • convert inorganic nutrients and sunlight into the organic compounds that support essentially all life in the upper ocean
  • source the carbon that sinks vertically and feeds midwater and benthic marine life
  • show the first effects of changing climate on the oceans

MBARI’s Strategic Plan and Technology Roadmap highlight how MBARI can contribute to a greater understanding of all of these processes. Two inter-related focus areas of these documents— ocean biogeochemistry and ecosystem processes— are important cornerstones. These focus areas form two halves of an inextricable loop: The chemistry of ocean waters fuels living organism and these organisms modify ocean chemistry through their life processes. MBARI is therefore always developing new methods and tools to advance the science of upper water column biogeochemistry and ecosystem processes.


Biological Oceanography Group

One of the longest-standing projects of the Biological Oceanography Group is the Monterey Bay Time Series. Research ships and moorings have collected detailed datasets of temperature, salinity, oxygen, CO2, phytoplankton and other changing variables since 1989.

Chemical Sensor Group

The Chemical Sensors project seeks to understand changing ocean chemistry because chemical composition of the ocean affects the entire food web. The group outfits floats with the ever-developing chemical sensors and uses them to keep track of changes in nitrate and pH among other variables.
Micromonas; This colorized TEM was taken by Tom Deerinck, M. Terada, J. Obiyashi and Mark Ellisman of the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research (NCMIR) from a block we provided.

Marine microbes

The Marine Microbe Group focuses on mechanisms and controls of microbial population dynamics. Our research has an emphasis on carbon cycling in marine ecosystems - processes which regulate carbon fixation and energy transfer to higher trophic levels. These processes are critical to sustainability of oceanic food webs, global climate and human health.
Giant tubeworms such these as have evolved to live at the boundary between oxygen-poor vent fluids and oxygen-rich seawater. If past catastrophic global environmental changes caused the deep seawater to become oxygen-poor, these worms would have had to adapt, evolve, or die off and be replaced by other animals. ©2003 MBARI

Molecular ecology

The Molecular Ecology of Plankton group is developing genomics methods for zooplankton that allow us to adequately describe planktonic diversity at relevant scales. These methods can then be married to autonomous platforms opening new windows into ocean observation.
biological pump

Interdisciplinary field experiments

MBARI’s Controlled, Agile, and Novel Observing Network (CANON) Initiative is an interdisciplinary effort that utilizes smart, autonomous devices designed to cooperate with each other to collect oceanographic information.

Genomic sensors

The goal of this project is to enable greater use of such methods by developing the means to autonomously collect, preserve, and process discrete samples of a wide variety of marine microorganisms.


Upper-ocean systems
Biological oceanography
Biological oceanography research
Publication—Global modes of sea surface temperature
Chemical sensors
Chemical data
Land/Ocean Biogeochemical Observatory in Elkhorn Slough
Listing of floats
SOCCOM float visualization
Periodic table of elements in the ocean
Biogeochemical-Argo Report
Profiling float
Marine microbes
Population dynamics of phytoplankton
Microbial predators
Microbe-algae interactions
Targeted metagenomics
In the news
Upcoming events and lab news
Past talks and presentations
Join the lab
Molecular ecology
Molecular systematics
SIMZ Project
Bone-eating worms
Gene flow and dispersal
Molecular-ecology expeditions
Interdisciplinary field experiments
Genomic sensors
Ocean observing system
Midwater research
Midwater ecology
Deep-sea squids and octopuses
Food web dynamics
Midwater time series
Respiration studies
Zooplankton biodiversity
Seafloor processes
Biology and ecology
Effects of humans
Ocean acidification, warming, deoxygenation
Lost shipping container study
Effects of upwelling
Faunal patterns
Past research
Technology development
High-CO2 / low-pH ocean
Benthic respirometer system
Climate change in extreme environments
Monitoring instrumentation suite
Sargasso Sea research
Antarctic research
Long-term time series
Geological changes
Arctic Shelf Edge
Continental Margins and Canyon Dynamics
Coordinated Canyon Experiment
Monterey Canyon: Stunning deep-sea topography revealed
Ocean chemistry of greenhouse gases
Emerging science of a high CO2/low pH ocean
Submarine volcanoes
Mid-ocean ridges
Magmatic processes
Volcanic processes
Explosive eruptions
Hydrothermal systems
Back arc spreading ridges
Near-ridge seamounts
Continental margin seamounts
Non-hot-spot linear chains
Eclectic seamounts topics
Margin processes
Hydrates and seeps
California borderland
Hot spot research
Hot-spot plumes
Magmatic processes
Volcanic processes
Explosive eruptions
Volcanic hazards
Hydrothermal systems
Flexural arch
Coral reefs
ReefGrow software
Eclectic topics
Submarine volcanism cruises
Volcanoes resources
Areas of study
Microscopic biology research
Open ocean biology research
Seafloor biology research
Automated chemical sensors
Methane in the seafloor
Volcanoes and seamounts
Hydrothermal vents
Methane in the seafloor
Submarine canyons
Earthquakes and landslides
Ocean acidification
Physical oceanography and climate change
Ocean circulation and algal blooms
Ocean cycles and climate change
Research publications