Taking the laboratory into the ocean

One of MBARI’s hallmarks is developing technologies for carrying out experiments in situ. This has proven to be extremely valuable for addressing questions related to ocean acidification, expansion of oxygen minimum zones, and the emergence of dead zones. These studies were based on realistic climate scenarios, fundamental chemical principles, and historical observations. How will the projected changes impact marine life and humans? What sampling and sensor systems are needed to test these projections, and where should they be located? How can various sources of information be combined to gain insights into trends and to establish testable hypotheses?

MBARI’s operational assets and ready access to the sea ideally position the institute to address such questions. For example, in situ experiments on methane hydrates and carbon dioxide in the deep sea demonstrate the necessity of making measurements under ambient conditions. Similarly, the development of tools for observing midwater animals in their natural state has led to numerous discoveries that would have been impossible to achieve using traditional methods like trawling. Profiling floats equipped with biogeochemical sensors provide a way to autonomously detect fluxes of material through broad swaths of the ocean over multi-year time scales, without recovery and service. The Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) can be used to quantify nucleic acids and other biochemical signatures in near real-time, where they naturally occur.

In all cases, the objective has been to retrieve information from the field directly, under natural conditions, and eliminate the traditional requirement for shore-side analyses of retrieved samples. MBARI is uniquely suited to continue this line of work.