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.

Acoustical ocean ecology

In the ocean, most resources are unevenly distributed and highly dynamic. The Acoustical Ocean Ecology Group investigates how animals respond to constantly changing pelagic environments,

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.

Molecular ecology

The Molecular Ecology Group described how factors—such as geographic distance, topology of the seafloor, and deep-sea currents—affect the stability and dispersal of vent clams, mussels, snails and tubeworms, and studied the genetic connections among populations such as these, especially those that thrive in environments like hydrothermal vents, hydrocarbon seeps, wood, and whale falls.
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.


Upper-ocean systems
Acoustical ocean ecology
Acoustic instruments
Acoustic fingerprinting
Acoustic community ecology
Acoustics in the news
Biological oceanography
Global modes of sea surface temperature
Krill hotspots in the California Current
Nitrate supply estimates in upwelling systems
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
Interdisciplinary field experiments
Ecogenomic Sensing
Genomic sensors
Field experiments
Harmful algal blooms (HABs)
Water quality
Environmental Sample Processor (ESP)
ESP Web Portal
In the news
Ocean observing system
Midwater research
Midwater ecology
Deep-sea squids and octopuses
Food web dynamics
Midwater time series
Respiration studies
Zooplankton biodiversity
Seafloor processes
Revealing the secrets of Sur Ridge
Exploring Sur Ridge’s coral gardens
Life at Sur Ridge
Mapping Sur Ridge
Biology and ecology
Effects of humans
Ocean acidification, warming, deoxygenation
Lost shipping container study
Effects of upwelling
Faunal patterns
Previous research
Technology development
High-CO2 / low-pH ocean
Benthic respirometer system
Climate change in extreme environments
Station M: A long-term observatory on the abyssal seafloor
Station M long-term time series
Monitoring instrumentation suite
Sargasso Sea research
Antarctic research
Geological changes
Arctic Shelf Edge
Continental Margins and Canyon Dynamics
Coordinated Canyon Experiment
CCE instruments
CCE repeat mapping data
Monterey Canyon: A Grand Canyon beneath the waves
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
Bioluminescence: Living light in the deep sea
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
Past research
Molecular ecology
Molecular systematics
SIMZ Project
Bone-eating worms
Gene flow and dispersal
Molecular-ecology expeditions
Ocean chemistry of greenhouse gases
Emerging science of a high CO2/low pH ocean