Canada is taking part in an unusual mission to measure climate change in the Atlantic Ocean – it is using a 24-meter sailing yacht to deploy robotic sensors.
The French sailboat Eris, located in the South Atlantic Ocean, is now in the midst of a three-month voyage that will release 100 independent sensors, including dozens from Canada, to measure ocean conditions.
It’s cheap, it’s green and it solves a problem caused by the pandemic, says Canadian research scientist Blair Grenan.
“As with most things during COVID, our operations at sea have ground to a halt. This initiative came to fruition by looking at other opportunities to deploy these buoys,” says Grenan, who works at the Bedford Institution of Oceanography in Halifax.
“It also uses a low-carbon approach to deploy these tools in water where we typically use large research vessels.”
Sensors send climate data to the satellite
Sensors gradually descend two kilometers below surface level and return to the summit, taking temperature and salinity measurements along the way. Every ten days, the buoy breaks through the surface to upload data to a satellite. The information is used by weather forecasters and scientists who can map ocean temperature rise in real time.
The research is part of the Argo program, a network of 3,800 floating sensors around the world.
“It revolutionized our view of the ocean because before that, we relied on research ships going out and taking samples from the ocean, and that was only done for a limited period of the year,” says Grenan, who is the Canadian leader of the Argo program.
“We are able to monitor how the ocean is changing in real time; we are actually seeing that…the ocean is warming up over time.”
A private company, Blue Observer, owns the yacht. The floats are offered by Canada, the United States, and the European Union, which each cost about $25,000.
The first phase of the mission began in Brest, France, in November and saw 17 vehicles fall into the mid-Atlantic for the European Union.
Last month, Iris tied up at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts to resupply and pick up more buoys, including those sent from the Nova Scotia Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).
About 1,000 Argo buoys must be launched for characterization each year to maintain the Global Ocean Observing System, a program of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and part of UNESCO.
The yacht can go to places that are not easy for research ships to visit.
Iris has crossed the equator since leaving Massachusetts and is heading toward Saint Helena Island, 1,950 kilometers west of the nearest landmass in South Africa. It is the remote island where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled.
After that, Eris will head towards Namibia.
Floats deployed in 2022 to get more sensors
It’s also cheaper to use a sailing ship, with today’s rate being a fraction of $50,000 a day and it can cost a research ship’s time.
DFO has deployed 600 Argo buoys off Canada in the past 20 years – on the West Coast, in the Labrador Sea and off the Scottish Shelf south of Nova Scotia.
Every year between 20 and 40 replacement sensors that have been turned off are published.
This year, buoys deployed in the Labrador Sea or the Scottish shelf will carry more advanced sensors that also measure biological and chemical conditions: for example pH levels, which can indicate acidification as the ocean absorbs more carbon dioxide.
Upgraded sensors can cost upwards of $100,000 each.
Grenan says there is no alternative to searching at sea, but floats are a bargain.
They provide data every 10 days for about five years – about 200 perimeter profiles – at a cost of about $125 per perimeter profile than a standard sensor.
“This can’t completely replace the data we can collect from the ship, but it’s certainly an exceptionally cost-effective way to get the data,” Grenan says.
Legacy of the 2018 G7 Summit hosted by Canada
For Canada, Iris’ mission is the legacy of the 2018 G7 Summit hosted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Quebec.
We remember the summit mainly because of Donald Trump’s early departure and the insults directed at Trudeau.
But Canada committed at the meeting to strengthening international cooperation in the oceans.
One of the initiatives was the strengthening of partnerships in the Argo programme.
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