In a modern-day sea voyage, researchers plan to seek out the strongest winds in order to better understand the effect of weather conditions on the carbon cycle.
Ronald H. Brown
About 30 international scientists will be part of the crew of the Ronald H. Brown, the largest research vessel in the fleet of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). On February 28, the ship will set sail off the coast of Punta Arenas, Chili, and travel south to the most southern oceans of Earth. Besides being some of the least explored areas on the planet, the southern oceans are also some of the coldest and roughest oceans in the world.
Specifically, the researchers want to study how gases that are important to climate change move between the atmosphere and the ocean under high winds and seas. Scientists estimate that oceans absorb about 2 billion metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere per year, or about 30% of total carbon emissions. In the oceans, bicarbonate can combine with calcium to form limestone, which accumulates on the ocean floor. Researchers think that this limestone is the largest reservoir of carbon in the carbon cycle.
On this voyage, the scientists want to find out what factors play the biggest roles in how the oceans exchange gases such as carbon dioxide with the atmosphere. Some of the factors they're looking at include high wind speeds, breaking waves, and turbulence. Although NASA, which is a co-sponsor of the mission, has satellites that observe the oceans, a closer look is needed for direct research.
The researchers will be directly determining the rate and mechanisms by which the ocean is taking up carbon and releasing it. They will also determine how the ocean uptake of carbon dioxide will respond to future climate changes. Hopefully, the oceans will continue to play their vital role in absorbing carbon for years to come.