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The Blue Planet Odyssey scientific program

The oceans are the last wild frontiers of our planet, and despite their health being vital to the planet’s wellbeing, scientists admit that there is still much they do not know about the state of the seas.

Source: NOAA Photo Library

Who better then to help expand that knowledge than sailors, who voyage across some of the most remote areas of the oceans?

The idea of using sailors to help gather scientific data is an integral part of the Blue Planet Odyssey’s vision, and one that participants have responded to with great enthusiasm. Several research and scientific institutions around the world have already expressed an interest in using the opportunity provided by the Blue Planet Odyssey to develop or expand some of their research projects.

Participants will have a choice of projects they want to get involved with, depending on the particular route they are taking and their own interests.

Consideration is being paid to ways in which sailors can be involved in such projects with as little impact as possible on normal navigation routines. This can be achieved by installing special devices on the hull or in the seawater water intake that can be used to monitor temperature or levels of salinity. Another source of information could be provided by collecting used filters from watermakers, with location and time details on where they had been used. This could be a source for researchers to assess the presence of heavy metals, radioactivity and pollution levels.

Climate Information

Pablo Aguilera (Blue Planet Odyssey participant) and Dr. Rick Lumpkin (NOAA Oceanographer) with drifter buoy ready to ship

NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) is interested in involving vessels in deploying a number of drifter buoys in some rarely frequented areas along the Blue Planet Odyssey route.

In recent years, NOAA has been deploying an array of satellite-tracked surface drifter buoys to gather information on ocean currents, sea surface temperature, atmospheric pressure, winds and salinity. The data is needed for climate predictions as well as climate research and monitoring.

Damage to some of these buoys when being launched from large ships has sparked NOAA’s interest in a more gentle deployment from smaller sailing vessels.

One area where they want to deploy drifter buoys is in the Northwest Passage, which has significant implications for global climate conditions.

Photo credit: Ocean Conservancy

Pollution

Plastic pollution is a real blight on the oceans and often a danger to marine life.

NOAA also has a Marine Debris Program, which monitors levels of pollution, by logging observations of plastic pollution onshore and at sea.

Blue Planet Odyssey participants will also be able to cooperate with this program.

Marine Wildlife

Photo credit: Diana Doyle, SeaBC

From tiny plankton to the great whales of the oceans, marine wildlife is being affected by climate change, whether through increasing ocean acidification or the disruption of weather patterns. Blue Planet Odyssey sailors will be able to gather data on wildlife by noting their observations of marine wildlife spotted at sea on special logging forms.

A similar project to increase the knowledge about sea birds, is the SeaBC’ sea bird reporting project. Sailors will be asked to take photographs of any birds encountered at sea, logging information such as latitude and longitude, abundance, and interesting behaviour.

This data will be sent to Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology eBird database, where it will become a permanent resource for scientists and conservation efforts worldwide. As Brian Sullivan, one of eBird’s Project leaders, has said: ‘Any and all data from offshore waters are of high value!

Phytoplankton

There is a great concern that rising sea temperatures are causing a dramatic decline in microscopic plankton, a key part of the marine food chain.

Dr Richard Kirby from Plymouth University is interested in monitoring levels of phytoplankton throughout the areas covered by the routes of the Blue Planet Odyssey. The data available on phytoplankton is still very sparse and so the readings taken by sailors will enable researchers to find out what real impact climate change is having on plankton populations.

The science is simple: when large numbers of phytoplankton are present, they make seawater cloudy. Sailors will drop a Secchi disk (a simple white disk) over the side of the boat, and record the depth at which it disappears from view.

The data will be uploaded to an app developed by the University. As Dr Kirby has pointed out, there are too few scientists to survey the oceans of the world, and in this way sailors can really help contribute to the ultimate aim of creating a database of plankton populations around the world.

Dr Richard Kirby with Secchi dish

The Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Miami has several projects of interest, such as the collection of underwater ambient acoustic data. The installation of hydrophones on the hulls of some Blue Planet Odyssey vessels could make acoustic measurements to assess the effects of climate change on underwater sounds. Another project that is being discussed involves the monitoring of coral reefs, in order to assess the effects of temperature increases and acidification.


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