Southern Ocean Cruise to Probe Climate-Relevant Gases

February 21, 2008

This month more than 30 scientists will embark on a research cruise to the Southern Ocean, which surrounds Antarctica, where they will be battling nature’s elements to study how gases important to climate change move between the atmosphere and the ocean under high winds and seas.

NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown.
NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown.

+ High Resolution (Credit NOAA)

The Southern Ocean Gas Exchange Experiment, a six-week cruise aboard the NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown, is co-sponsored by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Science Foundation. Scientists will study the movement of gases such as carbon dioxide in an effort to improve the accuracy of climate models and predictions during the cruise, which departs Feb. 28 from Punta Arenas, Chile.

The world's oceans are estimated to absorb about two billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year. NOAA’s leading research on ocean acidification resulting from carbon dioxide uptake indicates that many organisms that support marine biodiversity may be threatened by climate change in the future. Scientists know that higher wind speeds promote faster exchange of gases, but there have been very few studies aimed at directly measuring these exchanges under real world conditions where other factors, like breaking waves, can influence the process.

“The Southern Ocean is the largest ocean region where the surface waters directly connect to the ocean’s interior currents, providing a pathway into the deep sea for carbon dioxide released from human activities," said Christopher Sabine, an oceanographer at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, and co-chief scientist on the cruise. "Understanding how atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed into these cold surface waters under high winds speeds is important for determining how the ocean uptake of carbon dioxide will respond to future climate change."

“Our ongoing effort to understand the global carbon cycle will benefit from the data this cruise will produce about the mechanisms that govern gas transfer in this remote part of the world's ocean," said Paula Bontempi, manager of NASA’s ocean biology and biogeochemistry research program. "And NASA's global satellite observations of ocean color that reveal so much about the health of our oceans will also be improved in this region as we validate what our space-based sensors see with direct measurements taken at sea."

"We will be directly assessing the rate and mechanism by which the ocean is taking up carbon and releasing it," said cruise chief scientist David Ho of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, Palisades, N.Y.

Scientists from more than 20 universities and research institutions on the cruise plan to measure turbulence, waves, bubbles, temperature and ocean color, to see how these factors relate to the exchange of carbon dioxide and other climate-relevant gases. The Ronald H. Brown is a state-of-the-art oceanographic research platform and the largest research vessel in the NOAA fleet.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of our nation's coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners, more than 70 countries and the European Commission to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects.