The UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is set to launch a new program that uses high-tech robots to investigate how marine life stores carbon dioxide (CO2).
Funded via NERC’s Net Zero Oceanographic Capability (NZOC) program, and working alongside ship-based research in 2024, the BIO-Carbon project will deploy a fleet of autonomous robots to collect data that helps scientists understand how marine life allows the ocean to store CO2 that might otherwise be in the atmosphere.
NZOC was established to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions associated with ocean research, which often takes place in remote and challenging environments.
NZOC lead Leigh Storey said, “NERC’s marine research fleet has a target to be net zero in carbon by 2040. To achieve that, new technology must be adopted, alongside scientists developing new techniques that can fully exploit all that robots can provide. The BIO-Carbon program presents an opportunity to show how autonomous platforms might reduce the need for ship-based experiments in the future.”
The BIO-Carbon program seeks to answer three questions:
- How does marine life affect the potential for seawater to absorb CO2? The ability of oceans to absorb carbon dioxide is determined by the alkalinity of the water. Calcium carbonate is the main influence on alkalinity but scientists are unsure which organisms are producing carbonates and where they are doing it.
- At what rate does marine life convert CO2 into organic carbon? Carbon dioxide is removed from the ocean by being converted to organic matter by phytoplankton – microscopic single-cell plants that form the basis of the food chain. Whether global phytoplankton growth will increase or decrease under climate change is unknown.
- How does climate change affect the future storage of carbon in the ocean? The creatures forming the marine ecosystem eventually respire the organic carbon as CO2. To determine the speed at which this CO2 is returned to the atmosphere, we need to understand where and when this respiration process occurs in the ocean.
Dr Adrian Martin, the BIO-Carbon champion from the UK’s National Oceanography Centre (NOC), added, “The BIO-Carbon NZOC science mission will add considerably to what we can achieve, providing a new set of powerful tools while pioneering a low-carbon-emissions approach to environmental science. It is great to see the UK leading the way in this responsible approach to research given the UK’s drive to net zero carbon emissions.”