Catamaran, UAV and Kayak Take on Study of Ocean’s ‘Skin’

Using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), kayak and remote-controlled catamaran, researchers from nonprofit foundation Schmidt Ocean Institute returned yesterday from an in-depth study of the ocean’s “skin” – the sea-surface microlayer – on board their Falkor research vessel.

According to the institute, the findings have important implications for understanding the ocean’s role in climate change and advancing a broader understanding of ocean properties.

“The sea-surface microlayer plays a vital role in the uptake and release of greenhouse gases, including methane and carbon dioxide, via the ocean,” explains chief scientist Oliver Wurl from the University of Oldenburg. “Even the latest models ignore what happens at the sea surface; we hope this research will change that, helping to inform computer models to improve forecasts of climate change.”

The science team left Darwin, Australia, about a month ago and completed 17 sampling stations along their transit. Some of these surprising results came from the first air-sea investigation with a cyanobacteria bloom (a potentially toxic, blue-green bacteria), as well as the discovery of widespread tiny copepods scattering in the layer (extremely tiny crustaceans) – demonstrating a previously unknown distribution, says the institute.

The chemists, biologists, geologists and oceanographers used sensors attached to a multitude of vehicles to better study the microlayer, which has the thickness of a human hair.

The UAV, kayak and remote-controlled catamaran were used to collect water samples and data from the atmosphere. The UAV, equipped with hyperspectral cameras, took off from the research vessel and scanned the sea surface to measure ocean color and phytoplankton. The aircraft also used highly sensitive thermal and optical instruments to measure the ocean’s surface skin temperature and the net energy crossing the ocean’s surface.

Co-chief scientist Christopher Zappa from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University was pleased with the success of the UAVs, according to Schmidt Ocean Institute.

“It has been almost six years since the design of the instruments began,” says Zappa. “The vehicles and instrument payloads performed how they were supposed to, allowing us to gather some very interesting data of the ocean’s surface in high resolution.”

These specialized tools were deployed to explore trace metals, greenhouse-gas exchange, wind and wave effects on air-sea transfer, and microbial communities. The team will now interpret and correlate these distinct but interconnected data sets.

“This is no easy feat with over 400 water samples,” concludes co-chief scientist Bill Landing from Florida State University. “This data set is the first of its kind, incorporating data from many disciplines.”

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