"Oceans are the lungs of the planet, and we’ve been collectively smoking one giant cigarette," Steve Etchemendy, director of marine operations, told a small group of press gathered in a conference room of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, or MBARI, early Saturday morning. "Half of the oxygen on Earth is provided by the phytoplankton," he explained, and ocean acidification by carbon dioxide and other byproducts of human industrialization are killing those microscopic drifting plants.
On Saturday morning, MBARI, a research institute financially and geographically separate from the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium prepared for its once-a-year open house. This year was special, though, as the Institute had a public christening event for the Rachel Carson, a former Gulf field oil supply boat that MBARI was in the process of refitting to serve as a research vessel.
Ars got a tour of MBARI’s Rachel Carson, the Western Flyer (a bigger research vessel currently under the care of MBARI), and an exclusive look at the giant remote operated vehicles (ROVs) that Institute scientists use to study the seas not just in Monterey Bay but around the globe, and the autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that have made studying the fragility of our vast oceans possible.
The drones of the sea
Researchers at MBARI noted frequently that the Institute, founded in 1987 by David Packard of Hewlett-Packard, receives 80 percent of its funding from the Packard foundation (that’s a little short of $40 million a year), so it’s granted a lot of autonomy when it decides what directions to go in research.
"MBARI has its own funding, so we decide what’s important to us. Sometimes it's not what’s important to the federal government. And it turns out that sometimes we’re the only ones with the capabilities to do very neat things," Etchemendy told Ars. MBARI was one of the first research institutions that NOAA called after the Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. NOAA wanted to deploy one of MBARI’s autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs, to try to survey the site of the spill and the area around it.
The torpedo-shaped AUVs are outfitted with advanced SONAR readers, cameras, and sensors to detect anything from the conductivity, temperature, and salinity of the water; its oxygen content; or even "acoustic backscatter."
One of the smaller Autonomous Underwater vehicles, the Tethys Megan Geuss
The sea drones are convenient because they can collect massive amounts of data with minimal investment (after the first few million dollars spent to outfit the drone, of course). And an underwater AUV dock, the Monterey Accelerated Research System or MARS, runs a gigabit Ethernet cable and a 10kW power cable 32 miles undersea to provide MBARI’s AUVs a place to recharge and dump data before another mission.
Internals for the larger AUV, the Dorado. "The Dorado is a mid-range AUV as far as cost, but unparallleld as far as sensor capabilites," James Bellingham, chief technologist at MBARI, told Ars. Megan Geuss
James Bellingham, chief technologist at MBARI, said this type of long-term data collection could go further than either satellites or ROVs could ever manage in understanding climate change, especially at MBARI where many of the sensors are developed in-house. "Historically the Navy did most of the ocean sciences, but the Navy really cared about the instruments they built more than the marine science... [and] climate change isn’t really relevant to Navy problems right now," Bellingham said. But this weekend, the politics of funding was played down, and the wonder of sea research took front and center.