By Anthony Harris
NASA has aligned itself with Oregon State University for its current Ship-Aircraft Bio-Optical Research (SABOR aka cool acronym) mission, which set sail from Rhode Island last Friday. OSU researchers are in the process of measuring carbon levels in ocean plant life, specifically phytoplankton, using state-of-the-art optical equipment to see if changes in these levels could possibly alter the future of fisheries and marine life.
Phytoplankton are vital for the part they play in carbon cycling. They absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and dispense it when they’re consumed by marine predators, and act as a carbon sink when they die and fall into the deep sea.
OSU botany and plant pathology professor and key SABOR scientist Mike Behrenfeld said phytoplankton are the main ingredient of the marine food web, and any changes, including carbon absorption, can affect all ocean populations. Understanding phytoplankton changes may help create a forecast for how oceans will do in the future and whether climate change is playing a role.
NASA has taken to the air and water for this 20-day research campaign, as scientists will measure from the air and ocean to find links in the two data sets. Behrenfeld and company will use a sorting flow cytometer, which uses a laser to sift through small seawater streams in search of phytoplankton to be analyzed for carbon. Meanwhile, NASA will fly above using an advanced laser system to scan the upper water levels of the ocean.
NASA will eventually relay the collection of information to lead future satellite missions, which may be able to determine how ocean ecosystems and the role of the carbon cycle change outcomes for fish and the climate.
The SABOR campaign is being funded by NASA’s Ocean Biology and Biochemistry Program in Washington, D.C.