The next time you’re out sailing the Seven Seas, keep an eye out for something small and red floating atop the water. It’s likely a Carbon Flux Explorer – an important scientific instrument and the brainchild of UC Berkeley professor Jim Bishop. My sidekick E.J, a researcher in Bishop’s lab, recently told me the fascinating story of how he had been involved in the launching of one.
While I may not be the most proficient oceanographer out there, with the help of E.J’s clear teaching style, I learned that Carbon Flux Explorers are robotic devices that measure an array of important oceanic properties. These measurements help elucidate how the rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere will affect the stability of carbon flow in the ocean. The ocean experiences rapid temporal changes in carbon due to biological transportation of carbon from the surface of the ocean (where photosynthesis occurs) to the deep ocean interior. This involves phytoplankton, which absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, and the excretion and sinking of CO2 by the animals that feed off of the phytoplankton. The stability of this intricate cycle is sensitive to global changes, and until the invention of Carbon Explorers we had no effective way of observing the arms, feet, and backbone that make up the ocean body’s cycle.
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