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World Oceans Day: NorCal scientists show why healthy oceans are vital in fighting the climate crisis

By Heather Waldman

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    CALIFORNIA (KCRA) — Earth’s surface is 70% water, much of that is made up of vast and mysterious ocean.

Beneath the water’s surface lies an incredibly complex ecosystem of plants and animals ranging from microscopic plankton to gargantuan Blue Whales that grow to be nearly 100 feet long.

Every single species is part of a complex yet delicate system.

“One thing we like to say about the ocean is when you talk about one part, you’re talking about all parts,” Andre Boustany said.

Boustany is a principal scientist with the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. He is part of a team of researchers focused on helping the aquarium in its mission of inspiring ocean conservation.

One focus of the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s conservation efforts is an otter rehabilitation program.

Boustany said that otters can be considered “ecosystem engineers.”

Aquarium scientists have seen this in action as they return healthy otters to the wild at Elkhorn Slough near Moss Landing, California.

This region is home to a large eelgrass field that had once been largely depleted by sea urchins, predatory creatures that make up a portion of sea otter diets.

“When we introduced the otters back in there, they controlled the predators that also allowed the eelgrass to really flourish. So we’ve got a lot more eelgrass, a much healthier ecosystem and it’s sequestering a lot more carbon,” Boustany said.

That’s right, even plants under water can help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“This is a great service that the ocean provides to us,” said Ken Johnson, a senior scientist with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

It is estimated that oceans have absorbed 90% of the planetary warming caused by human carbon emissions. The other 10% has resulted in rising air temperatures.

Johnson’s work at MBARI is specifically focused on measuring what he refers to as the “vital signs” of the ocean. Things like temperature, acidity levels, salinity and nitrate levels.

His team is doing this by deploying hundreds of floating robot sensors that take measurements of ocean water between one and two kilometers below the surface, an area that would otherwise be impossible to monitor regularly and efficiently.

“Our project really is to measure the basic metabolism of the ocean, across the world ocean and do it every year so that we can understand ‘are the basic metabolic processes of the ocean changing?'” Johnson said.

Changes in that metabolism could signal changes in the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide, something that would directly affect future climate change impacts that we deal with on land.

Chemical changes in the water could also lead to changes in the ocean ecosystem as a whole.

Johnson said at this point, there are still a lot of unknowns about how all of that interconnects, but one thing he can say with certainty is that the ocean IS changing.

“Some things might get better, some things might get worse. But right now we just don’t have the hardware to measure that,” Johnson said.

The team at MBARI has a goal of deploying 500 floating sensors throughout the Southern Ocean near Antarctica, a region that has absorbed the lion’s share of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Another 500 floats will be added by partner countries. With that network, scientists will get real-time data allowing them to frequently assess the status of the ocean and track changes over time.

This information can help in the broader goal of understanding the impacts of climate change.

“If the productivity of the ocean declines due to a warming upper ocean or to a change in the pH (acidity) of the ocean, that’s super important,” Johnson said.

He added that this project also serves as a major education and outreach tool for MBARI. Each one of the floats deployed by the institute can be “adopted” by science classrooms.

Classes that are already participating receive related ocean science lesson plans as well as a link to track data coming into their specific buoy sensor. Students even get to have custom artwork inscribed onto the buoy.

While MBARI and the Monterey Bay Aquarium are separate organizations, both are intensely focused on building an understanding of our oceans for human benefit and for the benefit of the countless species that call the water home.

“I don’t want to live in a world that I’m not trying to make better,” Boustany said.

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