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Become a Citizen Oceanographer: Help Scientists Close the Data Gap

Rachelle Lauro

January 16th, 2015

Planning an open ocean cruise? If so, you are the key to helping scientists better understand the health of the world’s oceans. When we look across the limitless horizon of a vast ocean, it’s easy to believe that one little action can’t possibly hurt or help something so large as the world’s oceans. Dumping a small bucket of toxic cleaning product into the marina water, for example, or tossing some trash overboard, maybe even a plastic bottle. But the sum of all parts is turning out to be a staggering whole, when it comes to the faltering health of the world’s oceans.

Why Do the Oceans Matter?

Oceans cover 71% of our planet and play a critical role in buffering the atmosphere, cycling nutrients through the food web and absorbing the massive release of CO2 since the industrial age. They also provide every other breath that we take. Taken in sum, the oceans serve as the backbone to sustaining habitable life on planet Earth.

Yet our oceans are under unprecedented stress. Overfishing, ocean acidification, dumping, increased usage of oil pipelines and deep sea drilling all contributes the destabilization of this increasingly fragile ecosystem. As world population rises and our demands grow, the prognosis for the oceans is not good. While these effects can be readily seen and appreciated, the biggest threat is to the invisible majority: microbes.

What are Marine Microbes?

Though they may be tiny, marine microbes are one hundred times more abundant in the ocean than there are stars in the galaxy and make up 90% of the ocean’s total biomass. They play critical roles in converting carbon dioxide to organic matter and in regulating nutrient cycling, which serves as the bedrock to the food web.

Without healthy functioning microbial communities, we would not have any air to breath and the food web would collapse. They are also the first to respond to changes in ocean chemistry effectively functioning as the proverbial ‘canary in the coalmine.’ With all the pressures our species places on the ocean, now more than ever, monitoring the health of these organisms is of urgent priority.

With names like Thalassionema, Synechococcus, and Prochlorococcus, these microscopic organisms are hard for people to connect with, but they are the foundation of life on our planet.

With names like Thalassionema, Synechococcus, and Prochlorococcus, these microscopic organisms are hard for people to connect with, but they are the foundation of life on our planet.

Data Collection Woes

Because the ocean is a dynamic and tremendously large ecosystem, millions of observation points are required to better understand the ocean environment. However, traditional oceanographic research vessels are unable to cover this vast space. Traditional oceanography is restricted to large and expensive research ships, where only a few samples may be taken at a time. A modern research vessel typically costs more than $30,000 per day to operate and research vessels only cover a fraction of the world’s oceans.

The existing missing data limits our ability to predict ocean weather, determine the stability of the food web and better understand the impacts of ocean acidification. Without more data points, much about the true state of the ocean will remain largely unknown.

With global cutbacks in government research funds, citizen science (research conducted by nonprofessional scientists) offers an elegant solution to solving the lack of global data collection.

By putting data collection in the hands of world cruisers, we will dramatically reduce the cost per sample, which means more information can be gathered per research dollar spent.

Ocean Sailing Microbial Observatory (OSMO)

Last year, Indigo V Expeditions carried out a concept cruise aboard our flagship vessel, Indigo V, a 61’ Nautor Swan. We sailed from Cape Town, South Africa to Phuket, Thailand, covering over 5,800 NM, developing and testing instrumentation and defining the parameters needed to better understand ocean health.

Indigo V is a 61’ Nautor Swan and the flagship of Indigo V Expeditions. (Photo Credit: Rachelle Lauro)

INDIGO V is a 61’ Nautor Swan and the flagship of Indigo V Expeditions. (Photo Credit: Rachelle Lauro)

We developed the Ocean Sailing Microbial Observatory (OSMO), which is an auto-sampling device that collects meta-data such as temperature, pH and salinity. The OSMO records time, date and location of the vessel at the time of sampling. The raw data is sent to the Indigo lab via satellite SMS and we are able to put a time and location stamp on every sample. Microbial data is also collected via seawater filtration to be further analyzed onshore.

By harnessing modern technology and equipping as many ocean-going vessels as possible with small instrumentation, scientists will be able to collect invaluable and large-scale data sets about bacteria, plankton and the marine ecosystems that have never been possible before.

The Rise of Citizen Oceanographers – Participation is Easy and Free!

By using what’s known as ‘citizen science’, Indigo V Expeditions set out to prove that the concept of crowd-sourcing oceanography can solve the great data collection bottleneck. Joining cost-effective cutting edge technology with existing world cruiser routes, we can monitor microbial communities in the world’s oceans year after year in the same locations. This is crucial to building a baseline of ocean health that can be closely monitored for changes.

The data collected from citizen oceanographers will be released publicly and the models produced will be used to raise public awareness and assist policy-makers as they make better, scientifically based decisions that will lead to the protection of this very precious resource for generations to come.

Involvement for sailors is easy and free! OSMO will be attached to the stern pulpit, using sturdy integrated hard plastic brackets. It is fully automated, and supplies its own power. Sailors do not need to operate the OSMO and it does not slow sailing performance.

To lodge your interest in volunteering, please contact Rachelle Lauro with Indigo V Expeditions. Or visit www.indigovexpeditions.com for more information.

Everyday, thousands of vessels cruise the oceans. With the help of cruisers worldwide, we can collect vast amounts of data that will help us better understand ocean health. (World Cruising Routes. Data from: pangolin.co.nz, figure courtesy of Jacob Senstius.)

Everyday, thousands of vessels cruise the oceans. With the help of cruisers worldwide, we can collect vast amounts of data that will help us better understand ocean health. (World Cruising Routes. Data from: pangolin.co.nz, figure courtesy of Jacob Senstius.)

 The oceans are in trouble, but hope exists to save them. Once we move to protect the fragile balance of the ecosystems, the oceans will recover and flourish. But if we make no changes, if we ignore the warning signs and continue to destroy ecosystems, we will destroy the very ‘organs’ put in place to support habitable life on the planet. Together, we can make a difference.

What Else Can You Do?

Every single person has the power to turn the tide, even if you aren’t planning an open ocean cruise any time soon.

Fore go single use plastics. Most immediately, we can all work to reduce the vast amount of plastics that finds its way into the oceans via waterways and storm water run-offs. Buy reusable grocery bags and fore go using single-use plastics in any capacity. It’s well documented that plastics are systematically poisoning our wildlife, but as it turns out plastics are poisoning people too. A recent study by Dr. Rochman et al, (Nature, Nov 2013) showed that plastic breaks down into ‘micro-plastics’ and are ingested by fish. The persistent organic pollutants (POPs) leech harmful chemicals into fish flesh that we, in turn, consume.

Participate in local citizen science projects. Professor Jay Cullen at the University of Victoria is heading up an initiative to measure for Fukushima-derived radionuclides in seawater and marine organisms, collected in Canada’s Pacific and Arctic Oceans. Participating is as easy as collecting a bucket of water at your local estuary. For more information, please visit www.fukushimainform.ca or email Professor Cullen directly.

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  1. Jennifer Handley says:

    Tony Gooch and I had a great conversation with Rachelle re BCA and OCC members getting involved in this initiative. Hope this article sparks some interest!

  2. Tony Peacock says:

    Interested in the OSMO project. Current sailing in the eastern caribbean. Sailing to Panama this year by way of Jamaica, then crossing into the Pacific for a few years. Full time live aboard sailors on a 41′ catamaran. Love to help.

    1. Hello Tony,
      So great to hear that you are interested in the OSMO project! The best way to go about it is to contact Rachelle by email: Rachelle@IndigoVExpeditions.com.

      You may also poke around in the website: http://indigovexpeditions.com/ and see if you can get any additional information on how you can get involved.
      Cheers,

  3. Jennifer Handley says:

    Here’s another article just published this week about Indigo V’s ongoing work: http://mission-blue.org/2015/02/citizen-oceanography-meets-the-marine-microbiome/.