Scientists who study the ocean have access to more sophisticated data than ever before yet are at risk of squandering it if they fail to explore and harness that information for good, said one of Dal's top ocean research leaders at an international conference last week.
Anya Waite, associate vice-president, ocean research at Dal, and scientific director for the Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI), emphasized the need for Canada to be a global leader in transforming this “flood” of data into vital information.
“Whoever understands the data, understands where the world is heading,” said Dr. Waite, in a keynote speech at the IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership Summit.
“We should be moving away from holding on to our data sets and moving towards a full-blown exploration of data,” she added. “We have a moral responsibility to see how these data flows can support our understanding in moving towards sustainability.”
Capturing data on climate regulation
Her speech, titled An Ocean of Information: Challenges and Opportunities of Data-rich Seascape, drew particular attention to ocean data’s role in helping understand and manage climate change. She explained that technological advancement has significantly aided our understanding of the process of climate regulation by the oceans.
“If we really want to understand climate change in the global context, we need to think about the ocean,” she said, noting that oceans control our climate because they hold 100 times the heat in our atmosphere and 50 times the carbon-dioxide.
Some of Dr. Waite’s own research focuses on examining the effects of plankton on climate regulation.
Plankton float freely in the ocean, commonly serving as food for larger organisms. Another integral function of plankton, however, is their ability to regulate climate through fluxes.
“Plankton suck up carbon-dioxide for growth and form clusters and aggregates known as marine snow on the surface of the ocean, and then they sink carrying the carbon with them. So they are a conduit for our climate,” she said.
Dr. Waite discussed how various imaging and sensing technologies have assisted ocean scientists in understanding the variability and fluxes in plankton growth and movement.
She described technologies like the Biogeochemical or BCG Argo, which are free-floating devices capable of sinking 2000 meters into the ocean before rising to the surface. These floats can be in the oceans for at least two weeks, and their sensors will detect temperature, salinity, and pH levels.
Describing the impact of the floats, she said, “they were the first systematic observation of the world’s ocean. Absolutely transformative. They change the scale of what we know about climate change.”
Tracking animal movements
Another technology she highlighted was acoustic tags for tracking animals across the oceans. She displayed graphs that showed the movement patterns of basking sharks, eels, and rays.
“We have absolutely no idea why the animals are moving the way they are moving,” she said. “Not only are we probing the ocean and learning more about the organism, but we are also asking new questions.”
She explained that this new information could influence policies on fishing and shipping routes.
“We are now at an inflection point where the flood data is becoming a whole new system to manage,” she said, “and it becomes dangerous if we don’t position ourselves currently in that environment, because data now flows like a river.”
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