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Tracking climate change impacts on the ocean via online portal

Photo Credit: David Lawrey/University of Technology Sydney

Climate change effects and impacts on the ocean is often seen through its larger inhabitants such as the scrawny polar bears, bleached corals, and dwindling catch in fishing nets.

But similarly, microscopic marine organisms play a critical role in the biosphere. Marine microbes serve as the foundational building block of the underwater food-web.

More importantly, it is estimated that marine microbes consume almost 50% of the Earth’s carbon dioxide through the process of photosynthesis.

Unfortunately, because it is invisible to the naked eye, the health and movement of marine microbes that drift as part of the plankton is difficult to picture, even for scientists, more so for everyday citizens.

Visualising the range of conditions that drifting marine microbes encounter is a challenge that brought together a group of expert scientists and visual designers.

Online citizen science project

According to a recent press release, they worked together to create the online citizen science project called Adrift.

Adrift is a portal that connects the public with the lives of microscopic marine microbes as they are propelled around the globe by ocean currents, with temperature and nutrient availability changing along the way.

The lead researcher and biological oceanographer from the University of Technology Sydney described Adrift as a way to engage a diversity of participants.

These participants include those who may not have technical or scientific expertise.

People should be given the chance to view the conditions that microbes experience in different parts of the ocean.

Observing microbes

This will provide clues to their capacity to adapt to the relatively fast pace of human-induced changes in ocean conditions.

As such, microbes get to experience diverse conditions along their paths when they are drifting in different surface currents.

Since scientists cannot be in the ocean to look at the plankton in all these places, a method to visualise their experience based on ocean simulations was created.

Adrift is unique in the way that it visually maps and summarises the specific conditions for plankton in any given location in the ocean.

It allows citizen scientists to virtually ‘drop’ microbes into the global ocean.

What can the people learn?

The data produced by participants includes the geographic path travelled as well as variations in temperature and nutrients experienced by the microbes.

Participants can learn about, map and record these variations using visual tools, thereby enabling researchers to areas of the ocean where real-life microbes are experiencing the most extreme changes along their drift paths.

This platform is a great entry point for students and citizens to get involved and start to understand the challenges of living in the ocean today.

Government support

The project is funded by the Inspiring Australia: Science engagement in Australia initiative of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.

This initiative contributes to the government’s vision to engage all Australians with science.

Meanwhile, project partners include the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS).

IMOS is a national collaborative research infrastructure, supported by Australian Government. It is operated by a consortium of institutions as an unincorporated joint venture.

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