Our ocean offers a potential buffer against climate change. It takes up and stores carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in a process known as the biological carbon pump. Without life in the ocean providing this pump scientists think atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations could be 50% higher than they are even now.
The National Oceanography Centre’s (NOC) Ocean BioGeoscience (OBG) scientists are at the forefront of studying the ocean component of the global carbon cycle, and how it is entwined with marine life and the ocean environment. For this month’s scientist spotlight, we spoke to Dr Nathan Briggs about his role in using ocean robots to understand this complex system and how it’s impacted by our changing climate.
What is your role in research at NOC?
I am a biological oceanographer and biogeochemist. My work focuses primarily on the uptake of carbon by ocean life and then what happens to that carbon. The main tools I use for my research are robotic underwater “floats” and “gliders”, which sample the ocean autonomously for months to years, allowing us to observe much more of the ocean than people on ships alone.
The biological cycling of carbon in the ocean is critical as both the foundation of ocean life and also as a driver of atmospheric CO2 drawdown. As our ocean changes due to warming, acidification, and other human influences, the ocean’s biological carbon cycle is likely to change, with important impacts on ocean ecosystems and feedbacks on climate. But we still have big gaps in our knowledge of this fundamental ocean cycle. We need to close these gaps to understand our impacts on the ocean and plan for the future.
What drew you to working in this area?
I have been interested in our planet’s life and ecosystems as long as I can remember. I’m also attracted to new technologies and love the opportunity and challenge of large datasets. After studying terrestrial ecology at university, I stumbled came across the field of robotic oceanography a bit by chance, but I quickly fell in love with it. The interior of our ocean has traditionally been very hard to study, leaving lots left to discover. This new observing technology is suddenly allowing us to collect much more data, so this is an exciting moment to be an oceanographer.
What science are you currently working on?
I’m currently leading the project Global Ocean Sinking Carbon Flux and Variability (GLOBESINK). This project aims to investigate the drivers of biological carbon sequestration in the ocean, using a global network of over 300 robotic “profiling floats”, which NOC is helping to create.
These floats drift in the ocean and can change their buoyancy to move between the surface and up to 2 km depth using very little energy from their onboard battery. Along the way, they make an array of physical, chemical, and biological measurements. This includes measurements of particles in the water. GLOBESINK is using these measurements to better understand the role that sinking particles play in storing carbon in the deep ocean. The project expects this massive new global dataset to yield important new insights into the main drivers of ocean carbon storage and how this storage will be affected by change in the ocean.
What is your favourite thing about the work you do?
Research expeditions are always exciting, because I get to explore different parts of the ocean and how it works alongside colleagues from around the world. We always find something new and unexpected. Recently, though, the growing array of autonomous ocean sensors, whose data are shared freely in real time, are giving us entirely new ways to explore the ocean. It’s becoming a bit like exploring the world’s roads using Google Street View. If I’m curious about the temperature, oxygen levels, or carbon uptake almost anywhere in the ocean, I can pick a place, a date, and a year, and “travel” there virtually. This means that I can experience some of the fun of ocean exploration every day, rather than just on occasional expeditions.
What impact does your science have on society?
My research aims to better understand the fundamental controls on ocean life and how this life influences our climate. We know that we are already changing the oceans through warming, acidification, fishing, and de-oxygenation. But we still don’t know the full and complex impact of our actions on the ocean ecosystems that we value. My hope is that my research will help humanity understand both how we impact ocean ecosystems and how they impact us, so that we can do our best to make both of these impacts more positive into the future.
More from Dr Nathan Briggs
Check out our feature article in the recently published Eco Magazine Deep Dive I: Ocean Observation, where Dr Nathan Briggs shines a spotlight on the Argo programme. The international programme uses thousands of robotic floats to measure an expanding range of ocean properties, acting as our window into the ocean from the surface to thousands of meters deep.
The issue reveals the latest in ocean observing collaborations, technology, and industry trends, in collaboration with NOC and Schmidt Ocean Institute.