Conservation and Biodiversity

From skies to seas: Satellites key to understanding ocean carbon

The ocean is the world’s largest carbon sink, capturing and storing carbon dioxide emitted by the burning of fossil fuels.

At the surface this capture and storing sounds like a good thing for the planet. But now, as outlined in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) special report on the ocean and cryosphereall that carbon is adding up. And that increase in carbon doesn’t bode well for the health of the oceans and marine life.

If we could better monitor and quantify this ocean carbon, however, we could better address it. And satellites are key to this process, according to a study published last week in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

“People have been using satellites to help study carbon in the ocean, but the data and methods have been used more as a tool rather than to actually fill critical holes in our knowledge,” Jamie Shutler, lead author of the paper, told Earth Day Network. “There are so many more opportunities that haven’t been exploited, and they need to be exploited if we’re really going to be able to study and monitor the health of the ocean.”

Carbon stored in our oceans doesn’t disappear. Instead, it accumulates and disrupts the natural balance of marine ecosystems. Oceans with more carbon dioxide are more acidic, which can, for example, make it harder for shellfish to grow their shells.

There are so many more opportunities that haven’t been exploited, and they need to be exploited if we’re really going to be able to study and monitor the health of the ocean.

Jamie Shutler

Satellite data, however, can be used in coordination with the data on the ground (or rather, the water) — gathered from buoys, ships, field scientists — to create a fuller picture of carbon uptake in oceans. Scientists can then use those data to inform policymakers in carbon-budgeting decisions.

“The main outcome that I hope will result from this work is to highlight the importance of the ocean — that if you don’t monitor the ocean, then you can’t close or monitor the global carbon budget,” said Shutler.

Measuring carbon emissions and the impacts of climate change is notoriously complicated. But the more data we collect, the more we can understand about where the emissions end up and what’s going on with our planet — and start to address its climate-related challenges.

Additionally, these satellites are already orbiting the planet. Though they were initially launched to monitor the wind or gas emissions over the land, these satellites can also observe how rain, wind, waves and temperature interact with the movement of heat and carbon dioxide between the ocean and the atmosphere.

All these data can not only inform policymakers but also lead conservation efforts for marine species, the study argues. The researchers published another paper this week that shows how we can observe ocean acidification parameters from space. They are now using these methods to guide conservation efforts within the World Wildlife Fund.

“The ability to measure these abiotic factors during conservation projects is imperative,” says Katie Wood, campaign manager for Earth Day Network’s Conservation and Biodiversity program. “It allows for scientists to better understand which areas are more at risk and as a result, create a tailored conservation plan that may have a greater impact.”

The paper followed some of Shutler’s previous research, published in Global Biochemical Cycles in September. This earlier research showed the ocean is taking in more carbon than originally thought, potentially exacerbating the damaging effects of warming and acidification on marine life and the ocean.

Understanding carbon uptake is a numbers game, and if we’re going to start addressing the impacts of climate change, we need to know how much carbon we’re dealing with. Satellites might help us do just that.

Learn more about how climate change affects marine life and what you can do about it at Earth Day Network’s endangered species page. Or, contribute your own data and join Earth Challenge 2020, the world’s largest citizen science initiative.

Image at top: The state of Florida, with the Gulf of Mexico on its east coast, the Atlantic Ocean on its west coast and the International Space Station’s solar arrays in the foreground, 254 miles above Earth’s surface. Photo editor: Mark Garcia, NASA