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Author: L. Gartry
Source: The ABC
Date: 5 January 2016

A team of Australian researchers is about to set sail for one of the most remote islands on Earth in a bid to release robots for climate research. 

The team from the CSIRO is planning to launch floating robots near Heard Island and McDonald Islands (HIMI), far off the West Australian coast, to measure how much carbon is gathering on the sea floor.

It is not a journey for the faint hearted” the expedition will set off from Perth and travel 9,000 kilometres to Hobart via the Antarctic HIMI over almost two months. About 40 scientists onboard the $120 million RV Investigator will sail through some of the worst sailing conditions in the world with waves of up to 16 metres high.

Along the way, the team will drop off several bio-Argo floats — or sea robots — to help researchers study active underwater volcanos. The bio-Argo floats measure large-scale changes in the chemistry and biology of marine ecosystems below the Indian Ocean’s surface.

The robots can dive down two kilometres and instantly send back biological data via a satellite, four times a day. The individual Argo floats are comprised of a network of 3,600 free-floating sensors, operating in open ocean areas to provide real-time data on ocean temperature and salinity.

As well as temperature and pH levels, the sensors also capture the amount of dissolved oxygen, nitrate, chlorophyll, organic matter and particle scattering. CSIRO researchers will use them to look at how much carbon dioxide from fossil fuels ends up on the sea bed, captured and carried down from the atmosphere by algae or phytoplankton.

Changes to ocean algae ‘vital’

The area where the Antarctic waters meet the Indian Ocean is an algae hotspot. CSIRO researcher Nick Hardman-Mountford said the results would show how increased levels of carbon dioxide were affecting oceans.

“Understanding how the algae take the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is really important for us in understanding climate change and how the ocean plays a role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” he said.

Dr Hardman-Mountford said understanding changes to ocean algae was vital because it was critical to the marine ecosystem and the planet’s oxygen levels. “One of every two breaths we breathe comes from phytoplankton, so understanding how these little cells grow and how they might change as the oceans warm with climate change is crucial,” he said.

The algae climate study is part of a larger project into live underwater volcanos in the Southern Ocean. The ship sets sail on Thursday from Fremantle Port. The study trip will cost about $67,000 per day.

Read the article on The ABC.