The motion of the ocean is often thought of in horizontal terms, for instance in the powerful currents that sweep around the planet, or the waves that ride in and out along a coastline. But there is also plenty of vertical motion, particularly in the open seas, where water from the deep can rise up, bringing nutrients to the upper ocean, while surface waters sink, sending dead organisms, along with oxygen and carbon, to the deep interior.

Oceanographers use instruments to characterise the vertical mixing of the ocean’s waters and the biological communities that live there. But these tools are limited in their ability to capture small-scale features, such as the up- and down-welling of water and organisms over a small, kilometer-wide ocean region. Such features are essential for understanding the makeup of marine life that exists in a given volume of the ocean (such as in a fishery), as well as the amount of carbon that the ocean can absorb and sequester away.

Now researchers at MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have engineered a lightweight instrument that measures both physical and biological features of the vertical ocean over small, kilometer-wide patches. The “ocean profiler,” named EcoCTD, is about the size of a waist-high model rocket and can be dropped off the back of a moving ship. As it free-falls through the water, its sensors measure physical features, such as temperature and salinity, as well as biological properties, such as the optical scattering of chlorophyll, the green pigment of phytoplankton.

“With EcoCTD, we can see small-scale areas of fast vertical motion, where nutrients could be supplied to the surface, and where chlorophyll is carried downward, which tells you this could also be a carbon pathway. That’s something you would otherwise miss with existing technology,” says Mara Freilich, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences and the MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography/Applied Ocean Sciences and Engineering.

Freilich and her colleagues have published their results in the Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology. The paper’s co-authors are J. Thomas Farrar, Benjamin Hodges, Tom Lanagan, and Amala Mahadevan of WHOI, and Andrew Baron of Dynamic System Analysis, in Nova Scotia. The lead author is Mathieu Dever of WHOI and RBR, a developer of ocean sensors based in Ottawa.

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