Tracking ocean acidification across political boundaries: NOAA-Hakai Institute collaboration

The Pacific Ocean has no borders. However, tracking ocean conditions across political borders requires coordination and collaboration. The Hakai Institute’s two coastal ecological observatories are situated almost perfectly at the center of the British Columbia-sized geographical gap between Washington and Alaska. With scientific facilities on both Calvert and Quadra Islands in British Columbia, the Hakai Institute is uniquely placed to add a Canadian complement to NOAA’s ocean acidification monitoring in US waters.

In 2016, I joined the Hakai Institute as the science lead for ocean acidification research. The workhorse of our program is our “Burke-0-Lator” on Quadra Island, an innovative system developed by Professor Burke Hales at Oregon State University to track the growing problem of ocean acidification. I’ve worked with many coastal monitoring systems from northern California to Alaska, but the Burke-o-Lator stands out.

Oregon State University Professor Burke Hales (left) and Hakai Institute research scientist Wiley Evans (right) stand next to Hakai’s “Burke-o-Lator” system on Quadra Island. Photo credit: Josh Silberg, Hakai Institute

The Burke-o-Lator is a mechanical multi-tasker—a masterful combination of technologies that allows carbon dioxide partial pressure (pCO2, which can be thought of as a concentration of carbon dioxide in the air that mixes and equilibrates with the ocean) and dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) to be measured simultaneously from both a constantly-flowing seawater stream and a discrete sample bottle collected elsewhere. This means we can monitor CO2 chemistry continuously at one site while processing other samples at the same time.

Since the Burke-o-Lator is a new technology, we need to ground truth its measurements and compare them to established collection methods. That is one of my primary objectives on the 2016 West Coast Ocean Acidification research cruise. The NOAA PMEL Carbon Program is a world leader in the analysis of DIC in seawater, so this research cruise is an opportunity to validate our analyses against a “gold standard.”

Map of station locations (in blue) where discrete samples were taken for analysis on the Hakai Institute’s Burke-o-Lator system.  After samples were measured, these measurements were calibrated and compared to those made by the NOAA PMEL Carbon Group. Figure credit: Wiley Evans
Jon sampling
Jon Sharp, a graduate student at the University of South Florida, collects a sample for analysis on Hakai’s Burke-o-Lator system. The sample bottles we use are 350-mL amber glass bottles and have a rather unique look when compared to typical oceanographic sample bottles. Photo credit: Katie Douglas

During this research cruise, we have collected discrete samples for pCO2 and DIC measurement from 12 depths at 33 locations between Oregon and British Columbia. These samples were drawn from the Niskin bottles on the CTD rosette immediately following the collection of PMEL’s DIC samples, and will be compared for consistency to our samples analyzed with the Burke-o-Lator on Quadra Island.

We also had the opportunity for Hakai Institute research vessels to meet up with the NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown off the two Hakai Institute research stations, where we collected identical measurements simultaneously from both ships. These comparisons are important because they allow us to identify potential sources of collection error and ensure that different institutions report data of the same quality. We all strive to be able to treat data from different sources with the same confidence—to compare oceanographic apples to apples.

The collaboration between the NOAA PMEL Carbon Program and the Hakai Institute, as well as with other institutional leaders in marine CO2 chemistry, is critical to tackle challenging problems like ocean acidification. These collective efforts help us refine our ideas, share insights, and work together to better understand the changing oceans.

Dick and Wiley
Richard Feely from NOAA PMEL (left) and Wiley Evans of the Hakai Institute (right) enjoy a sunny afternoon aboard the ship. Photo credit: Meghan Shea

On a personal level, sailing on the West Coast Ocean Acidification research cruise with the cohort of CO2 analysts and biologists has been extremely enlightening. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and together we will better understand how ocean acidification will manifest across different coastal regions and what the implications will be for marine ecosystems.

Family of one of the WCOA2016 scientists visits a beach near the Campbell River as the NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown passes in the background. Photo credit: R. Saraga

Written by Wiley Evans

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