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Riding the Waves of Climate Change, Part 1: Flowmeters Help Change the Way Research is Done

Feb 28, 2012

Back in December, I shared how the Sierra Smart-Trak flowmeter traveled to Antarctica in 2006 with Stanford University researcher David Mucciarone. As a critical component of his data collection efforts, the flow meter helped him measure the breakdown of inorganic carbon during the Antarctic summer bloom. This important R&D work directly correlated with studies on global warming.

Fast forward six years. I recently caught up with Mucciarone and discovered the scope of his research has expanded tremendously. Because of the costly nature of the Antarctica trip ($40,000 a day!) and the narrow window of time for optimal testing, he’s doing more research on the oceans’ coral reefs and kelp forests. His amazing itinerary has included:

  • The California coast near Monterey, just a few short miles from us here at Sierra Instruments

  • Palau, an island about 500 miles east of the Philippines

  • Palmyra, a Hawaiian atoll

  • Samoa, an island to the east of Australia and New Zealand

  • Torrens Island, Australia

In each location, he continues to study ocean acidification, the name scientists have given to the apparent decrease in pH of the earth’s oceans as they absorb more inorganic carbon from the atmosphere. Mucciarone and others want to know: as levels of carbonic acid gradually increase, will plants and other carbonate things like coral adapt – or begin to dissolve?

But, there’s a catch. Since oceans cover 71 percent of the earth, how can he prove that his findings aren’t just an anomaly or endemic to the small area where he’s testing?

The Move to Continuous, Real-Time Sampling Using a Digital Flowmeter

Traditionally, water samples are collected in a “discrete” manner using rosettes that are thrown over the side of the boat or a pump affixed to the boat’s bottom, and all samples are taken at approximately the same depth. The sample is then shipped to a lab or brought on board the boat where the researcher tests it for pH, fluorescence, salinity and much more.  The downside: you only capture a brief image of a very large and very complex system.

Mucciarone says, “There’s only so much data you can collect from [discrete] water samples. They’re nothing more than teeny snapshots. And people will try and poke holes in the argument by saying, ‘What if you’d taken a sample two days later or a month later? Are your findings exaggerated or depeleted because you happened to catch it at the right moment in time?’ They’ll question the validity of our findings, so we have to change how we look at things.”

And that’s exactly what he’s done. In his lab at Stanford, Mucciarone created his own chromatography-based, flow-through system that provides continuous, real-time monitoring – not just teeny snapshots. The two key components of the flow-through system he’s currently using are a digital syringe pump and – get this – the very same Smart-Trak 100 flow meter he had with him in Antarctica in 2006! He combines his device with a series of tubes that can take samples in many different strategic places and at many different levels.

Now when he samples, he can test the water in real time, 24 hours a day. He adds, “Every five minutes, I collect different samples. Every five seconds, I take measurements. I can look at all kinds of interesting cycles: minutes to hours to days to tidal cycles to weeks and even months (if I can be out there that long).”

I was thrilled to learn that Sierra Instruments is helping Mucciarone conduct cutting-edge climate change research. That means the findings about global warming will be even more reliable. In the long run, that’s what it will take to convince the larger scientific community and people all over the world that we must protect our oceans and the delicate ecosystems that live within them.

Erica Giannini, Marketing Manager
Written By:
Erica Giannini, Marketing Manager
Sierra Instruments

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