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Floating on the Other Side of the World
Posted 02/10/2020 03:26PM

By Tiffany King

Right now, on the other side of the world is an aquatic, robotic float adopted by the College of Coastal Georgia that is taking measurements of its environment to contribute to the understanding of one of the planet's most important ecosystems. The float, named "Mud Skipper," is currently underneath the surface of the Southern Ocean off the tip of Australia.


Mud Skipper is currently off the coast of Australia near Perth. Map provided by the Monterery Bay Aquarium Research Institute and originally developed by Kelley Kearney of University of Washington.

Mud Skipper, and approximately 200 floats like it, are part of the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling (SOCCOM) project. SOCCOM is a collaborative program focused on understanding the Southern Ocean and its influence on the global climate. The SOCCOM project is administered by the Princeton Environmental Institute at Princeton University, in collaboration with Scripps Institution of Oceanography/UCSD; Monterey Bay Aquarium Institute; University of Washington; University of Arizona; the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University; University of Maine; and Rutgers University. SOCCOM is supported by the National Science Foundation.

SOCCOM observation teams have deployed profiling floats with biogeochemical sensors throughout the Southern—or Antarctic—Ocean to measure carbon (pH), nutrients (nitrate), and oxygen levels, among other things. The ocean plays an important role in the planet's carbon and climate cycles. Rising carbon dioxide levels are projected to be most severe in the Southern Ocean, which will affect ocean ecosystems around the world. SOCCOM's modeling studies will help researchers understand the implications of changes in the Southern Ocean for climate change.

Assistant Professor of Environmental Science Dr. Kimberly Takagi learned about the SOCCOM project at a recent conference in December. SOCCOM representatives shared that educational institutions—colleges, high schools, elementary schools, etc.—could adopt and name a float, and gain access to its data for classroom instruction. Takagi thought it would be a great opportunity for Coastal Georgia students to adopt a float, learn how to analyze its data, and ultimately help contribute to oceanography research.

"These floats are taking measurements of oxygen, carbon, light, salinity and temperature at depth," Takagi said. "The floats are programmed to sink for a period of time and then a mechanism will cause them to float back up. The whole time, they're taking data."

Through SOCCOM, Coastal Georgia has joined a consortium of scientists and researchers around the world who want to better understand our oceans.

The name "Mud Skipper" references Takagi's love of coastal organisms and the coast's muddy conditions. Before Mud Skipper was deployed, University of Tasmania undergraduate student Sylvie King illustrated a mud skipper on the float with a sailor's hat in honor of the Mariners. Mud Skipper was deployed in the Heard Island region near Antarctica in early January. Currently, Mud Skipper is taking measurements of its underwater terrain near Perth, Australia. Mud Skipper was also featured in the SOCCOM at Sea blog's weekly report, with a video showing its deployment into the ocean.


Mud Skipper SOCCOM float being deployed by RV investigator crew members. Photo by David Dieckfoss.


University of Tasmania student Sylvie King and her illustration of Mud Skipper on the SOCCOM float adopted by the College of Coastal Georgia. Photo by David Dieckfoss.

With the raw data collected by Mud Skipper, Takagi's students can input the data and plot measurements to see the data visualized. Students will also be able to compare data between floats to analyze and discuss differences or similarities between locations. Data collected by all SOCCOM floats are open access.

"Through this project, I want my students to go through the entirety of the research process, where they get to make some observations about what's going on in the Southern Ocean. I want them to look at the data, do the quantitative comparisons, and then make their own conclusions about what processes are occurring. How is nitrate distributed? How is oxygen distributed and what might be some of the reasons for those differences?" Takagi said. "I really want students doing research and thinking of things that are not ascribed because I don't know the answers to what they'll be looking at—but I want them to try and see."

Takagi hopes that students will take away an understanding and appreciation of large-scale research projects that require the collaboration and skillsets of many people from around the world.

"Science happens regardless of what's happening in the world politically," Takagi said. "Scientists generally, to me, want to collaborate and share data for the sake of science and for the sake of furthering the knowledge of humanity. I find that really cool. It's a place where everyone is on the same playing field. It doesn't matter where you come from. I think it's cool that they are allowing anyone to participate in this project."

Learn more about the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling project at https://soccom.princeton.edu.

To read about Mud Skipper's deployment and to watch the video, check out the "SOCCOM at Sea" blog at https://soccomatsea.blogspot.com. Look for the blog post titled "Weekly Report #1 (6-12 January 2020)"

To keep up with Mud Skipper do the following:

  • Go to https://soccom.princeton.edu
  • Click on the Observations tab
  • Go down to Data Access
  • Click on Interactive Map
  • Under Float search, enter Mud Skipper's identification number: 18852
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