SOCCOM Scientists help advance study of ocean acidification with XPRIZE funds

SOCCOM scientists are working to expand observations of ocean acidification with a little help from an XPRIZE. SOCCOM Associate Director Ken Johnson is a lead scientist on Team Durafet, a top finisher in the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE competition to develop accurate, stable and precise pH sensors for observing ocean chemistry. The team donated their $250,000 prize to the University of Washington Argo Group, headed by SOCCOM Observations Co-Lead Steve Riser, to enable the Argo program to expand its observations to include ocean acidification.

Check Presentationfrom left to right: Jim Hochstein – Sea-Bird Electronics; Bob Carlson – Honeywell; Ken Johnson – MBARI, SOCCOM; Lisa Graumlich – Dean, College of the Environment, UW; Ginger Armbrust – Director, School of Oceanography; UW, Jyotika Virmani – XPRIZE; Tom Mitchell – Sea-Bird Electronics


To read more about the prize and its impacts, read the stories linked below.

"Oceanography consortium donates XPrize winnings to UW sensor lab"

"Team of Leading Environmental and Aerospace Institutions Donates Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE Winnings to University of Washington Foundation”

Wendy Schmidt XPRIZE awards $2 Million to innovative pH solutions; 2nd place goes to SOCCOM collaborators

by Shannon Osaka and Greta Shum

Live Stream of Event Available here.


Before a crowd of innovators and engineers, oceanographers and philanthropists, members of Team Sunburst Sensors walked across the stage at the Harold Pratt house in New York City Monday night to receive the first grand prize: a $750,000 check, awarded for the most affordable pH sensor capable of measuring the effects of ocean acidification. Just moments later, the same team climbed the stage again to accept the second grand prize, this one for the most accurate sensor. The ceremony was the crowning event of the second Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, a competition challenging international teams of scientists and engineers to create groundbreaking pH sensor technology capable of transforming our ability to monitor ocean acidification caused by global warming.

Sunburst Sensors TeamSunburst Sensors Team. Image courtesy of Climate Central.


Sunburst CEO James Beck shook his head as he accepted the second giant check, his colleague Michael DeGrandpre hoisting the second of their two trophies into the air, grinning proudly.

All five finalist teams were present at the awards ceremony: Teams DuraFET, Sunburst Sensors and Xylem of the United States, Britain’s Team ANB Sensors, and Japan’s Team HpHS. There were two purses, each with a $750,000 first prize and a $250,000 second prize. ANB Sensors took home second for affordability, while SOCCOM’s DuraFET nabbed second in accuracy.

But the undisputed winner of the night was Sunburst Sensors, the small team from Montana. It took first in both accuracy and affordability, netting $1.5 million. In a video profile played just before the awards, James Beck jokingly called himself an “inland oceanographer,” since Sunburst’s home—Missoula, Montana— is more than 500 miles from the nearest ocean. Beck also recalled that whenever one of his team members headed to a coastal city they were asked to “bring back some seawater” in a white plastic bucket for the lab. Despite this limitation, Team Sunburst managed to win both of the biggest checks in the room.

The Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, hosted by the XPRIZE Foundation and sponsored by environmental steward and philanthropist Wendy Schmidt, was created to spark innovation in ocean observations, promising recognition and support to a team that could create a sensor capable of measuring ocean acidification to a depth of 10,000 feet. The field was narrowed to five finalists—stimulating innovation at every competitive stage. This is the second of five Ocean Health XPRIZES. Schmidt is also a founding board member of Climate Central, which is an independent, non-profit science and communication organization that produces news and analysis of the impacts and causes of climate change. Climate Central also leads the Broader Impacts portion of the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling (SOCCOM) project, a research consortium led by Princeton University.

Team DuraFETTeam DuraFET. Image courtesy of XPRIZE.


One year ago, 77 teams entered the XPRIZE competition to design and build the most accurate and affordable pH sensor, including second-place finishing Team DuraFET. Ken Johnson, Hans Jannasch, and Luke Coletti of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) are all collaborators on SOCCOM and team members of Team DuraFET, which is led by Bob Carlson, a senior technical manager at Honeywell Aerospace’s Advanced Technology Group. When asked about his feelings after the event, Jannasch said that his favorite moment was hearing the announcement that his good friend and colleague, Mike DeGrandpre of Sunburst Sensors, had swept the competition: “I’m feeling really happy for Mike DeGrandpre, who’s a personal friend and longtime colleague,” said Jannasch, “and I’m really glad that he won. I wish we would have of course, but on the other hand, he really deserves it, too.”

Wendy Schmidt, the president of the Schmidt Family Foundation, emphasized the possibilities of what she termed  “coopertition”, a melding of the words cooperation and competition, that the XPRIZE cultivates through financial incentives. She added that technological feats like getting a sensor to record pH at 10,000 feet can change the entire shape of a research field. The Ocean Health XPRIZE in particular sought to address the problem of ocean acidification.

Jannasch JohnsonHans Jannasch and Ken Johnson. Image courtesy of Climate Central.

As carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations rise in the atmosphere due to the human-caused burning of fossil fuels, about 30 percent of the greenhouse gases is absorbed by the oceans, causing a phenomenon known as ocean acidification. Dissolved CO2 produces carbonic acid in the worlds’ oceans and threatens marine life. Ocean acidification has proven especially harmful to coral reefs, which host and protect some of the most diverse organisms in the world. The lack of data has prevented scientists from quantifying and predicting the effects of ocean acidification.

That’s where the XPRIZE came in. Paul Bunje, Senior Director of the Ocean Health XPRIZE, remarked that the end of the competition signified the beginning of a new era in ocean monitoring. The XPRIZE aimed not just to jumpstart the technology, he said, but also to highlight the potential market and landscape of ocean data. Sherri Goodman, who serves as the President and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, forecast a new set of economies that would emerge from these new technologies, starting with research interests and continuing to sustainable fishing practices and military strategy.

Other scientists voiced concerns that ocean acidification remains a “silent” problem. They said it has often been called the “ugly cousin” of climate change and fails to demand global attention perhaps because, as one audience member suggested, there is no perceived owner of the oceans or because, as yet, there has been no community surrounding ocean exploration and education.

Schmidt explained how the XPRIZE directly responds to this problem by producing the necessary technology, saying, “the affordable devices that emerge from the work from our teams will give scientists the tools that they need.” Paul Bunje ended the program by highlighting the fact that many of the teams, including those who had not made it to the top five, were already deploying technologies they had developed over the course of the XPRIZE competition. More information on the XPRIZE and the future of pH sensor technology is available on its website.

SOCCOM-relevant sessions at AGU Fall Meeting

AGU Fall Meeting 2015

There will be two SOCCOM-relevant sessions at the AGU Fall Meeting in December - “Observing open ocean biogeochemistry with profiling floats” (conveners Johnson, Hofmann, Claustre and Koertzinger) and "Trajectories of change in the Southern Ocean” (conveners Lancelot, Hofmann, Jaccard and Russell).

Full session abstracts are pasted below. The AGU site is now open for abstract submission, and the deadline for abstracts is August 5.

Observing Open Ocean Biogeochemistry with Profiling Floats

Submit an Abstract to this Session

Session ID#: 8581
Session Description: The annual and interannual variability of ocean biogeochemistry has been systematically observed at only a few ship-based, time series stations. Biogeochemical sensors on profiling floats now provide the opportunity to observe processes from the surface through the ocean interior with full annual resolution. Nearly 10% of the floats in the Argo array are equipped with biogeochemical sensors. These systems have enabled studies that are core to global science programs such as IMBER and SOLAS. Biogeochemical sensors on floats are used to study net community production, respiration, carbon export, nutrient supply, bloom initiation dynamics, gas exchange, and the dynamics of oxygen minimum zones. The sensor data are central to improving the representation of such processes in ocean biogeochemical models. Such studies are being conducted with profiling floats deployed throughout the world ocean. This session will focus on observational and modeling contributions based on floats and biogeochemical processes.

Primary Convener: Kenneth S Johnson, MBARI, Moss Landing, CA, United States

Conveners: Eileen E Hofmann, Old Dominion University, Gloucester, VA, United States, Herve Claustre, Laboratoire d'Oceanographie de Villefranche, Villefranche-sur-Mer, France and Arne Koertzinger, GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Kiel, Germany

Trajectories of change in the Southern Ocean

Submit an Abstract to this Session

Session ID#: 8669
Session Description: The Southern Ocean is a critical part of the Earth system and host to unique and diverse marine ecosystems. The region is experiencing rapid changes as the climate continues to warm: dynamic and thermodynamic processes are affecting sea-ice cover, oceanographic processes, atmosphere-ice-ocean interactions as well as the Antarctic ice sheet. How will these changes alter the Southern Ocean's ability to absorb heat, carbon dioxide and support ocean productivity? Will the changes result in feedbacks that accelerate or slow the rate of climate change? This session will address such questions by assessing recent insights from contemporary and palaeoclimatic observations and models. We solicit integrative contributions that explore topics such as sea ice, ice-sheet stability, biogeochemical cycling, atmosphere-ice-ocean processes and marine food webs. We will also consider contributions that explore the current and potential value of Antarctic ecosystem services and how they can be safeguarded.

Primary Convener: Christiane Lancelot, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium

Conveners: Eileen E Hofmann, Old Dominion University, Gloucester, VA, United States, Sam Jaccard, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland and Joellen L Russell, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, United States


Testing SOCCOM floats and sensors

We’ve had a busy week here at MBARI. The focus has been test deployments of two profiling floats offshore of Monterey Bay with a film crew from Climate Central (Ted Blanco and Greta Shum) recording the whole process, including drone flights during the float recovery.

Fig. 1 Greta Shum ready to go deploy floats on the R/V Paragon.


One of the keys to a successful SOCCOM program is reliable float and sensor operation. And that is a challenge. The SOCCOM network is a robotic system that must operate for years after deployment with no direct, human interaction. If there is a bug in the software (an array that overflows after a few profiles), or the wrong version of firmware code loaded, or an electronic design that fails relatively soon after deployment, then we are in deep trouble. And in the history of profiling floats, all of those things have happened. What a disaster it would be to deploy a year’s worth of floats, only to see them fail due to an avoidable problem. The only solution to that is to test, test, and test, and then do some more testing.

Fig. 2 An Apex float end cap showing the DuraFET pH sensor (lower grey cylinder) and ISUS nitrate optics (upper grey cylinder) and the ISUS light source (copper rectangle) and photodiode array (far right blue box). A yellow handheld multimeter for scale.


And testing has been our goal this week. The micro-controller used for both the ISUS nitrate sensor and the DuraFET pH sensor has gone out of production and Luke Coletti has designed a new, dual-controller that will run both sensors (and save some money since we only need one controller). But we don’t just put that new controller in floats and start deploying. First, the controller and sensors were tested extensively at MBARI. This identified a few problems on the board that were corrected, more testing was done and we were finally satisfied.

Fig. 3 Backside of the electronics under the endcap showing the new dual sensor control electronics.


A set of electronic boards and sensors were then sent to the University of Washington where they were assembled into a float and it was placed in a float simulator. The simulator allows the whole system to be exercised through a variety of conditions. This includes the equivalent of years of profiles, but also tests designed to stress the system. What happens to the interaction between the float and sensor if the float rises faster than the sensor can sample, what happens if float stays at one depth, what happens when power sags, do all the commands to the sensor operate as the float controller expects. Early tests identified one problem that could leave the sensor microcontroller in an undefined state if sensor power was cycled rapidly. This necessitated a modification to the controller board. But that also required all of the testing to be restarted. The revised controller successfully passed through all of these conditions after several months of testing and several simulated years of float operation. Were we done. No.

The next step in testing then involved building two complete floats and sensors, ballasting and pressure testing the whole assemblies, and then shipping to MBARI, for a test deployment in the ocean. Dana Swift from UW came down with the floats to oversee the process. This is what we were doing this week.

The sensors were first tested in the 1.5 million liter test tank here at MBARI, where Dana, Hans Jannasch and Luke verified that they were operating as expected. Ginger Elrod and Carole Sakamoto verified that the pH and nitrate sensors were returning acceptable measurements when compared to their observations (pH =8.035 and nitrate = 18.4 µM in the tank). Float and sensor operations all looked good.

Fig. 4 The Paragon loaded up with the testing crew (left to right; Greta, Hans Jannasch, Ted Blanco, Dana Swift and Ken J.) and floats, and ready for sea. Photo credit Ted Blanco.


Then we loaded the two floats on the R/V Paragon with Gene Massion at the helm and took them to sea. The floats were deployed in 1200 m water depth, about 20 kilometers west of Moss Landing. Of course, things never quite go to plan for an exercise like this. We’d hoped to go to sea on Wed., June 3. But the weather didn’t cooperate. A small front came through with 10 m/s (20 knot) winds and seas up to 3 m on Wednesday at NOAA buoy 46042. That’s pretty rough for a 10 m long boat. The forecast was for moderating winds on Thursday, so we delayed. Naturally, the weather didn’t moderate and we went to sea on Thursday with seas up to 3.5 m at the NOAA buoy. Despite the weather, the deployments were both successful. The floats executed 7 vertical profiles down to 1100 m depth, and all data was transmitted to shore (look for floats 9265MtyBay and 9274MtyBay on FloatViz). The weather finally did moderate and we had a beautiful trip on Saturday to recover floats (successful). And we saw killer whales, a pod of 12 humpback whales, albatross and lots of otters and sea lions.

Fig. 5 The Paragon backing up to float 9274. The next land west is Japan. Those floats are hard to see. Photo credit Ted Blanco.


Is testing done. No. One of the floats (9274) will now be shipped to Hawaii and deployed on a HOT cruise, which occur about monthly. That will give us 5 or 6 more months of float time in the ocean to finally verify that there are no unexpected problems before we start deploying this version of the float in the Southern Ocean. During this time, all the hardware and software versions are locked and no changes are allowed so no problems are inadvertently introduced. If a change is made, all the testing restarts.

That’s what it takes to develop a robust Southern Ocean observing program. Check back later for the Climate Central video story of sensor testing.

Testing SOCCOM floats and sensors

We’ve had a busy week here at MBARI. The focus has been test deployments of two profiling floats offshore of Monterey Bay with a film crew from Climate Central (Ted Blanco and Greta Shum) recording the whole process, including drone flights during the float recovery.

Fig. 1 Greta Shum ready to go deploy floats on the R/V Paragon.


What you should know about SOCCOM data

Watch Ken Johnson's webinar on the QC process for float data.

Another profile from float 9094

The next profile for float 9094 is in this morning. It will be the last one before the contest closes on the 30th. Use SOCCOMViz to examine the data:


The ice edge bloom

I wrote about the spring bloom seen by our profiling floats in my last post. Those floats were all in open water. Massive phytoplankton blooms along the ice edge are a major feature of Southern Ocean waters. Our floats operate under ice and, as the ice melts back, these float can observe the ice edge blooms.

SOCCOM Google Hangout

Join us for a Google Hangout on Air on December 4 at 2 pm!  For more information, click here.