October 15, 2010

Elephant Seals To Play Key Role In Climate Change Research

A team of Australian scientists has announced that they are looking to create a new, global climate change monitoring network using state of the art technology--and elephant seals.

In order to study the oceans surrounding their nation, the scientists are turning to a set of high-tech tools known as the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS). Among the tools utilized by the IMOS are autonomous profiling floats that will help detect cracks in sea ice, satellite tags equipped to the aforementioned seals and other marine mammals, underwater gliders that will take measurements and can be controlled remotely, and climate recording stations build to withstand harsh conditions.

"What is happening in the open ocean is vitally important to all Australians and their understanding of local and regional climate," IMOS Director Tim Moltmann said in a statement on Thursday. "It drives our climate and weather extremes, is the workplace for offshore industries and maritime defense activities and contains a diversity of marine life that currently is barely described."

"We need to observe this part of the earth system to understand how it's changing, and what the impacts might be on current and future generations of Australians," he added.

The IMOS, which has already received more than $100 million in funding from the Australian government, will feature the work of oceanic and climatic scientists from academic and research institutions throughout the country. Furthermore, the U.S., France, the United Kingdom, and Korea have also pledged their support for the project, according to the IMOS website.

According to David Fogarty, the Asian Climate Change Correspondent for Reuters, "Oceans regulate the world's climate by soaking up heat and shifting it around the globe. They also absorb huge amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide, acting as a brake on the pace of climate change"¦ But scientists say they need to ramp up a global monitoring network, with the Southern Ocean between Australia and Antarctica playing a key role. The Southern Ocean is a major 'sink' of mankind's carbon emissions and an engine of the world's climate."

Fogarty also reports that the elephant seals will play a key role in the research. Thanks to a recent funding increase, the Reuters reporter notes that approximately 100 of the creature will be fitted with small antennas on their heads, which will be used to measure temperature, salinity, and water pressure while the seals are diving in search of food.


Image 1: Elephant seal with a satellite tag Credit: C. Oosthuizen

Image 2: Weather buoy rides a wave in the Southern Ocean Credit: E.Schulz


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