What if tiny ocean organisms could whisk away excess greenhouse gasses? It’s a big idea to deal with a big problem, which is why Discovery Channel included a University of Hawaiʻi research cruise in the inaugural lineup of its new series, Discovery Project Earth.
University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Professor of Oceanography David Karl and Oregon State University colleague Ricardo Letelier (PhD ’94 Mānoa) proposed the notion of using ocean pumps to bring nutrient-rich deep seawater to the surface to induce algal blooms. The microorganisms would suck up atmospheric carbon dioxide, and then sink back into the depths, the researchers hypothesize.
The idea grew out of 20 years of Hawaiʻi Ocean Time Series data that reveal cycles of natural upwelling at Station ALOHA north of Oʻahu. Testing it was just the kind of “science in the making” Discovery had in mind for its new show, so a film crew of 12 tagged along on UH’s R/V Kilo Moana as scientists deployed three experimental pumps, temperature sensors and a remotely controlled data collecting Seaglider.
The pumps were essentially 300-meter flexible tubes suspended from a buoy; the rise-and-fall action of passing waves operated a one-way valve at the bottom to pump water up the tube.
Did it work? Viewers got a taste for the oft times frustrating trial-and-refinement process that is science. Researchers were disappointed in the performance of the pumps, but encouraged by some promising scientific results.
Working with a film crew created its own challenges, says Chief Scientist Eric Grabowski—like condensing a year’s worth of planning into three months and staging re-enactments to meet filming requirements. But he and Karl agree it was worth the effort to demonstrate the importance of ocean science to billions of viewers worldwide and possibly help secure funding for future Ocean Productivity Perturbation Experiments.
The Hungry Oceans episode of Discovery Project Earth premiered on Sept. 5, 2008. Karl and Letelier’s scientific discussion is reported in Marine Ecology Progress Series, vol. 364. Funding for the research was provided by the National Science Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.