Before Ken Johnson was a chemical oceanographer deploying thousands of robots into seas around the globe, he was a commercial salmon fisherman in the Pacific Northwest, earning his way through university.

Ken Johnson. Photo: Chris Lambie

“All through high school and college I made my living by killing Canadian salmon,” Johnson, now the senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, told about 200 people Thursday night at the Halifax Central Public Library.

“Sitting in a fishing boat I learned a few things. One was that I wasn’t going to be a very good commercial fisherman. It’s a special thing to do and I just wasn’t going to be able to do it. But the other thing was that the ocean has tremendous variability in it. And that is what really piqued my interest — how do we study the variability in the ocean?”

Spending three months at sea on a ship didn’t give him a good sense of what was happening in the ocean.

“You have to be there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for decades, to really get an understanding of the things that drive this kind of variability in the ocean if you really want to get a grip on it.”

To that end, Johnson took a position with an institute, funded by the private fortune of the late David Packard of Hewlett-Packard fame, to develop better technology to study the ocean.

Johnson invents chemical sensors that work in harsh ocean environments. He came up with a various pieces of equipment, including a nitrate sensor, that the Halifax outfit Satlantic, now known as Sea-Bird Scientific, commercialized and has sold more than $50 million worth over the past 15 years.

Besides salmon and lobster, the ocean provides us with an amazing number of services of global significance, he said. “And all of these services that the ocean provides us come with an increasing price caused by human activities.”

The ocean absorbs about 93 per cent of the excess heat that the earth has received due to increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Johnson said. “If it were not for the heat absorbed by the ocean, the world would be a much different place. But the heat that it absorbs comes at a cost.”

He pointed to new research that shows warming and subsequent ice melting will likely alter ocean circulations. “It’s the overturn in circulation that essentially keeps the North Atlantic countries — Northern Europe — warm, and it is fundamentally the conveyor belt of the ocean.”

Warming will likely alter maximum catch potentials for fishermen, Johnson said. “You can take them with a grain of salt, but the point to take home is that we should have better ways to understand how these processes might change in the ocean. Catch potential may increase. In some areas, catch potential may decrease. Whether that happens or not, we don’t know. And we won’t know unless we observe.”

Carbon dioxide in the surface ocean is going up at the same rate it is in the atmosphere, Johnson said. That’s acidifying the ocean, which could have some potentially serious implications, he said.

In the Southern Ocean, there’s a tipping point looming where marine animals with shells made of calcium carbonate begin to have tremendous problems, Johnson said.

Acidic waters could dissolve the shells of little marine snails that make up 40 per cent of the diet of salmon in the North Pacific in their oceanic stage, he said.

“More close to home, if CO2 goes up in places where the deep ocean upwells to the surface,” oyster larvae will dissolve in corrosive water and hatcheries will have to shut down, Johnson said.

If these projections don’t come true, that’s great, he said. “But there’s some probability they will; we should observe more.”

Instead, the number of observations made from ships, which are expensive to operate, have gone down in recent years, Johnson said.

“There are parts of the ocean where you can drop the United States and really have almost no time series of measurements.”

Cue his thrust for more robotic, autonomous observation platforms equipped with sensors that can bear witness to ocean chemistry and biology.

Dana Swift (Left,University of Washington) holds an Argo Float, an autonomous, free-floating ocean device that collects a variety of data, including temperature, to over 6,000 feet, every 10 days for over four years without the need of a ship once deployed (right). Each instrument weighs approximately 65 pounds. Photos: NOAA

Oceanographers are already using data from an international array of about 3,900 robots (Canada has 74 of them) involved in what’s known in scientific circles as the Argo program. These 30-kilogram probes — which look like a syringe about the size of a small human — can dive to depths of 2,000 metres, take measurements of temperatures and salinity, and then transmit them back to scientists via satellite upon surfacing.

“These floats are populating the world’s oceans,” Johnson said.

They carry enough batteries to last about seven years. “It will sink to 1,000 metres, drift for typically 10 days, then sink to 2,000 metres, and then rise to the surface making measurements as it rises,” he said. “Within a day, the data is available on the Internet, without restriction, to anyone in the world to analyze.”

Graphic: NOAA

Johnson is a huge advocate for equipping the robots with chemical sensors.

“Ten years ago this was sort of a figment of our imagination,” he said. “If you’re a chemist in the lab, the first thing you do every day is calibrate your instrument. You might calibrate it every hour. These instruments are in the ocean; they will never be calibrated again once they’re deployed. So it’s kind of a trick to build these devices.”

But now we have sensors that can be mounted on the robots to measure pH, oxygen, nitrates and the amount of plant material in the ocean.

“These sensors allow us to get at the fundamental metabolism of the ocean, which we don’t know,” Johnson said.

The first question he usually fields from his seatmate when he boards a plane is about what he does for a living. “The second question is: ‘How is the ocean?” And my answer, typically, is: ‘Don’t have the slightest idea.’”

In the coastal zone, we have some concept of what’s going on, he said. “But in the vast central gyres of the ocean, there’s just no one there looking.”

No one, that is, except for Johnson and his colleagues who are now deploying a newer version of robot, the biogeochemical Argos, around the world. He’s part of an international team that’s got the cash to put 200 of the newer robots into the Southern Ocean.

“We’re deploying them at a rate of about 40 a year,” he said.

American, Russian, Japanese, Australian, and British ships are involved in the effort.

“And we’re starting to get a fundamental grip on the metabolism of the ocean,” he said.

To get a better idea of what’s happening, we need to put 1,000 of the devices into the world’s oceans, Johnson said.

“The capital cost for one of these floats is about $80,000. People go, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of money to put into a float.’ But the cost of one day of open ocean ship time in the US is about $40,000. So for the cost of two days of ship time, I can put a robot in the ocean that will run for five, six, seven years.”

His dream project of 1,000 floats would cost about $27 million a year.

“It’s kind of a crazy amount of money,” he said. “But to put it in perspective, the Halifax Public Library (this is where the crowd chuckled and then broke into applause when Johnson flashed a slide on the screen showing the library’s proposed annual budget for 2016-17 to be $25,681,300).”

One thousand robots would deliver a system that allows us to understand the services oceans provide us, he said.

“Our challenge is to collect this data and make it available to you in a way that allows you to say, ‘It’s a good time to go fishing,’ or ‘I should spend the summer at the cabin on the beach because the lobster … would be good. But we need to build this into a part of your life and that $25 million would be a little easier for you to come to grips with.”

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  1. Ships like the Challenger did the 19th century equivalent of this type of work. It is astounding that Canada doesn’t have a sophisticated and well-funded ocean research program. NS exports are heavily reliant on seafood, the habitat from which they come is being destroyed and no one is recording a thing. It’s pathetic that DFO sends a few people to walk beaches near Digby instead of deploying a research vessel in the area to look at things further out than the beach.