Studying ocean acidification from space

Each year more than a quarter of global CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels and cement production are absorbed and taken up by the Earth’s oceans. This process turns the seawater more acidic, making it more difficult for some marine life to live.  The effect of this ocean acidification on marine life, a important food source on which we rely, was first observed in 2012, and in 2013 the United Nations General Assembly on world governments called for the need “to urgently pursue further research on ocean acidification, especially programmes of observation and measurement.”

Researchers at the Centre for Geography, Environment and Society along with colleagues at The Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Institut français de recherche pour l'exploitation de la mer (Ifremer), the European Space Agency and a team of international collaborators are developing new methods that allow them to study ocean acidification from space.

Dr Jamie Shutler from the Centre for Geography, Environment and Society, who is leading the research, explained the reason for this work,

"Satellites are likely to become increasingly important for monitoring ocean acidification, especially in remote waters. Current methods of studying ocean acidification focus on the use of in situ instruments and measurements taken from research vessels. This approach limits the sampling to small areas of the ocean, as research vessels are very expensive to run and operate.  Whereas we are pioneering the data fusion of satellite data so that we can observe large areas of Earth’s oceans, potentially allowing us to easily identify those areas most at risk from the increasing acidification."

The international project team led by Dr Shutler and funded by the European Space Agency have highlighted the potential that satellite data hold for studying ocean acidification. The work was published in the Journal Environmental Science and Technology and received international media attention. The team are now focussing on evaluating and comparing a large range of different satellite and in situ data methods towards finding an optimal approach.

This work is being carried out within the European Space Agency project called Pathfinders Ocean Acidification.