What These Surfboard-Sized Ocean Robots Can Tell Us About Climate Change

On a Pacific Ocean journey, the Wave Glider detected blooms of carbon-eating phytoplankton that no one realized existed–enough that we might be able to recalibrate the world’s carbon budget.

In November 2011, four surfboard-sized robots took off from Northern California on a quest to cross the Pacific Ocean and make it to Australia. They survived–battered by winds, waves, and sharks–and now all the data collected by the Liquid Robotics’ Wave Gliders’ many sensors, such as salinity levels and phytoplankton activity, are available for public consumption.


Already, the data from these wave-propelled robots is being put to good use. Today, Liquid Robotics announced that Dr. Tracy Villareal, a professor of marine science at the University of Texas at Austin, won the PacX challenge–a $50,000 prize competition that comes with six months of free Wave Glider for the scientists who come up with best ideas for making use of the Wave Glider data sets. Villareal’s idea: examining how satellite measurements of phytoplankton line up with ocean measurements provided by the Wave Glider.

Because phytoplankton breathe out oxygen and capture carbon, the levels of these microscopic organisms in the ocean dramatically affect rates of climate change. And the Wave Glider’s onboard fluorometer, which measures phytoplankton density, found blooms where no one expected–in the deep ocean.

“If there’s more phytoplankton out there than we thought, that has a significant effect on climate models,” says Liquid Robotics CEO Bill Vass.

Traditional phytoplankton measurements come from satellites, which can perform reasonable estimates–but they’re still 250 miles above the ocean. The combination of Wave Glider measurements and satellite measurements could potentially be more powerful. “The Wave Glider can cover huge areas over long periods of time, and satellites move overhead every once or twice a day. Having a Wave Glider out all the time, you can compare its results in the same spot of ocean that a satellite covers,” says Vass.

Other finalists looked at the chemistry of ridges in the ocean, phytoplankton cycles of light, and ocean respiration. While only Villareal gets the free Wave Glider time, all the finalists hope to continue their research.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.