Monitoring Climate Change in the Ocean's 'Most Studied Spot'

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Shaul Schwarz / Reportage / Getty for TIME

Oceanographer Sylvia Earle examines a patch of sargassum during an expedition to the Sargasso Sea, off the coast of Bermuda

"The thing about oceanography is that it is a very collegial profession." So says Tony Knap, director of the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS), and given the backdrop — aboard BIOS's multimillion-dollar research ship the HSBC Atlantic Explorer, with the sun shining and the Atlantic Ocean rolling behind him — it's hard to argue. It's also one of the few scientific professions where motion sickness is a real risk, as I'm learning aboard the ship, which is buffeted by the advance wind and sea swells of Tropical Storm Fiona. But beyond the fresh air and occasional seasick research assistant, what sets apart the oceanography done at BIOS from other disciplines is its importance — the institute's work is fundamental to our ability to model the ocean's role in climate change, among other areas — and its rarity. BIOS is one of just a handful of institutes worldwide that regularly monitor the ocean for physical and chemical changes. "We just have not invested in understanding ocean chemistry," says Knap. And when it comes to ocean science, what we don't know may be hurting us.

The scientists at BIOS are trying to change that. Founded in 1903, BIOS is one of the few marine-research stations actually situated in the middle of the ocean — the Atlantic, in the waters surrounding the isolated island of Bermuda. That base has given BIOS scientists the ability to reach, in just a few hours' sail, the deep water — Bermuda sits on a seamount, and within a few miles of its reef-shielded coasts, the ocean can be more than 10,000 feet deep. For decades, BIOS researchers have been sailing to the same spot in the Atlantic — Hydrostation "S," 15 nautical miles southeast of Bermuda — where they take water samples from the surface all the way down to just above the ocean floor. Since the program began in 1954, BIOS ships have visited the "S" more than 1,100 times. (There's nothing special about the location of "S"; it's simply a convenient deep-water spot near the island.) Researchers in Hawaii carry out a similar program in the Pacific, but they've taken fewer samples over a smaller amount of time. "This is the single most studied spot in the ocean," says Knap.

Together with the oceanographer and environmentalist Sylvia Earle, I was with Knap last week for the Atlantic Explorer's 1,160th trip to Hydrostation "S." Knap has been with BIOS for more than 30 years — long enough to remember when the trips were done on a much smaller boat (one that sank three separate times at the dock) and when scientists had to cater their own meals. Now the lunch is excellent, provided you haven't just been seasick, and the new ship, remodeled a few years ago, practically gleams. Knap, who spent his summers as a kid crewing merchant ships and who still sails in his free time, isn't shy about showing pride in the Atlantic Explorer, which is funded primarily with money from the U.S. National Science Foundation. On this trip to "S," like the other 1,159 trips before it, BIOS will record the ocean's temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen levels. "It's a checkup for the deep ocean," says Knap.

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