Mapping the ocean’s unseen heroes, one microbe at a time
Adrift, an online citizen science project, connects the public to the conditions of microscopic marine microbes as they are propelled around the globe by ocean currents.
The picture of how climate change is impacting our ocean is often told via its larger inhabitants: scrawny polar bears, bleached coral, dwindling catch in fishing nets. But, just as importantly, microscopic marine organisms play an essential role in our biosphere.
Not only do marine microbes form the foundational building blocks of the underwater food-web, but it’s estimated that marine microbes consume almost 50% of the Earth’s carbon dioxide through the process of photosynthesis.
Invisible to the naked eye, the health and movement of marine microbes that drift as part of the plankton is difficult to picture even for scientists – let alone everyday citizens.
This challenge, to visualise the range of conditions that drifting marine microbes encounter, brought a group of expert scientists and visual designers from UTS together on a path to create the online citizen science project Adrift.
Adrift is a portal that connects the public with the lives of microscopic marine microbes as they are propelled around the globe by ocean currents, with temperature and nutrient availability changing along the way.
Lead researcher and biological oceanographer Professor Martina Doblin from the University of Technology Sydney, says Adrift is designed to engage a diversity of participants, including those who may not have technical or scientific expertise.
“We want to give people a view of what conditions microbes experience in different parts of the ocean, to provide clues about their capacity to adapt to the relatively fast pace of human-induced changes in ocean conditions.
“So, as they’re drifting in different surface currents, microbes experience diverse conditions along their paths.
“Scientists can’t be in the ocean to look at the plankton in all these places, so we have created a method to visualise their experience based on ocean simulations,” says Doblin.
Doblin says that the collaborative aspect of the project – which includes data visualisation experts Professor Kate Sweetapple and Dr Jacquie Lorber Kasunic from the UTS Design School, and Nancy Longnecker, Professor of Science Communication at Otago University in New Zealand – was essential to the success of Adrift.
Adrift is funded by the Inspiring Australia, Science Engagement Scheme, (Department of Innovation Industry and Science). Project partners are the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS).