15 April 2010

About 5000 miniature robots are floating in oceans around the globe, constantly monitoring temperatures, salinity and other data, one of the world’s top oceanographers told an audience at The University of Queensland this week.

Having data constantly feeding through satellites from robots in thousands of locations was a more efficient way of researching global oceanic environments than having a fleet of ships that could only be in a handful of places at any time, said Dr Tony Haymet, Director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

Dr Haymet , speaking in UQ’s Centenary Oration series, said the Scripps Institution at the University of California, had been researching the sea environment for more than 100 years but still very little was known about oceans’ wildlife and chemistry.

Studying oceans put Scripps at the forefront of climate change research, he said, and its work showed clearly that ocean temperatures were rising.

He said a 1965 report produced by a Scripps professor for US President Lyndon Johnson predicted atmospheric carbon levels would vastly increase in following decades due to the burning of fossil fuels.

“Once carbon is in the atmosphere, there is nothing we can do to stop it dissolving in the Earth’s oceans, and making the seas more acidic,” Dr Haymet said.

This acidity meant molluscs had more trouble building shells, and that their completed shells dissolved faster.

Dr Haymet, in his oration titled The Coming Robotic Exploration of the Biology of the Global Ocean, said Scripps used a range of robotic devices, including unmanned aeroplanes for collecting data from above oceans.

Much of the technology used in oceanic research had borrowed heavily from engineering and technology used in space exploration, he said.

Algae has long been keenly studied at the Scripps Institution, particularly for its potential to produce oil that could replace fossil fuels in future.

“It’s funny that my Institution has been studying algae for 100 years, but no one cared for 98 of those!”

Dr Haymet said corn and other biofuel sources required such vast areas of farming land to produce even half of future fuel needs, that they appeared unfeasible.

But the amount of land needed for algae ponds to produce the same amount of oil was miniscule in comparison.

Dr Haymet is Australian — he originally studied at the University of Sydney.

He visited UQ as a guest of the newly launched Global Change Institute, which aims to address important issues by bringing together expertise from a wide range of local and global experts.

Dr Haymet’s speech was the third in the Centenary Oration series, after a widely acclaimed oration last month at Customs House in Brisbane by former foreign minister Dr Gareth Evans, who warned of the serious threat the world still faced from nuclear weapons.

In March, Queensland Governor Penelope Wensley gave the inaugural UQ Centenary Oration, and at the same event, launched the Global Change Institute.

The next oration in the series is on Wednesday April 21, with Jack Manning Bancroft, an inspiring, young Indigenous leader.

Shannon Price (07) 3346 7660
Fiona Cameron (07) 3346 7086