Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen gives $4 million for Seattle scientist’s dream of an array of aquatic robots to track deep ocean temperatures.

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Seattle oceanographer Greg Johnson has been working for years to drum up support and funding for his “dream” project: A flotilla of aquatic robots to monitor the depths of the world’s oceans, where no light penetrates and crushing pressure would pulverize conventional instruments.

Johnson’s employer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), put up money to develop, test and deploy a handful of the robotic probes. But even before the Donald Trump administration proposed a 22 percent cut to the agency’s budget, the odds of expanded federal backing were slim.

Then Johnson got an email from billionaire Paul Allen’s director of climate and energy initiatives, Spencer Reeder.

Turns out the Microsoft co-founder and eclectic philanthropist was interested in the deep oceans. “They asked if I would be interested in submitting a proposal,” Johnson recalled.

“Of course I was.”

The result is a $4 million grant from Paul G. Allen Philanthropies to deploy the first large-scale array of the new sensors, called Deep Argo floats. The data they collect on temperature and salinity will help scientists fill in gaps in their understanding of the ocean’s response to climate change, and how the deep abyss might affect weather, climate and future sea-level rise.

“Frankly, we weren’t seeing a lot of evidence that the federal government was going to be funding that in an aggressive way, so this seemed like an opportunity where Paul could step in and have a meaningful impact,” Reeder said. Negotiations on the grant began long before the November election, he added.

R/V Petrel, seen at dusk, is a 250-foot research and exploration vessel purchased in 2016 by Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul G. Allen. (Courtesy of Paul G. Allen)
R/V Petrel, seen at dusk, is a 250-foot research and exploration vessel purchased in 2016 by Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul G. Allen. (Courtesy of Paul G. Allen)

Allen will also loan out his own research vessel, the RV Petrel, for the scientists to use when they deploy up to 28 of the instruments in a deep basin off the coast of Brazil.

Understanding ocean temperatures is vital to understanding climate — and climate change. Since 1970, the oceans have absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat from greenhouse warming, Johnson explained.

That heat can cause changes in ocean circulation, which impacts temperatures and rainfall around the globe.

“The ocean is the flywheel of the climate system,” Johnson said.

The new project builds on nearly two decades of data collected by Argo, an international fleet of nearly 4,000 robotic probes in constant motion across the world’s oceans, measuring temperature and salinity down to about 1.25 miles.

That work has documented temperature increases and salinity changes linked to climate change. But information about the deep ocean, up to 3.7 miles down, has been much harder to come by.

Until recently, many oceanographers assumed that there would be little change at such depths, said University of Washington oceanographer Stephen Riser, a leader in the original Argo program.

But a series of shipboard surveys conducted decades apart revealed tiny, but significant, temperature increases over the past 30 years. Spread over the vast volume of water, that represents a much larger amount of heat being stored in the ocean depths than anyone imagined.

Scientists suspect greenhouse warming is the cause, though they aren’t certain and natural cycles could also play a role. It’s important to find out, Johnson said.

“Measuring where, how much and how fast the ocean is warming will help us project where, how much and how fast the atmosphere will warm and sea levels will rise in the future,” Johnson said.

The slender, aluminum Argo probes that excel in shallow water would never survive conditions near the seafloor. So researchers have developed a next-generation probe for deep water, with its workings encased in a tough, glass sphere that can stand up to extreme cold and pressures 600 times greater than at the surface.

Like all Argo probes, the robots are designed to operate autonomously. A small pump controls buoyancy, allowing the probe to sink, then rise slowly through the water column, collecting data that it transmits electronically when it surfaces.

For the Allen-funded project, Johnson and his colleagues picked the basin off Brazil, where a bottom layer of frigid water from Antarctica flows up from the south and interacts with deep water flowing from the North Atlantic. “It’s an interesting, dynamic place,” Johnson said.

It’s also largely ice-free, which will provide an easier testing ground for the new instruments.

An initial batch of five instruments should arrive soon at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory at Sand Point, where scientists will run them through a series to tests to ensure they work properly. The team hopes to deploy the full array within the next two years.

“This is really a pilot project,” Riser said. “We’re going to see what we can learn and whether we can manage the technological challenges.”

If the array yields valuable data, Johnson hopes to leverage that to eventually expand the network to include 1,200 Deep Argo probes — enough to extend the project’s coverage to 99 percent of the ocean volume.

“This is a big goal for me,” he said. “I’ve been involved with Argo since the beginning and I would like to see us take it truly global by measuring the bottom half of the ocean as well as the top half.”

Another of Johnson’s passions is haiku. In 2014, he earned a burst of internet celebrity by distilling a 2,200-page climate-change summary report into a series of 19 of the short Japanese poems, with watercolor illustrations.

So naturally, he decided to encapsulate the essence of the new project in haiku form as well:

Abyssal ocean,

Modulating climate change:

Deep Argo observes