Billionaire’s gift pushes ocean sensors deeper in search of global warming’s hidden heat

On 7 September, billionaire Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen announced a $4 million partnership with the U.S. government that would be used to purchase 33 Deep Argo floats, capable of descending 6000 meters and reaching 99% of the ocean’s volume. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which pays for U.S. contributions to Argo, is calling it the first “formal public-private partnership for sustained ocean observation.”

NOAA itself already supports 28 Deep Argo floats, which are being tested in the southwest Pacific and eastern Indian oceans. But Allen’s batch, which were designed by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, will be the first to meet the full standards set by Argo’s scientific board. Whereas shallow Argo floats are made out of metal tubes, Deep Argo floats are the shape and size of an exercise ball, with a pressure-resistant glass sphere at their core. Like their shallow peers, the floats change their buoyancy by pumping oil into or out of an attached bladder. Carrying sensors to measure temperature, salinity, and depth, the floats will descend almost to the sea floor and drift. Every 15 days, they will rise to the surface to transmit data via satellite before diving again, says Gregory Johnson, an oceanographer at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Washington, who will lead the project.

After test runs, 25 of the floats will be deployed several years from now in deep international waters off the coast of Brazil using Allen’s private ship, the R/V Petrel. There, investigators hope to find missing heat from global warming. They want to build on what Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, says is Argo’s greatest contribution to science so far: an accurate gauge of how humans are warming the planet.

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