Winter 2019

Sampling the water of the Atlantic sinks

Raleigh Fisher, James Fisher’s recently acquired oil tanker, is conducting important environmental tests for the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) as it sails across the world as part of her present charter.

The crew of Raleigh Fisher have been trained in the mechanisms of a sophisticated water-sampling system so they can take daily samples of seawater as the vessel sails to and from the Falklands Islands delivering jet and diesel fuel.

These tests measure changes in the ocean uptake of carbon dioxide to provide an on-going assessment of the potential impact of global warming.

Mark Armistead, fleet manager at James Fisher Shipping Services, explains:

‘Engineers from the NOC were interested in the fact that we have vessels taking regular journeys across unusual routes and over remote oceans which are rarely studied. We are happy to help contribute to this important environmental research.’

The collaboration began in July 2019 and sensors have been fitted in the Raleigh Fisher’s engine room and on the bridge, and key members of crew trained in maintaining the system and taking daily samples. Sensors deliver real-time information back to the NOC and the filled sample bottles are handed over to the NOC at the end of each journey.

Raleigh Fisher is part of a fleet of commercial ships working with the NOC's 'Ships of Opportunity Partnership' to help provide large scale, long-term, scientific data from sustained ocean observing and modelling, mapping and surveying.

Dr Sue Hartman from the NOC says:

‘Because commercial vessels continue to work whatever the weather, relationships like these allow us to get year-round data in undersampled regions. We are grateful to the samplers onboard and to all who look after our instrumentation.’

The oceans capture around 30 percent of human carbon dioxide emissions and hide it in deep ‘sinks’. This natural process is known to slow the march of global warming. But as the world’s oceans warm, their massive stores of dissolved carbon dioxide appear to be bubbling back out into the atmosphere and amplifying the greenhouse effect. Also of concern is the fact that increasing levels of CO2 in the water is causing changes to the water’s acidity and alkalinity, which could be affecting marine life.

The tests conducted onboard the Raleigh Fisher allow the NOC to compare the processes that control ocean carbon dioxide uptake and make a continual assessment of the factors that impact global warming. 

Some of the sensors onboard measure salinity which helps to assess the alkalinity of the ocean (alkalinity affects its capacity to uptake carbon dioxide). Other surface seawater samples are collected and preserved so they can be measured for carbon and the samples are also assessed for quantities of the nutrients on which phytoplankton (which plays a sensitive role at the base of the food chain) feed.

Dr Hartman adds:

‘By combining data from the onboard sensors with meteorological data collected on the ship’s bridge we can get closer to estimating the flux of carbon dioxide into the ocean.’

‘These tests are especially useful when performed on the long repeat transects of the ocean typically made by commercial vessels. This makes vessels like the Raleigh Fisher vital platforms for our measurements.’

Mark says:

'We are very happy to help the NOC with this venture, it is great that James Fisher is able to contribute to this important piece of on-going environmental research.'

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