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Monitoring ocean biogeochemistry with autonomous platforms


Human activities have altered the state of the ocean, leading to warming, acidification and deoxygenation. These changes impact ocean biogeochemistry and influence ecosystem functions and ocean health. The long-term global effects of these changes are difficult to predict using current satellite sensing and traditional in situ observation techniques. Autonomous platforms equipped with biogeochemical sensors allow for the observation of marine biogeochemical processes and ecosystem dynamics, covering a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. The international Biogeochemical-Argo (BGC-Argo) project is currently building a global, multidisciplinary ocean-observing network of autonomous Argo floats equipped with an extensive range of biogeochemical sensors. Other autonomous platforms, such as gliders and surface vehicles, have also incorporated such sensors, mainly operating on regional scales and near the ocean surface. Autonomous mobile assets, along with remotely sensed data, will provide the 4D information required to improve model simulations and forecasts of ocean conditions and ecosystem health.

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Fig. 1: Timeline of oceanographic observation platforms and international projects measuring marine biogeochemistry.
Fig. 2: Measuring across spatiotemporal scales in marine systems.
Fig. 3: Four available ocean-observation platforms and example areas of operation.
Fig. 4: Locations of recent autonomous ocean observations.
Fig. 5: Relationships between new observation technologies, biogeochemical models and ecosystem health management.


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F.C., X.X. and Y.W. were supported by the National Key Research and Development Program of China (2016YFC1401600), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41730536) and the Scientific Research Fund of the Second Institute of Oceanography, Ministry of Natural Resources, China (14283). K.S.J. was supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and by the NSF’s Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling project (SOCCOM) under the NSF award PLR-1425989, with additional support from the NOAA and NASA. H.C. was supported by funding from a European Research Council Advanced Grant (REFINE, no. 834177). BGC-Argo data are collected and made freely available by the international Argo programme and the national programmes that contribute to it (, The Argo programme is part of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS). This is Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) contribution #5058.

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F.C., X.X. and Y.W. researched data for the article. F.C., K.S.J., H.C., X.X., K.F., O.S. and A.S. all contributed to the writing of the article. F.C., X.X., Y.W., E.B. and S.R. contributed to reviewing and editing the manuscript prior to submission. All authors made a substantial contribution to the discussion of content.

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Correspondence to Fei Chai.

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Chai, F., Johnson, K.S., Claustre, H. et al. Monitoring ocean biogeochemistry with autonomous platforms. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 315–326 (2020).

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