There’s not going to be a point when we know everything about the ocean. That’s part of why ocean exploration is such an exciting area of research, but also a big part of what makes the current changes to our ocean’s system – acidification, warming temperatures, rising water levels – so scary. Scientists don’t know enough to know exactly how the life that resides within our oceans will react to today’s changes.

The vastness of the ocean combined with an increasingly uncertain climate future has led many scientists to ask how we can gain the most possible information about what is happening in the ocean right now, which may help researchers gain a clearer picture of what will happen next. This has led to some exciting scientific developments, some of which are happening at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, Mass.

A new study from Brian Helmuth’s lab presents more than two decades of data on changing temperatures in Nahant’s mussel beds. Helmuth and his colleagues used “robomussels,” which have a similar size and shape to their mollusk counterparts but are equipped with sensors that track the internal body temperature of mussels by collecting information about the air and water around them. The data from the robomussels not only documents long-term changes, but has also helped alert scientists to early warning signs of erosion and other similar problems. The paper, published last week in Scientific Data, provides details on the technology that logged mussel temperature every 10-30 minutes.

“Mussels in particular have a large influence on the stability and biodiversity of the intertidal community,” the study’s background section states. “Quantifying their survival and physiological performance has significant ecosystem-level consequences.”

The robomussels were also featured in a recent article for News at Northeastern, where Helmuth elaborated on the study’s implications. “These datasets tell us when and where to look for the effects of climate change,” he said. “Without them we could miss early warning signs of trouble.”

The utility of collecting long-term data on ocean life cannot be underestimated. Another example on a grander scale is the Ocean Observatories Initiative, a vast undertaking funded by the National Science Foundation which represents a collaboration between the University of Washington, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and others. OOI essentially consists of a network of underwater arrays, each of which contains a number of buoys, gliders, and other oceanographic instrumentation. The arrays are stationed in different areas the open ocean – for example, the Coastal Pioneer Array spans New England’s continental shelf – in order to collect long term data on the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the water.

The data is meant to serve as a community resource and is available in real-time on the OOI’s website, where it can be used by students, researchers, and educators alike in order to gain a better understanding of our oceans.

Using long timelines of data to get a grasp on what’s happening to our planet isn’t a new trend: in fact, one of the most important climate datasets of all time was collected at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii beginning in the 1950s. However, projects like Helmuth’s robomussels and the OOI are increasingly essential to developing understanding as our world, our lives, and our oceans continue to undergo rapid and unexpected changes.

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