20 July 2016

Predicting the export and fate of global ocean net primary production: The EXPORTS

Posted by bbane

This is part of a new series of posts that highlight the importance of Earth and space science data and its contributions to society. Posts in this series showcase data facilities and data scientists; explain how Earth and space science data is collected, managed and used; explore what this data tells us about the planet; and delve into the challenges and issues involved in managing and using data. This series is intended to demystify Earth and space science data, and share how this data shapes our understanding of the world.

By Ivona Cetinić and the EXPORTS Science Definition Team

“Has it got any sports in it?

Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, True Love, miracles….”

William Goldman, The Princess Bride (film), 1987.EXPORTS

Earth’s carbon cycle is heavily influenced by ecological processes in the ocean. The quantification and understanding of the intricate relationships between carbon dioxide and ocean ecosystems, and what effects these have on the present and future conditions on Earth, is one of the greatest challenges in oceanography. One of the most important aspects that preclude the full understanding of the ocean carbon cycle is the lack of parallel measurements at a global scale; this also hinders our ability to make robust predictions in an uncertain future. The EXport Processes in the Ocean from RemoTe Sensing (EXPORTS) Science Plan was proposed to NASA in order address this knowledge gap. It aims at developing a predictive understanding of the export and fate of global ocean net primary production (NPP) and its implications to the ocean carbon cycle for present and future climates. The goal of this project is to quantify of the mechanisms that control the export of carbon from the euphotic zone as well as its fate in the underlying “twilight zone”. Carbon exported to the ocean interior will be sequestered on time scales of months to millennia. The science plan was rolled out a little over one year ago (Siegel, Buesseler et al. 2016), and with community support and encouragement from NASA, it was recommended to construct an implementation plan, that is being presented now.

In October 2015, an externally competed and peer reviewed group of scientist began crafting the EXPORTS implementation plan, that promises to collect a comprehensive enough dataset to understand the oceanic carbon cycle. To collect these data, a combination of ship and robotic field sampling, satellite remote sensing, and numerical modeling is proposed which enables the sampling of the many pathways of NPP export and fates. NASA funded data mining and observing system simulation experiments should be on their way this fall to lay foundation to the field experiment.

If funded, the goal plan proposes to explore (by ships, autonomous platforms, and satellite based observations) two different oceans, each of them in two different seasons, in order to capture the large range of oceanic ecosystems. Other, descoped variations of the plans are proposed as well, presenting a compromise between project investments, risk to success, and scientific and funding agency rewards. The field-based part of the program would be followed by an intensive data synthesis phase, with the development of models to address the fate of NPP export in the world’s oceans and its impact on the ocean’s carbon cycle.

If this program comes to fruition, this large and unprecedented dataset, consisting of measurements ranging from subcellular (-omics) to satellite based observations, would benefit the whole oceanographic community. The data collected and processed during the experiment would be available for everyone to use within a year of collection (following the NASA Earth Science Data and Information Policy). Additional water samples and imagery for future analysis will be collected, allowing for new, yet undiscovered technologies to assist in revealing the secrets of the oceanic carbon cycle.

However, importantly, EXPORTS does not yet exist as a program. The only way it will exist is if the ocean sciences community makes it clear that EXPORTS is important: to their peers, program managers, and other potential partners. The implementation plan is available on EXPORTS website and it is awaiting your comments.

In a way, EXPORTS is like “The Princess Bride”. It has something for everyone. It will span nearly all aspects of ocean science – from submesoscale physics to genomics and everything in between – and will require an extensive tool box – from ocean robots and next generation sequencing to numerical modeling and satellite remote sensing. And although it might sound inconceivable, we know that the oceanographic community is ready to embark on this next adventure, if given the opportunity.

—Ivona Cetinić is an oceanographer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and GESTAR/USRA, and part of the EXPORTS Science Definition Team


Goldman, W.  1987.  Screenplay for The Princess Bride.

Siegel, D. A., K. O. Buesseler, M. J. Behrenfeld, C. R. Benitez-Nelson, E. Boss, M. A. Brzezinski, A. Burd, C. A. Carlson, E. A. D’Asaro, S. C. Doney, M. J. Perry, R. H. R. Stanley and D. K. Steinberg (2016). “Prediction of the Export and Fate of Global Ocean Net Primary Production: The EXPORTS Science Plan.” Frontiers in Marine Science 3.