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Scientists Mark 100 Years Of Recording Ocean Temp At Scripps Pier

A panorama of the Scripps Pier in 1927, top, and in 2016.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography / UC San Diego
A panorama of the Scripps Pier in 1927, top, and in 2016.
Scientists Mark 100 Years Of Recording Ocean Temp At Scripps Pier
Scientists Mark 100 Years Of Recording Temperature At Scripps Pier
San Diego researchers have been taking ocean temperatures at the end of Scripps Pier for a century, and the data have a story to tell.

San Diego oceanographers are celebrating an anniversary Monday that was 100 years in the making.

Scientists began recording ocean temperatures at the end of the Scripps Pier in La Jolla in August 1916.

The iconic Scripps pier has jutted out over the ocean, in one form or another, for more than 100 years. And for nearly every day during that century, someone has taken the time walk to the end of the pier, enter a small research hut, drop a bucket through a hatch and collect a sample of the ocean.

Kristi Seech of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography is adding to the ocean temperature project's daily scientific record. She puts a container on a cord and starts lowering it with a winch.

"Looks like we're pretty good, so now we're going to pull it back up," Seech said.

"This is just a general information gathering tool. Where we're going to pull up the water and we're going to take the temperature. We're going to use it to look at the community composition later on and measure salinity," Seech said.

That simple act of putting a thermometer in the water and keeping track of the results has created a valuable research database.

John McGowan's academic career has been linked to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography since the 1950s. He points to a chart that is a visual record of all those temperature readings.

"Each one of these is a surface temperature measurement and that's one year. It is warm in the summer and cold in the winter and so these are measurements of sea surface temperature for 100 years," McGowan said.

Researchers didn't have sophisticated technology when they started taking temperatures in the early days of the century, but they decided not to change what they were doing even though new high-tech equipment could allow them to automate this work.

This data set's value is rooted in the fact that it has been done the same way for so long.

"Time series are important because it's really the only way to measure change. Change as compared to what, they say. Well, it has to be compared to a baseline," McGowan said. "And the longer and more detailed the baseline, the more accurate our estimate is of change."

That ocean temperature record shows change.

McGowan zeros in on the 1970s when the average temperatures measured at the pier began to rise. That's not just the summer temperatures, but the yearly averages.

"And everything along here is above the long-term average," McGowan. "So the warming, for us, started right about here in the late ’70s and stayed warm all that period of time."

McGowan concedes that this record only tells a local story. But he says similar measurements along the California coast find the same thing.

And when this record is included with all the other sophisticated electronic temperature taking that's done with ships, buoys and satellites, the composite gives a pretty clear picture of how the planet is changing. Documenting the change is the key to understanding it.

Ryan Schafer works at the Birch Aquarium just up the hill. His team is responsible for making sure many of these daily measurements get taken. Whether it's on a weekday, a weekend, or even a holiday.

"There is a lot of pressure. It's 100 years worth of research and so I don't want to be the one to mess up a day or two," Schafer said.

Here, he's using a bottle to collect samples and record the temperature from the surface and floor of the ocean under the pier.

Scientists Mark 100 Years Of Recording Ocean Temp At Scripps Pier
Scientists Mark 100 Years Of Recording Temperature At Scripps Pier GUEST: Melissa Carter, researcher, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

San Diego oceanographers are celebrating and anniversary today that was 100 years in the making. Scientist began recording the ocean temperature at the end of the Tran 18. In the holy up in 1918. They have been doing it nearly every day since then. The iconic Tran eight. Has jetted out over the ocean for nearly 100 years. Every day during that century someone has taken the time to walk to the into the. And enter a small research cut and collect a sample of the ocean. Now we will pull it back up. This is a general information gathering tool where we are going to pull up the water and take the temperature. We will look at the community composition later on. And we will do measurements. To see collects more than temperatures. The simple act can and has created a valuable database. They save repeating the measurement over and over has created a long-term record. Each one of these is a surface temperature measurement. That is one year. It is warm in the summer and cold in the winter. These the annual measurements. Researchers did not have sophisticated technologies when they started taking temperatures. Researchers decided not to change what they were doing even though new high-tech equipment could allow them to automate this work. They say that this work is rooted in the fact that it has been done the same way for so long. Time is important. That is the only way to measure change. Changes compared to what they say ? Compared to baseline. He says the ocean temperature record the show change. Everything along here is about the long-term average. The warming for us started here in the late 70s. And stayed warm all of that time. He concedes that this record only to the local story, but he's a similar measurements find the same thing. And when this record is included with all of the other sophisticated electronic picture taking, the composite gives a pretty clear picture of how the planet is changing. As Ryan Schaefer has learned, documenting the change is the key to understanding it. He works at the aquarium just up the hill. This team is responsible to make sure these daily measurements get taken. There is a lot of pressure. It is 100 years worth of research. I do not want to be the one to mess up a date or two. Here he is using a bottle to collect samples to collect temperatures from the surface and the bottom of the ocean. It's nice to be part of the research. And also translating that and relaying it to the public who come to the aquaria. And that, in essence is what science is all about, observe, record and report. The sample taking will continue to happen at the end of Scripps. They hope to continue to do it for the next 100 years. Joining me now is Melissa Carter, staff researcher at the Scripps institution of oceanography. It makes sense to us right now as to why scientists would want to monitor ocean temperature. Why did they start taking their temperatures 100 years ago ? When we go to the doctor the doctor takes our temperature and blood pressure. It is the same sort of thing that we are doing. Taking the temperature and the salinity of the ocean. It helps us to understand the state of the ocean right then. I was surprised to learn that you are taking these measurements in the same way. With the hand wedge and a bucket. Can you tell us more about why Scripps researchers decided not to automate the procedure ? We have automated the procedure. But please don't get a misconception. We take these because they are very unique in the way that they are collected. Getting surface water, the very surface of the water is a difficult measurement to collect. If you were attached something to the., Like we have automated sensors, you have the tied that rises up and down and you have the ways that go up and down. It is difficult, you can with a lot of money have a device that will sit on the surface. It would require a lot more funding and maintenance than what this program flyers. It is a way to keep consistency of those measurements over time. You have a 100 year database of temperatures. What kinds of things is the database telling us ? The most important thing that we are learning right now, that everyone is becoming more familiar with is that the ocean is warming. One thing that we are finding out that is unique with this data set is that we are finding, and you can see it in others,, but we are looking to study more specifically how this near coastal area changing relative to the ocean been ocean ? Are we seeing greater warming in the way that our waters mix ? And if there is more stratification, that means that the waters are warming and it's not mixing with the bottled water, the difference between the surface warm water and the bottom cool waters, if that is becoming greater and the mixing is last, we can see less phytoplankton, there are less nutrients being provided to the sunlit portion of the water. And less phytoplankton can be in the water. And we found that in another program that I work on is that the vital plankton -- phytoplankton we have some of the warmest temperatures above 100 your record. We saw a 50% decrease in the vital plankton masses. And we have not seen that before. To you see this is adding pieces to the puzzle of trying to understand what is happening with climate change ? Most definitely, these data have been used in several ports for the international panel of climate change. It is used to understand how long-term fisheries are changing. And also understanding what are nearshore ocean is doing. Yes, it is complementary to all fields of science, especially for -- not just local, it is essential for additional data that can be used to understand biology, chemistry, physics, there is a lot of going on. And these are the basic parameters that can help aid to that. And as waters warm, they can hold less CO2 as less plankton is in the water. They use CO2 for photosynthesis and release oxygen. If there are fewer phytoplankton there will be less CO2 that is drawn into the ocean. Things like that that are important for understanding climate models and CO2 models. This is critical information for that. Seeking of the long-term database you are mentioning, this is a significant achievement, maintain these records were more than 100 years. Is this one of the longest ocean climate research projects [ Indiscernible- Participant too far away from microphone ] it is the longest continuous. You have to at different caveats. There is a longer series that is in Japan. Were not sure if that started in 1890 or 1905. They were taking standard water parameters and meteorological observations. And they are a center that brings in ship data from the Pacific. We have been going since 1916 continuously. And that is why we are the longest and continuous. And you plan to keep on going for another 100 ? We are having a symposium this October 7 to figure out, if this is something we should continue to do. With the technology that is there and the difficulty for finding some -- funding for some of these historic monitoring cases -- basis. The symposium will look at that and see how we can find funding to continue with, or should we wrap it up and say we did a great job ? We will see. I am speaking with Melissa Carter. A staff researcher at the Scripps research center. Thank you so much.

"It's kind of nice being a part of that research, not only coming down here and taking the temperatures for them, but also translating that and relaying it to the public that comes to the aquarium," Schafer said.

And that, in essence, is what science is about. Observe, record and report.

Scientists are hopeful that the temperature testing will go on for another 100 years.