A new oceanographic instrument will help detect the presence of harmful algae in Patagonia and Antarctica


Phytoplankton is a key element in the food web of the world’s aquatic ecosystems, supporting larger species that depend on its biomass. However, its importance also lies in the production of oxygen, since 50% of what we breathe is produced by these organisms. Given this scenario, the scientific community tries to constantly monitor the changes that phytoplankton undergo, mainly in a context of climate change.

For several decades, satellite sensors have made it possible to record observational data with high spatial (hundreds of kilometres) and temporal (decades) resolution of the evolution and dynamics of phytoplankton on the ocean surface. Currently, thanks to technological advances, these instruments have a greater analytical capacity, detecting more specific parameters, such as the structure of the phytoplankton community and/or its composition by functional groups.

Even if these systems are available, it is necessary to integrate the recordings with much more detailed field measurements, in particular of the optical properties of the components present in the water column.

For this reason, the Dynamic Research Center of High Latitude Marine Ecosystems (IDEAL) of the Austral University of Chile (UACh) has recently acquired an advanced light sensor (RAMSES hyperspectral radiometer), which will allow to obtain irradiance profiles through the column of water in Chile Patagonia and the Antarctic Peninsula.

The measurements obtained by this instrument will be used to record the bio-optical properties of water in very complex coastal areas, given their difficult access and climatic conditions. In this way, this terrain data will complement the calibration of environmental satellite sensors that detect the color of the ocean on a regional scale.

“With this equipment, in addition to other measurements of the water column, we will be able to obtain specific bio-optical fingerprints of the phytoplankton community on a local scale and, in particular, of some species that can generate toxins. The ultimate goal is to generate empirical relationships between biological and environmental variables, which are subsequently utilized by satellites. In this way we will monitor FAN in the coastal areas of Patagonia”, commented Andrea Corredor-Acosta, researcher of the IDEAL Center, who will take care of the hyperspectral radiometer.

“The use of this instrument will be of great importance for Chilean Patagonia: it will allow the study of the Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB or red tides), and the effect of the accelerated melting of mountain glaciers, fjords and Antarctic bays, two problems that persist in the sea and which is associated with the effects of global warming in the atmosphere,” said José Luis Iriarte, researcher at the IDEAL Center and academic at the UACh Institute of Aquaculture in Puerto Montt.

This new oceanographic instrument will be used in an upcoming science campaign developed by the IDEAL Center during the first semester of 2023. It will also be launched in regular activities, such as time series installed in the coastal areas of Punta Arenas and Antarctica.

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