SOARS Readies for Flight
World’s most sophisticated ocean simulator, under construction at Scripps Oceanography, will be operational in 2022
A new miniature ocean is being constructed on UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography campus, housed under the distinctive wave-shaped roof of its iconic Hydraulics Laboratory.
The Scripps Ocean Atmosphere Research Simulator, or SOARS, will provide an ability unmatched in the world to replicate what takes place in the seas of today. It is envisioned to be a national and international resource that enables scientists to get a preview of the oceans and atmospheres of the future in which climate is altered even further by human activities.
To Grant Deane, an oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a SOARS principal investigator, the instrument’s most important constituency is the younger researchers who will need to know what the planet will be like for them and their children.
“This is about the future,” said Deane. “This is about what choices we are going to make as a species on the planet over the next 10 years and 20 years and 30 years. We can't make those choices well if we don't understand the consequences of our actions. We need to understand the complexity of the world. And we need a whole community of scientists and people to do that. SOARS is a call to action and that's why we built it.”
SOARS is expected to become available to researchers from Scripps and around the world in January 2022, five years after the National Science Foundation first awarded $2.8 million for its construction with the rest of the $4 million total price tag being supplied by UC San Diego.
The instrument promises to lift the veil on processes that take place at the point where oceans meet the atmosphere. The significance of what happens during these processes at the sea-surface interface has long vexed scientists. How will rising levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in air affect ocean microorganisms? Since ocean surface processes lead to the formation of clouds, how will climate change affect that? How might pathogens from the oceans reach coastal population centers? How does sea ice affect the ejection of small particles, or aerosols, into the atmosphere?
“We face this incredible challenge. We're trying to understand what's happening on the scale of the entire planet, driven by small processes that happen over and over again,” said Deane. “We've been studying this boundary like it wasn't made of all of these different parts. Biologists will go out and study biology. Chemists will go out and study the chemistry, and oceanographers will study the oceanography. SOARS will enable us to pull together and work together across disciplines to understand this critical interface.”
Wind-wave channels themselves are nothing new as research instruments. An original wave flume constructed by Scripps scientists in the 1960s and still in use remains adjacent to SOARS. Other research centers around the world have similar devices. What makes SOARS unique is based on how many variables can be simulated and controlled within its confines.
“One of the things that's very important about SOARS is that it brings all the capabilities of our older instrumentation into the future, as well as provides a whole bunch of new capabilities that we couldn't even dream of a few decades ago,” said co-principal investigator Dale Stokes, also a physical oceanographer at Scripps.
Wind-wave channels can provide data on ocean processes at a fraction of the cost of open-ocean studies, which often require hiring research vessels.
“There are some observations possible in SOARS that are difficult or impossible in the field,” said Deane. “For example, measurements of pristine sea spray, controlled biological communities and measurements in the top tens of centimeters of the sea surface in stormy conditions, are very difficult to achieve at sea. A day of SOARS time costs about 1/20th of a day of ship time, making the instrument a lower-cost alternative to field observations.”
The construction of SOARS was led by Aerolab, which specializes in the construction of aerodynamic research equipment. It required scientists, engineers, and contractors to push the physical limits of the 60-year-old Hydraulics Lab to accommodate a wave channel that spans almost the entire 150-foot length of the lab. SOARS, which is painted in UC San Diego blue, underwent its final tests of operational systems in October. On Nov. 29, local elected officials will join university leaders in christening the instrument.
Researchers using SOARS can generate winds up to 63 miles per hour, which are storm-level speeds on the Beaufort scale. The instrument can also chill winds to -20℃ and water to -2℃, which is enough to allow sea ice to form. They can pump carbon dioxide into the channel to simulate how the climate of the future is going to change nature, grow phytoplankton under natural light provided by skylights in an ocean warmed to temperatures found in equatorial waters. As with its predecessor wind-wave channel, SOARS will use filtered seawater delivered in from the Pacific Ocean via pumps on Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier.
Crucial for experiments is SOARS’ capability to remove unwanted variables, which could be anything from ambient dust from the Hydraulics Lab to leached iron sometimes found in rivets in the structure of other wave channels. Farooq Azam, another SOARS co-principal investigator and a marine microbiologist at Scripps, oversaw the selection of the construction materials that come in contact with the seawater and air within it to prevent the chance of contamination.
Kimberly Prather is also a co-principal investigator of SOARS and the distinguished professor of atmospheric chemistry who holds appointments at Scripps Oceanography as well as in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UC San Diego. Prather’s NSF-funded Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment (CAICE) is slated to be one of the first users of SOARS in the summer of 2022 in an experiment that will aim to examine the composition of the gases and sea spray aerosols coming out of the ocean at high winds, and how this affects their ability to seed marine clouds.
“This instrument allows us to take the next step and be able to simulate many more oceans, different temperatures and different conditions, all to look at how processes in the ocean are affecting our atmosphere and our climate, and our clouds and human health,” says Prather. “We will be able to look at the ocean and atmosphere at a level nobody's been able to before.”