The ocean plays a crucial role in the world's ecology. Half the oxygen we breathe is produced by tiny ocean plants known as phytoplankton. The ocean removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and is home to a stunning range of marine ecosystems.
Scientists continue to make new discoveries about the ocean and its meaning for all life on Earth. But their observation capabilities only go so far. To expand our knowledge of ocean ecosystems to the next level, scientists will need new technologies. That's where Jules Jaffe comes in.
"Drawing from science, technology and engineering, I'm interested in helping biologists by providing tools, not necessarily to find out an answer to a specific scientific question," said Jaffe, a research oceanographer with UC San Diego's Marine Physical Laboratory at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who is involved in multiple projects to create such tools. "What I want ultimately to do is to help people see."
For example, working with oceanographer Peter Franks and UC San Diego computer science and engineering professor David Kriegman, Jaffe is developing the world's first 3-D natural underwater microscope. The instrument can observe different species of plankton that are important in global carbon cycling and allows scientists to see, for the first time, these organisms in their native habitat and how they interact with each other.
"We are not trying to duplicate nature [in a lab]," Jaffe said. "We are observing it in its natural state."
Another of Dr. Jaffe's projects involves the design and deployment of autonomous underwater explorers.
"In order to really study the ocean — which is so vast in space and also continuous in time — we need to develop swarms of miniaturized autonomous sensors. This is a significant technical step in that direction," Jaffe explained.
Jaffe hopes to deploy swarms of miniature robotic floats that travel with ocean currents, sense the environment and report their findings back to researchers.
"By putting a whole bunch of these in the ocean we can start to look at the spatial information," he said. "In the ocean, there are these very fragile interactions, and when we bring stuff up to the surface, we disturb those interactions. So what's really happening down there could be very different from what we think. "
The project is already paying scientific dividends.
"We now have records of coral fighting each other for space and records of some of the plankton that we couldn't readily observe," Jaffe said.
Down the line, autonomous underwater explorers could provide information about harmful algae blooms and oil spills, as well as locate black boxes after plane crashes and help scientists develop marine protected areas.
"They will increase people's awareness of the ocean by showing them pictures of these organisms that are way too small to see with the naked eye but are really amazingly fascinating," he said.
Jaffe is quick to point out that he could not be developing any of his projects without help from other departments at UC San Diego.
"For me the proximity of the Jacobs School of Engineering, computer science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, the San Diego Supercomputer Center and the Qualcomm Institute [a division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology] is amazing," Jaffe said. 'The people are extremely collaborative and this has resulted in a lot of funding for our projects."