About two weeks ago, a group of sailors off the coast of New Zealand leaned over the side of their boat, dropped a contraption into the Pacific Ocean and watched it disappear.
Using an app they’d downloaded to a smartphone, they logged a reading from the underwater device, along with their GPS location and the water temperature. Just a few minutes later, they had become the first participants in a new program launched by the UK’s Plymouth University Marine Institute, which allows boaters and citizen scientists to help climatologists study the effects of climate change on the oceans.
The Kiwi sailors were measuring the concentration of phytoplankton, a microorganism that lives at the sea surface. Phytoplankton, also called microalgae, produce half of the oxygen in the air we breathe and are responsible for 50 percent of the Earth’s photosynthesis. Whales, jellyfish, shrimp and other marine life feast on it, making it a critical part of the marine food chain.