Worried about what some marine scientists say is an alarming decline of plankton? You should be, because the little things underpin the ocean's food chain. Bigger creatures eat them for nourishment. Without plankton, it could be bye-bye to the fishes in the seas.
Alas, if you are a sailor, even a casual one, you can help. Next time you head out boating on a Saturday afternoon, as you pack the cold beer and the sandwiches, there's something else that you should bring. And you can put it right on your smartphone or tablet computer.
Scientists at Plymouth University in the U.K. have developed an app that allows you to easily enter data about the presence of plankton, the BBC reports. Users can subsequently load the information into a giant database that includes readings from around the world, providing a big picture of international plankton comings and goings and perhaps giving clues about solutions (editorial comment: novel nuclear reactors could help).
It's another example of the "crowdsourcing" trend of using technology to enlist the help of the masses, and not the first time it has taken to the high seas. Another maritime project is recruiting people to record ocean depths. In a different twist, one crowdsourcing company is seeking assistance in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.
In the case of the plankton app, users enter information about water clarity. Clearer water could indicate a lower level of phytoplankton, which is a plant that lives near the ocean's surface and takes in sunlight for photosynthesis.
Here's the catch: You'll also need a good old piece of rudimentary but reliable technology called a Secchi Disk, which dates back to 1865 when the Pope's astronomer, Father Pietro Angelo Secchi, invented it.
Basically, it's a patterned, oversized dinner plate attached to a tape measure that you lower into the water. The further you can submerge the disk while still seeing its pattern, the clearer the water and by inference, the less phytoplankton. Enter that depth and your geographical coordinates into your app, upload it to the database later, and you've been a good soldier in the war to save plankton. You can get the free app here.
Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K.
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Seechi disks are only useable if you have already have baseline information on the plankton you are attempting to measure in a specific water column. Otherwise you can'ttell whether you are measuring turbidity (silt, clay, or other micro-particulates) or color - tannins and other optical interference in the water column.
Seechi disks are used in aquaculture to measure algal bloom density in ponds as a predictor of oxygen demand, but the the aquaculturist has already microscopically examined the pond water and knows the level and type of plankton blooms in their pond and additional correlated water quality information. This is something the average person is not going to have so the data they collect has a high probability of being misinterpreted.