Investigator is the first Australian research vessel with dedicated aerosol laboratories to analyse the interaction between the ocean and atmosphere. A 2016 voyage to the Great Barrier Reef used the ship's state-of-the-art facilities to gather data to increase understanding of how the reef influences atmospheric composition and rainfall in this region.

The challenge

Capturing atmospheric data

Understanding the role of clouds in the warming and cooling of the planet, and how that role changes in a warming world is one of the biggest uncertainties climate researchers face.

A piece of scientific equipment at the top of the image and below is a full view of the research vessel, Investigator, on the ocean.

View of Investigator from tethersonde used to capture atmospheric data.  ©Marine National Facility

Key to this understanding is the influence on cloud properties of cloud condensation nuclei (CCN), the very small atmospheric aerosol particles necessary for the formation (nucleation) of every single cloud droplet. The anthropogenic contribution to CCN is known to be large in some regions. However, the natural processes that regulate CCN over large parts of the globe are less well understood and this is particularly so for the Great Barrier Reef (GBR).

Corals and the algae within emit the gas, dimethyl sulphate (DMS), which act as a seed (CCN) for the formation of rain droplets. When corals are under stress, such as from water temperatures increases due to climate change, they emit larger amounts of DMS which may lead to increased cloud formation.

An international team, led by Professor Zoran Ristovski from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), was awarded a grant of sea time on board Investigator to collect data to study aerosol sources and emissions across the entire GBR.

Our response

Providing a flexible and capable platform for research

Investigator is the first Australian research vessel with laboratories dedicated to analysing the interaction between the ocean and atmosphere, and one of only a few vessels on the planet fitted with a state-of-the-art weather radar.

During a voyage to study the GBR in 2016, Investigator was home to a collaborative team of international climate scientists from 13 institutions working together to study the relationship between coral and weather. In particular, the science team was looking at what effect a reef damaged by climate change might have on weather patterns in north Queensland.

The concentration of DMS in water in this region is known to be higher near the reef than in the general ocean so measurements were taken by scientists on both inside and outside the reef. To pinpoint sampling locations, scientists used a model called eReef, which has been developed to provide a moving picture of the reef and the water flow around it.

The exceptional mobility of Investigator allowed the ship to be moved into precise positions on the reef to sample target sites, allowing scientists to capture direct emissions based on how and where the water was flowing.

The scale and capacity of Investigator to accommodate multiple projects on a single voyage also allowed for new methods for atmospheric sampling to be tested during this voyage, including the use of drones and tethersondes, an instrument attached to a tethered balloon that is used to gather and transmit meteorological data.

The results

Atmospheric characteristics mapped for GBR

Investigator provided a highly capable, flexible and mobile platform which allowed for the collection of precise data to increase understanding of the strength and distribution of emissions from the reef.

Prof Zoran Ristovski (QUT) in one of Investigator’s dedicated aerosol laboratories.

For the first time in the GBR, scientists were able to map atmospheric particle characteristics including size, composition, cloud condensation nuclei as well as changes in the DMS concentrations both in the water column and in the air.

We now have a better understanding of the atmospheric composition over the GBR and of the key processes that underpin new particle formation in this area. This data will improve our models and allow us to more accurately predict the impact of climate change on the weather patterns in the future.

The knowledge created in this project will provide the scientific basis for the improved management of water and land resources in the north Queensland region, leading to benefits such as increased protection for key agricultural areas. It will also better inform policy-makers responsible for the management and conservation of unique environmental assets, the reefs and rainforests of north Queensland.

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