Fleet of robotic probes will monitor global warming’s impact on microscopic ocean life

A single drop of seawater holds millions of phytoplankton, a mix of algae, bacteria, and protocellular creatures. Across the world’s oceans these photosynthesizing microbes pump out more than half of the planet’s oxygen, while slowing climate change by capturing an estimated 25% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) released from humanity’s burning of fossil fuels. But the scale of this vital chemistry is mostly a guess, and there’s little sense of how it will change as temperatures rise. “What’s happening out there? We have no idea really,” says Susan Wijffels, a physical oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Soon, 500 drifting ocean floats studded with biogeochemical sensors will deliver answers.

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