Andrew Babbin

Andrew Babbin

Awarded in 2024

Breathless

Using sharks to measure oxygen levels in the ocean
Premise

We’re going to need a better sensor

In movies, on TV, and at the beach, sharks evoke both fear and fascination. Yet it turns out they can do a lot more than simply swim and eat. Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Professor Andrew Babbin, an oceanographer and marine biogeochemist, believes sharks can help stave off climate change and support global fisheries. “We know that as the planet warms, the oceans lose oxygen,” he says. “There are definable oxygen-minimum zones (OMZs) in the ocean, where fish cannot survive and where microbes release ozone-depleting nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.” Current methods of measuring oxygen levels—such as dropping sensors from a boat on the surface, and autonomous floats that stay at depth for 10 days and then rise—are expensive and limited. Babbin’s solution would allow for much broader coverage at a fraction of the price, making it both more effective and more cost-efficient.

“Sharks migrate vertically to depths of hundreds of meters to forage for food,” says Babbin. “They avoid low-oxygen areas because they can’t breathe and there’s no food, so we can learn a lot by observing where they go and analyzing the data they transmit. Furthermore, they provide all the energy and propulsion needed to reach the depths we are interested in measuring.” The initial goal of Babbin’s research project is to develop a cutting-edge, low-cost dissolved oxygen sensor that integrates with the kind of electronic tags commonly attached to shark fins in marine biology research. “Once we have the sensor, we will start processing a fleet of tagged sharks to measure the size of the OMZs in the ocean, how they change seasonally and with El Niño/La Niña oscillation, and how they might expand or contract in the future,” he says.

Collaborators within the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth, Massachusetts, will provide the all-important task of tagging the sharks.

Challenge

Moving up to the big leagues

As a marine microbiologist, Babbin typically researches organisms too small to see with the human eye. This would be his first time working with larger animals, and sharks carry all manner of risks. Another challenge is simply identifying which kind of shark—or other predatory animal—would be optimal given their known behavioral diving patterns. In addition, he notes, “The stagnation of many federal climate research resources have restricted the ability of scientists to evaluate major unknowns in the climate system in favor of incremental, low-risk work. This project had little chance of funding without significant preliminary results from an already-validated approach, which would have been impossible to obtain.”

Depth of anoxia (meters) chart

Potential

Raising all ships

“Thanks to the Bose Fellows grant, we will show that sharks can be harnessed and deployed as deep-water oceanographers based on where they naturally go to feed, and permit a new era of oceanography, climate modeling, and fisheries practices to emerge,” says Babbin. “Once our sensors are designed, implemented, and validated, we can interface with industrial and federal partners to achieve a continuous global monitoring network that all can benefit from.” Babbin aso believes that this type of work will attract many MIT students—undergraduate and graduate students alike—and his passion for this project strongly suggests that he will not be biting off more than he can chew.