The $4 Million Research Facility Now Operational at UCSD

June 1, 2022 | | 6 min read

What is the largest instrument you’ve ever seen? Perhaps you’ve run a sample on a UV-Vis Spectrophotometer that takes up a whole benchtop. Maybe you’ve used an NMR instrument that’s even taller than you. The new Scripps Ocean-Atmosphere Research Simulator (SOARS) is the size of an entire building—and a big one, at that.

In 2017, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) $2.8 million to develop SOARS. This funding, paired with a dedication of $1.2 million from Scripps itself has enabled the construction of a first-of-its-kind simulator uniquely poised to study the current and future ocean/atmosphere boundary layer. The instrument stands 18 ft. above ground level and consists of a 36,000-gallon wave channel that measures 120 ft. long and 8 ft. wide as well as a wind tunnel of the same length that is capable of generating winds up to 63 mph. Other features, such as a wave paddle, solar tubes, and water chillers, allow for the simulation of a diverse range of global ocean conditions. Direct observation by researchers and spectators is possible from the two viewing rooms alongside the wave channel.

Figure 1. Monroe, R. Soars readies for Flight. (accessed May 5,  2022).

SOARS is an interdisciplinary effort allowing for the synthesis of biology, chemistry, and oceanography in a single space. In addition to the extreme winds it generates, this instrument can chill water to -2℃ and wind to -20℃, enabling sea ice to form within the wave channel. Solar tubes provide natural light that can imitate tropical conditions and even facilitate the growth of phytoplankton blooms. The headspace above the wave channel is sealed, which, in conjunction with an integrated, temperature-controlled smog chamber, allows for the study of sea spray and other airborne compounds within a closed system. SOARS is filled with filtered seawater pumped directly from the Scripps Pier.

You may be wondering, given the location of UCSD on the coast, why the experiments conducted in SOARS can’t simply be performed in the ocean itself. “There are some observations possible in SOARS that are difficult or impossible in the field,” explains project principal investigator and Scripps research oceanographer Grant Deane. “For example, measurements of pristine sea spray, controlled biological communities, and measurements in the top tens of centimeters of the sea surface in stormy conditions, are very difficult to achieve at sea. A day of SOARS time costs about 1/20th of a day of ship time, making the instrument a lower-cost alternative to field observations.”

So, what experiments are set to be run in SOARS? Due to the wide variety of conditions the simulator is capable of emulating, it is uniquely situated to study Earth’s rapidly changing ocean-atmosphere system. The critical role that the Marine Atmosphere Boundary Layer (MABL) plays in atmospheric chemistry, weather, climate change, and human health will be the focus of research efforts in SOARS.

One of the first users of SOARS will be the Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment (CAICE)—one of the seven NSF Centers for Chemical Innovation. The director of CAICE, Dr. Kimberly Prather, is dual-appointed at SIO and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Dr. Prather and CAICE have developed an experiment examining the composition of the gases and sea spray aerosols that emerge from the ocean under high winds in the Summer of 2022. This study could help inform the generation of marine clouds—aerosol-cloud interactions constitute the largest source of uncertainty in modern global climate modeling. “SOARS will open the doors for science in the exploration of future as well as prehistoric scenarios that will allow scientists to sort out human-natural interactions at a level that cannot be achieved in the real world,” said Prather.

Other experiments at SOARS will focus on the impact of human activities on the changing chemistry of the ocean and atmosphere and the disruption to nature’s climate regulation this causes. The effect of certain air pollutants and greenhouse gasses on the current and future oceans and atmospheres can be studied by inputting them into the instrument. Deane called SOARS “the only instrument in the world capable of studying the current and future ocean/atmosphere system and a testament to 21st-century science.” Simulating ocean ecosystems from the polar regions to the offshore California current and their response to future environmental conditions can better help scientists characterize the cascading effects on marine animals and plants, cloud formation, and, ultimately, us.

Finally, SOARS is also intended to serve as an educational tool. It will enable students from interdisciplinary backgrounds to better understand and protect our planet. Specifically, it provides an opportunity to facilitate classical studies in fluid dynamics through practical demonstrations.

Figure 1. Scripps Ocean-Atmosphere Research Simulator. (accessed May 5,  2022)

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  3. NSF Awards Scripps Oceanography $2.8 million to develop advanced ocean and atmosphere simulator. (accessed May 5,  2022).
  4. Scripps Ocean-Atmosphere Research Simulator. (accessed May 5,  2022).
  5. SOARS readies for Flight. (accessed May 5,  2022).
  6. UC San Diego’s new $4M Ocean Simulator could help solve one of climate change’s biggest mysteries. (accessed May 5,  2022).