The French schooner, Tara, set sail from Lorient harbor on 5 September 2009 for a three-year scientific voyage to map the effects of climate change on marine organisms. The 150,000 kilometer (81, 000 nautical mile) journey follows and expands upon the trail of naturalist Charles Darwin’s 1831-1836 trip on the Beagle.

Tara’s trip will produce a study of the clouds of tiny ocean flora and fauna that produce 50 % of the world’s oxygen supply. Marine microorganisms account for 90 percent of the oceans’ biomass and absorb the majority of atmospheric carbon dioxide. “Without these microorganisms man would never have come into being. If they disappear, so do we,” asserted Eric Karsenti, the Tara’s 60-year-old scientific leader, as the crew prepared for their departure.

The journey will take the French boat into all the world oceans and from the ice caps to the tropics. The main aim is to obtain measurements of the impact of warming that these microorganisms are undergoing and to incorporate them into future climate simulation models.

The double-masted yacht, Tara, took a previous climate change related voyage. She charted shrinking ice sheet in the Arctic Ocean between Siberia and Greenland for 18 months between 2006 and 2008. The current mission, dubbed Tara-Oceans, will be divided between the 36-meter yacht and various on-land laboratories. About 100 scientists world-wide will be involved in the process of analyzing and interpreting the gathered samples and data.

The head of Tara Expeditions, Etienne Bourgois, said that “this mission will plunge us into the invisible world of marine ecosystems, one of the least explored realms of oceanography.” Such an expedition has not been undertaken on a global scale in the past. The team will be tracking microorganisms, such as diatoms, as well as more complex organisms, like marine viruses, jelly fish, larvae, fish, and coral, which make up the base of the marine food chain. As ocean species die out it has a potentially huge effect on the entire food chain, which varies significantly from area to area.

To date there is not a good understanding of the effects of climate change on marine organisms. For example, some species of plankton may bloom in warmer waters and others might die out completely.

The Tara-Oceans voyage is largely financed through the fashion house Agnes B. Additionally, Tara Expeditions has signed partnership agreements with Agence France-Presse (AFP) among others.

The mission is being lauded as one that will truly allow people in the mainstream to understand what issues ail the world’s oceans, especially as connected to climate change. The concept behind the voyage is to inform better science, but to also actively involve large companies in France and by extension the public more generally. AFP chairman, Pierre Louette, describes AFP’s heavy investment in the project: “in contributing to science and consciousness by distributing this news across the whole world, AFP is faithful to its own mission.”

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