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How Weather Buoys Can Fast-Track Ocean Research

Emily Heaslip

Weather buoys are allowing researchers to access remote areas of the ocean like never before. While weather buoys have been in use since the early 1900s, advancements in weather buoy materials and technology, as well as the development of more affordable buoys, have empowered scientists, meteorologists, and researchers to further expand networks of weather buoys that can collect information from even the most hard-to-reach areas of the ocean. 

[Read more: 6 Features to Look For When Purchasing a Drifting Weather Buoy

Weather buoys can fare in extreme conditions in regions where data has never been collected, but that’s not the only advantage they bring to field research. Weather buoys are helping streamline discoveries at sea in more ways than one - read on to hear how. 

Real-time data collection

Weather buoys provide real-time data that help researchers track and identify patterns and trends that may signal changing ocean conditions. Ocean weather buoys like Sofar Ocean’s Spotter buoy continuously collect and transmit spectral wave measurements, wind readings, and temperature on and below the surface in real time to help scientists get a better understanding of observable trends. 

In Western Australia, Spotters are deployed along the coast to provide real-time monitoring of a developing marine heatwave due to La Niña conditions. Researchers are using buoys in the ocean to measure the real-time impacts of ENSO, collecting data to build predictive models and raise awareness of the devastating impact of warming oceans on marine ecosystems. 

Data from the buoys will be triangulated with water samples and diver transect to help inform preparation for future La Niña events. With this information, marine resource managers, researchers, and commercial fishers can make smarter decisions to protect oceans from heatwaves and prepare for climate change. 

Collect accurate data at scale

Historically, marine data collection was limited to areas that could easily be accessed — typically coastal areas in water depths less than a few hundred meters. Away from the coast and in deeper water, weather forecasters were forced to rely on a narrow dataset collected from the same shipping routes over and over again, measuring the same regions of the ocean. Likewise, weather information from the open ocean came from a combination of visual observations made by ship crew and satellite-based proxy measurements. These sources have limited accuracy, and can only record and provide data at irregular space and time intervals. 

Today’s weather buoys are built to withstand the harshest ocean conditions and overcome those limitations. Sofar Ocean’s Smart Mooring is a polyurethane cable with Kevlar braid designed to withstand cold, salt, and rough conditions up the Beaufort scale. Spotter buoys’ rugged design uses a combination of solar panels and rechargeable batteries to maximize data collection, rain or shine. 

Sofar Ocean's modular hardware enables ocean data at scale: with the largest private network of drifting buoys in the world, Sofar's forecasts can predict marine weather with 50% more accuracy than NOAA and ECMWF. The planetary network of Spotters stretches across all five oceans with a myriad of applications. 

A diverse set of variables

Ocean weather buoys don’t just tell you if it’s raining or sunny: The range of information collected by weather buoys can be used for everything from water quality monitoring, storm surge predictions, mitigating climate change, and pivoting to different sources of alternative energy. 

Spotter and Smart Mooring collect information on a diverse set of variables, including: 

  • All common wave statistics from 3D motion time series: complete wave spectrum, directional moments, bulk statistics, hourly resolution, and 'sea' and 'swell' data partitioning
  • Wind speed and wind direction estimated from the equilibrium range of wave spectrum.
  • Sea surface temperature with an accuracy of +/-0.1C and a precision of 0.02C.
  • Water level: including infragravity waves, non-tidal residuals, tides and water levels
  • Water column stratification, sub-surface water properties, currents and water quality

Ocean buoys can be configured for specific research goals, too. For instance, NOAA is using 50 Moored Autonomous pCO2 (MAPCO2) buoys to understand ocean acidification. These buoys are deployed either over a coral reef, in the open ocean, or in a coastal region to track long-term data on carbon dioxide in the ocean and better understand the progress of ocean acidification

By generating more data, from remote parts of the ocean, configured to investigate a specific set of variables, ocean buoys are helping researchers understand marine weather, climate changes, and ocean trends like never before. To learn more about buoy-led research efforts, check out our blog on Sofar Ocean.

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