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Understanding Ocean Observing Systems And Their Impact On Ocean Analysis

Emily Heaslip

Ocean observing systems are a critical component of the global effort to forecast ocean conditions and track long-term changes in marine environments. Typically, these systems —  which include NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS), the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), and a variety of regional coastal ocean observing systems (COOS), such as NERACOOS — consist of:

  • Sensors that collect data
  • Platforms that host these sensors
  • Technology that sends sensor data to a central collection center for analysis

Collectively, these systems generate a massive amount of ocean data and increase our understanding of the conditions and changing climate on Planet Ocean. 

Types of ocean observing systems

Today, ocean observing systems can be loosely grouped into three main categories:

  • Systems that observe sea surface conditions
  • Systems that observe the ocean profile
  • Systems that observe seafloor conditions

Sea surface ocean observing systems 

Sea surface ocean observing systems are powered by sensors that measure conditions at the surface, including sea surface temperature, surface wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, currents, air temperature, and precipitation. Common types of sea surface sensors include:

Ocean profile observing systems

Ocean profile observing systems seek to understand conditions beneath the surface. Programs like Argo (Array for Real-time Geostrophic Oceanography) collect data on the changing state of the ocean, critical insights that inform ocean-atmosphere climate models, help forecast weather changes, and complement the existing satellite data that is used to measure sea surface height variability. Ocean profile observing systems may also include underwater gliders, which can measure conductivity, ocean temperature and depth (CTD), as well as the chemical components in seawater and other key variables.

Seafloor observing systems

Seafloor observing systems are complex to set up and maintain, but provide crucial information about earthquakes (and resulting tsunamis), ocean pressure, oil spill detection, and the thermocline. These systems also help transmit data to onshore locations for further analysis. Seafloor observing systems include:

  • Cabled seafloor observatories (CSOs)
  • Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs)
  • Hadal Landers

The Global Ocean Observing System

When it comes to ocean data, many hands make light work. By combining the insights generated by various ocean observing systems, we can get a clearer picture of marine weather and ocean conditions.

This is the goal of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS). Co-sponsored by the IOC, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the International Science Council (ISC), GOOS is a massive, intergovernmental effort to share knowledge and coordinate technology deployment in a way that benefits all ocean stakeholders. Data collected through the GOOS has helped improve weather forecasts and advance our knowledge of climate fluctuations.

“The GOOS mission is to lead the ocean observing community and create partnerships to grow an integrated, responsive and sustained observing system,” wrote UNESCO.

There are two signature programs that are part of GOOS: the aforementioned Argo Float Program and the Global Drifter Program. Let’s learn a bit more about each.

A deeper look: The Argo Float Program

The Argo program is powered by an array of floats equipped with robotic instruments that measure water properties as they drift with the ocean currents and move vertically between the surface and mid-water level.

Argo floats collect data on the temperature and salinity of the water — they provide 100,000 temperature/salinity profiles and reference velocity measurements per year! — and, in some cases, are equipped with sensors that measure the biology and chemistry of the ocean. Ultimately, the Argo array aims to help researchers understand the ocean’s role in our climate and more accurately track the impact of climate change on ocean health.

“Argo data is used for initialization of ocean and coupled (ocean atmosphere) forecast models, data assimilation, and dynamical model testing,” wrote NOAA. “It has been demonstrated that the assimilation of Argo data in the models improved weather and climate forecasts. Profiling float data has an enormous range of applications for education, operations and research.” 

A deeper look: The Global Drifter Program

NOAA’s Global Drifter program consists of a 5° x 5° gridded array of over 1,000 buoys that drift on the surface and are tracked by satellites. These buoys transmit sea surface temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, and wave data, amongst other metrics, insights that empower researchers to improve weather models, better predict and forecast hurricanes and tropical storms, and track the movement of objects in the ocean, such as marine debris.

Looking Forward

To maximize the global impact of ocean observing systems, it is necessary for more and more data-collecting devices to come online. Sofar Ocean heeded this call and now operates a network of thousands of sensors that collect 100K+ unique data points daily across all five oceans and generate marine weather (or wave) forecasts proven to be up to 40% more accurate than those generated by other operational forecast centers. These insights power Sofar’s planetary-scale ocean data network, which is used by researchers, shipping companies, aquaculture planners, conservation advocates, and other key ocean stakeholders, to measure, predict and act on Planet Ocean.

To learn more about ocean observation systems, check out our blog.

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