Floating Sensors Track Oceans' Role in Climate Change

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, September 19, 2000 (ENS) - An ocean probing program designed to help researchers better understand the Earth's climatic and environmental patterns made its debut today at a bipartisan event in Washington. Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta and Republican Congressman Curt Weldon were joined by a panel of ocean scientists to showcase the new technology.

The fledgling program, known as the Argo Ocean Profiling Network, will ultimately consist of some 3,000 floating sensors distributed throughout the world's oceans.

The programmable sensors will transmit data to scientists and weather forecasters via satellite. They will serve as valuable tools in the effort to understand and protect the world's imperiled oceans, said Secretary Mineta.


Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta (Photo courtesy Office of the Secretary)
"We are announcing this project because what we are really going to be doing is crossing a new frontier, and taking the plunge to begin to unravel the mysteries of our oceans," Mineta said.

"The oceans are an indispensable link to our daily lives and America's prosperity. To continue to reap the oceans' riches, yet preserve their fragile assets for future generations, we must consider a course change that includes exploration, protection, and education," he said.

The Argo network will greatly enhance the system now in place, said David Evans, assistant administrator for oceans and atmospheric research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"The Argo floats are the next logical step," Evans said. "Data from Argo's global system will be integrated into an ocean observations network and help forecasters better predict El Nino and other climate events throughout the world."


Waves crash on the British shore (Photo by Liz King courtesy Freefoto.com)
Mineta noted that because weather and climate are inexorably linked to the world's oceans, the data that will be collected by the network of floats will help citizens and officials to better prepare for major weather events such as hurricanes and El Nino.

According to government estimates, extreme weather conditions associated with the 1997/1998 El Nino event caused some $15 billion in losses in the United States. But thanks to the early warning climate predicting tools that were already in place, the state of California alone was able to save an estimated $1 billion is weather related costs, Mineta noted.

"Emergency managers want to know how many storms to prepare for, whether we will have a hotter summer and will need air conditioned shelters, or a colder winter, during which we might need more heating oil," Mineta said. "Farmers want to know how long the growing season will last, and whether it will be dry or wet. In time, resource managers in agriculture, water management and energy supply will be able to respond to forecasted climate variability and reduce economic vulnerability."


Scientist deploys one of the Argo floating sensors (Photo courtesy Dr. Stanley Wilson, Argo Program)
The Argo floats, which can be deployed from either ships or aircraft, will be programmed to sink about mile into the ocean.

They will drift at that depth for about 10 days, then slowly rise, measuring temperature and salinity through the layers as they make their way to the surface.

Once on the surface, data will be transmitted to a communications satellite, and the probes will begin another cycle. Ocean currents will be plotted by tracking the movement of the floats.

The Argo program is designed to be an international effort. Nearly a dozen nations have pledged to build and fund floats to bolster the armada of devices that the United States plans to deploy.

All data transmitted from the Argo network are to be fully open and available to anyone possessing the interest and means to acquire it. The data will be put onto the Global Telecommunications System (GTS) within 12 hours of collection for use by operational agencies in their forecasting activities.

The data will then be subjected to scientific quality control and made available via the Internet within three months of collection.

But aside from the purely scientific advantages that Argo will provide, the ocean observation system will also afford the United States an important tool to use to ensure national and global security, said Congressman Weldon, a Republican from Pennsylvania and the chairman of a House panel on national security.


Congressman Curt Weldon (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
According to Weldon, long term weather patterns and catastrophic climactic events such as famine or flooding can often serve as a type of crisis "pre-alert system."

"Often times, being able to predict weather patterns and conditions ... will lead us to understand where we have to proactively engage regional leaders to perhaps prevent conflict," Weldon said. "It's important for us to understand the oceans for the important role they play in our quality of life, and in particular their importance to us in reducing the potential for conflict in those regions that are most negatively impacted by severe changes in weather."

"If we prevent conflict, we prevent war," Weldon declared.

Weldon called the Argo program a "major step forward for America," He pledged that many of his Republican colleagues in the House would support President Bill Clinton's spending proposal of $28 million for climate research in the coming fiscal year.

Mineta was quick to call on Congress to support the President's budget initiative, as well as the still pending Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), which would provide some $3 billion in funding to state and federal agencies to protect coral reefs, fisheries, wildlife sanctuaries, and other land and water resources.

"We need the Senate to pass CARA," Mineta said of the measure, which has already passed the House with strong bipartisan support. "If we are going to save our oceans, and the communities that depend on them, it is important that CARA passes."


U.S. merchant ship takes heavy seas on the bow from 1980 tropical storm Georgette in the Eastern Pacific Ocean (Photo by Krister Brzezinski courtesy Mariner's Weather Log, NOAA)
The U.S. contribution to the Argo Ocean Profiling program is being managed through the National Oceanographic Partnership Program, with funding from the Office of Naval Research and NOAA.

At present, there are six floats at sea aboard the research ship Melville, on an oceanographic cruise zig-zagging along the west coast of Central America.

At the completion of that cruise, the vessel will steam to an area west of Peru to deploy those floats sometime in mid October.

A month later, eight more floats will be loaded aboard the commercial ship Nilze for deployment across the tropical Atlantic. Additional deployments through 2001 will bring the total number of U.S. floats deployed to 187.

The project was dubbed Argo to complement the Jason-1 satellite. Argo was the ship of the Greek mythological hero Jason.

The Jason-1 satellite is a joint project between the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) and France's Centere National d'Etudes Spatiales, which is slated for launch early next year.

For satellite images of ocean conditions and analysis of how they are used in predictions visit: http://www.argo.ucsd.edu/slides.html