How do we Observe the Ocean?

The Pacific Ocean can be a harsh environment to work in.  However, it is vital to get real time information back from (usually delicate) sensors in real time.

This is achieved by several separate observing arrays, from which the data is combined to get an overall idea of how the ocean is changing.

In response to a strong El Nino in 1982-1983, several moorings were deployed across the equatorial Pacific (starting in 1984) to monitor the temperature of the surface and subsurface ocean, and send this data back to shore in real time. The array was known as the Tropical Atmosphere and Ocean (TAO) array and is now a key tool used to predict seasonal climate.

Dedicated scientific ships are required to maintain the TAO array of buoys. But, starting  in 1986, commercial ‘ships of opportunity’ (i.e. container vessels) were used to drop temperature probes (XBTs) along regular trade routes across the Pacific Ocean. This enabled us to see a larger picture of what was happening in the Pacific Ocean, however there were still large gaps where container ships did not regularly go.

This gap in observations has been filled by one of the most significant recent advances in ocean observing which occurred in 2002 with the beginning of the Argo array of profiling floats.  Approximately 3,500 of these floats are currently drifting around the ocean. Each float sinks to 2000m then climbs to the surface every 10 days to get a profile of subsurface temperature and salinity. This data is sent back to shore via satellite and made publicly available to now give us an almost global dataset on the subsurface ocean.

From high in space, dedicated satellites can detect sea surface temperature, and bumps and depressions in the sea surface height.  Other satellites monitor ocean colour, the winds blowing on the sea surface, the saltiness of the sea surface, and rainfall across the Pacific.

Each of the menu items on the left give more information on these measurements.
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