Q&A: Oceanographers Tell How the Pandemic Crimps Global Ocean and Climate Monitoring

Forecasts for ocean heat waves, toxic algae blooms and hurricanes are at risk.

Scientists help service the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Hawaii Ocean Time Series Site (WHOTS) mooring.  Credit: NOAA
Scientists help service the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Hawaii Ocean Time Series Site (WHOTS) mooring which has been monitoring atmospheric and oceanographic conditions since 2004 and collects data on ocean surface temperature, air temperature, wind, rain and more. Here is it being serviced off the coast of Oahu in 2018. Credit: NOAA

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We live on a liquid blue planet. Life emerged from the seas, and human bodies are 60 percent water. Almost three-quarters of Earth’s surface is covered by oceans, yet we know less about some of their deepest reaches than we do about the surface of the moon. 

What happens in the abyss is critical for the future of the planet because oceans have absorbed 93 percent of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases, which has slowed atmospheric warming. And Earth would be heating up even faster if oceans didn’t take up almost one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions.

All that heat will affect the planet for centuries after people stop burning fossil fuels. Climate researchers call oceans the flywheel that propels the planet’s climate because that warmth will keep driving changes that affect millions of people, melting polar ice caps, raising sea level and shifting weather patterns in ways that are intensifying heat waves, drought and flooding.


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But the global response to the coronavirus pandemic is threatening ocean monitoring operations as restrictions on shipping and research hinders the repair and replacement of measuring equipment. 

In March, researchers deployed 119 instruments—drifters that float on the  ocean’s surface, remotely operated gliders that can even peer beneath ice shelves and sensors that float at different depths. In May the number of those instruments released dropped to 40, only 31 percent of those needed to gather critical readings, according to the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, part of The United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), which provides global governance for marine science. 

Ocean monitoring equipment is sparse in the best of times, and in a July report, scientists warned that monitoring faces “further significant disruptions with potentially devastating consequences,” like delayed or less accurate storm forecasts, unless ocean observation activities resume at pre-Covid-19 levels soon. Resumption of normal pre-Covid monitoring programs should be deemed essential under pandemic response plans, they said.

Johannes Karstensen, with the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, estimated that the pandemic will affect 30 to 50 percent of the 300 weather observation platforms moored in the ocean. Some of them have already stopped sending data. The loss of just one of those instrument platforms could mean a gap of two to five years of data, he said.

The observations are not just important for understanding long-term climate changes. In the short term, global weather forecasting systems “will run off the rails,” without crucial data about conditions at the surface of the ocean and the atmosphere above it, said Lars Peter Riishojgaard, director of the Earth System Branch at the World Meteorological Organization.

Watching the ocean has always been important. Early navigators sailing from Europe to the Americas who got stuck in the doldrums first reported a huge floating blanket of spongy sargassum seaweed in the Atlantic Ocean. Today, global warming and shifting currents are pushing it deeper into the Caribbean, where it can overwhelm tourist beaches. The information gathered from ocean monitoring helps predict how far and fast the seaweed may spread.

The data is critical for projecting ocean heat waves, which can trigger toxic algae blooms that shut down commercial fishing and aquaculture operations, and cause mass die-offs of marine mammals and birds. It also is important for projecting the strength and paths of tropical storms and hurricanes that affect the eastern United States. 

Missing Measurements

Underwater robots launched from Puerto Rico measure temperatures from the surface down to a half mile deep and send it to a satellite. Warm water can intensify hurricanes quickly, so knowing the temperature of the water a storm passes over, and the depth of layers of warm and colder water, improves the accuracy of storm forecasts. 

The National Hurricane Center said it has a plan to ensure that its hurricane forecasts for the United Statesare not disrupted for any reason, including Covid-19. But globally, there is a chance that data gaps could reduce the accuracy of tropical storm forecasts in other regions, according to the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission.

Seaborne instruments also measure how the warmup of the Arctic is affecting a key Atlantic Ocean current that distributes and mixes warm and cold waters around the world. They also predict the large-scale Pacific Ocean temperature shifts called El Niño and  La Niña, which affect where droughts and floods impact the U.S.

The pandemic isn’t the only threat to ocean monitoring operations. The latest budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposed by the White House in March would cut the agency’s budget by 13 percent, with 40 percent of the total cut—$590 million—coming out of ocean and atmospheric research.

Altogether, more than 7,000 devices in the ocean send more than 100,000 files per week to meteorological organizations. Two leading oceanographic scientists provided more detailed information on how the pandemic’s impacts on such monitoring are important.

InsideClimate News: Can you describe the data that is at risk, or has already been lost by some of the moorings that have stopped sending data?

Dr. David Legler, Director of NOAA Research’s Global Ocean Monitoring and Observing: Several ocean observing systems are likely to be impacted as restrictions associated with Covid-19 continue. The Global Ocean Monitoring and Observing program in NOAA supports over 60 moorings at key ocean locations around the world. Several cruises to maintain and service those moorings have been cancelled or postponed. By the end of 2020, about 50 percent of those moorings will be at significant risk of data and/or equipment loss, unless we are able to service them. 

We are exploring all options for maintaining these buoys and have contingency plans to service a limited number of moorings in the next few months using limited crew.

Emma Heslop, program director, International Oceanographic Commission: In the last months, since mid-March when almost all oceanographic research vessel operations ceased, most missions to service the moorings have been canceled, so a large number and variety of moorings are affected, moorings providing surface observations real-time to weather forecasting and prediction systems, deep moorings that measure the changes in the global ocean circulation, sites that provide long term records of biological and biogeochemical changes, moorings that are capturing sediment to understand carbon transfer to the deep ocean—amongst many other things.  

Can you list a few specific examples of how that data is used? Could there be specific impacts to hurricane forecasts?

Legler: Most of those moorings mentioned above collect data in real time on ocean surface conditions like winds, temperatures, humidity, and subsurface conditions, including ocean temperatures, salinity and ocean currents. 

David Legler standing with a map showing the locations of Argo floats around the global ocean. The Argo array gathers ocean, weather and climate data for NOAA and our international partners. Credit: NOAA
David Legler standing with a map showing the locations of Argo floats around the global ocean. The Argo array gathers ocean, weather and climate data for NOAA and our international partners. Credit: NOAA

These data are used daily for weather, climate and ocean forecasts around the world. They provide unique long-term time series of ocean changes which are important for characterizing decadal variability (e.g. Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation) that has been linked to a number of potential impacts on marine ecosystems, sea level and climate. Moreover, these longer term observations help us understand and track marine warming trends and carbon uptake. NOAA also collects ocean data using new technologies for timely research on hurricane prediction, and fisheries.

How and why will the moorings be affected?

Legler: Typically, moorings have to be serviced by a crew and ship every 1-2 years. This entails recovering the existing mooring and its data, and replacing it with a new mooring. If these moorings are not serviced, batteries and instruments may stop working, jeopardizing the long-time data records we have developed as well as equipment if it can’t be recovered.

Are there alternate ways like remote sensing that could be boosted to help make up for data gaps?

Legler: The in-situ observations of the ocean are complementary to satellite measurements. One does not replace the other. Autonomous vehicles like the Saildrones have been tested by NOAA and others, and could potentially provide alternative means of observing some aspects of the ocean. Their utility and cost-effectiveness are still being assessed.

How can the resilience of these observation systems be improved?

Legler: The global ocean is relatively poorly sampled, so we should consider more robust observing systems and means of operating them even during challenging times. We are continually working to maximize performance of our platforms, for example, by extending battery and sensor life. New technologies and automated robots being tested by NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] offer some promise in the long term, but require testing and validation. Additionally, increasing the number of countries supporting ocean observing and engaging with more talent around the world will help and can lead to stronger ocean-based economies.

Do you have an action plan or a best-practices list that would help ensure the flow of vital data?

Legler: We are adapting quickly to the challenges presented by the pandemic. Our partners are extremely dedicated to continuation of the global ocean observing system and are doing what they can under current safety guidelines to ensure people are safe. There are renewed efforts to more fully coordinate our ocean observing activities internationally, including an international call in late June to coordinate ocean observing operations in the Atlantic basin.

What would be the most high priority things to think about in the very short term to stop further loss of data and to ensure continuity? What needs to happen right now?

Legler: Our most important concern is the safety and well being of the employees of NOAA and our partners. We are focusing on near-term opportunities to service our buoys in the next six months. We are maintaining our contacts with ocean observing and ship operators to maximize opportunities for deployments of instruments to keep our observing system working for the benefit of all.

Please describe the vital information for the ocean economy provided by ocean monitoring.

Heslop: This includes data used by fisheries and by aquaculture and the management of marine resources. The data is used by models that provide weather and marine forecasts, which are used by many industries. 

The subsurface data provided by instruments is also now improving the prediction of the strength of severe storms in several parts of the world and there is work looking at expanding this as severe storms have a high economic and human impact. 

Emma Heslop serves as program director for the International Oceanographic Commission. Credit: NOAA
Emma Heslop serves as program director for the International Oceanographic Commission. Credit: NOAA

The data from tropical moored buoys is vital for seasonal prediction, for example, for El Niño and La Niña, which have profound effects on regional weather patterns and industries, from agriculture to insurance, and even planning the location of building supplies. There are many services based on ocean information delivering to end users across many different sectors. 

Can you give me more detailed information on the 30-50 percent of the moorings that will be affected by the pandemic. How and why will they be affected? 

Heslop: Since mid-March when almost all oceanographic research vessel operations ceased, most missions to service the moorings have been cancelled, so a large number and variety of moorings are affected. Moorings provide surface observations in real-time to weather forecasting and prediction systems. Deep moorings measure the changes in the global ocean circulation, and other data that show long term biological and biogeochemical changes.

Are there alternate ways, like remote sensing from satellites, that could be boosted to help make up for the gaps?

Heslop: Water is pretty impervious to electromagnetic radiation, so from satellites, we can see the skin of the ocean, but nothing about its internal structure. Several ocean variables can be measured from space, and we can infer a few others, but space-based remote sensing cannot fully replace observations taken by ships, people and instruments in the ocean. 

We have learned that autonomous platforms that stay out for a long time increase the resilience of the system, but they cannot measure everything, and eventually need maintenance and human intervention.

What are some specific suggestions for improving resilience?

Heslop: Recognition of maintenance and deployment activities as essential under national and local lockdown restrictions, with appropriate health and safety measures. The routine maintenance, calibration and deployment of tide-gauges, high frequency radar stations and underwater ocean gliders that are launched from small boats should be viewed as essential and allowed to continue following local health and safety recommendations.

Exploration of use of commercial service providers to work where research vessels are not able to in the coming months. We are aware of activity developing to support and fill gaps in the observing system for Argo [robotic instruments that ride currents at different levels in the ocean], drifters [on the surface] and moorings. We are also working hard to better coordinate across the opportunities that are becoming available as some national research vessels are planning to re-start operations in July and August.

Encouraging the further use of autonomous observing platforms and instruments would also help, and we are looking at how to speed the development of technology from concepts to pilots to sustained deployment.

What would be the most high priority things to think about in the very short term to stop further loss of data and to ensure continuity? What needs to happen right now?

Heslop: We are moving forward with research vessel operators to sensitize them to the issues we have identified and expand the dialogue as they plan upcoming missions. We assess globally that all at risk moorings have an identified maintenance pathway and that ocean observing operations remain a priority for research vessel operations into 2021. There is a lot to try and make up.