Robots seek out oceans’ climate secrets

November 14, 2007

argo-and-ice.JPG  The world might squabbling over the Kyoto Protocol and how best to fight climate change.

     But a project involving thousands of ocean robots shows nations can still cooperate when it comes to weather forecasting and understanding the science of global warming.

     The 26-nation Argo project involves deploying and maintaining an array of tube-shaped robots 1.5 metres long across the world’s oceans.

    The robots, called Argos, take a variety of measurements, such as salinity, temperature and ocean pressure. The data is then sent via satellite back to governments, weather forecasting centres and universities.

     Deployments of the $27,000 robots began seven years ago and this month marks the first time 3,000 Argos are operating at any one time. The trick is to maintain that number because the robots have a 4-to-5 year lifespan before their batteries run out.

     “Argo will allow us to grapple with some of the big climate questions, as well as provide insight into how the ever-changing ocean weather affects marine ecosystems,” said Susan Wijffels of the Australia’s top research body, the state-backed CSIRO.

    She said the project was causing a lot of re-examination of past data of how the ocean has warmed over the past 60 years.

    Past measurements relied on data taken from ships or equipment moored at sea. Argos, however, can descend up to 2 kilometres and take a variety of measurements before surfacing to send their data. Once that’s done, the robots head back to the
depths once more for another cycle of data collection.

    The data can be used to improve weather forecasting and refine complex computer models showing the global impacts of climate change.

    The Argos now allowed scientists to track ocean heat content on a 2 or 3-month basis in real time, said Wijffels, of the CSIRO’s Wealth from Oceans National Research Flagship programme.

    At times ocean heat content varies, because of El Nino or a major volcanic eruption.

float-cycle.JPG    “The other exciting thing Argo is allowing us to do is to look at long-term changes in ocean salinity,” she told Reuters.

    This helped track how rainfall was changing over the oceans.

    “The ocean is like a giant integrator…a giant rain gauge. It averages all that rainfall. It is a climate warning signal. It allows us to pick up tiny signals that are very hard to pick up in the noisy data in the atmosphere,” she said.

    Member states of the project, including Australia, China, India, the EU, South Korea and the United States, are meeting this week in Hobart, in southern Australia, to discuss data from the network and how to further refine the robots and their
sensors.

    The problem with Argos, though, is that not many people have heard about the robots or know what they look like.

    Earlier this year, an Australian prawn fisherman snared one in his nets off Mooloolaba in south-east Queensland state — thousands of kilometres from where the probe was originally released.

     The robot had stopped sending its regular radio signals weeks earlier but came to life again in the back of the fisherman’s van.

     Australian scientists eventually tracked down the missing probe by tracking its radio signals and just managed to save the robot from being converted into a letter box by the fisherman.
 (Michael Byrnes in Sydney contributed to this entry)
 

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