NARRAGANSETT, R.I. - April 5, 2012 - A University of Rhode Island oceanographer is leading an effort to partner with the global shipping industry to systematically collect detailed data about the world's oceans using equipment installed on commercial vessels.
H. Thomas Rossby, a professor at the Graduate School of Oceanography, said commercial ships on the high seas offer a cost-effective platform for collecting data that could be used to learn about currents, plankton, ocean chemistry, climate change and other topics.
According to a report written by Rossby and colleagues on a working group sponsored by the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research and the International Association for the Physical Sciences of the Oceans, "the ocean is vastly under-observed, particularly below the ocean surface, where satellites cannot measure the ocean's properties. ...Observations below the surface depend on getting platforms (ships, moored buoys, floats, gliders, etc.) to locations far beyond the coasts, which can be expensive."
Rossby said ships are especially useful for collecting this data because they traverse the same routes on a regular basis, much like satellites orbiting the Earth.
For instance, the URI scientist has gained valuable insights about Gulf Stream currents from instruments he and colleagues have operated for nearly 20 years on a freighter that travels between New Jersey and Bermuda. Other ships, including a Miami-based cruise ship and a ferry traveling between Denmark and Iceland, also collect oceanographic measurements.
"Various researchers have worked with the commercial shipping industry along selected routes for years, but these have been individual efforts," Rossby said. "If the ocean observation community came together with the shipping industry, we could bring synergies and remove significant observational deficiencies the way we operate today."
Many in the shipping industry are showing strong interest in the proposal.
"All of the companies, almost without exception, when we knock on their door they say they'd be happy to help out," said Rossby. "Their main concern is that we don't place any demands on them, which we fully understand. The main requirement is that the instrumentation work reliably so our presence can be kept to a minimum."
The data the ships collect will be transmitted to the scientists via WiFi or other cell phone technologies when the ships are in port.
The proposed partnership, called OceanScope, aims to begin an initial phase by placing instruments on ships traversing 14 routes in the North Atlantic.
"If we could have these routes routinely measuring currents from Iceland to the equator, we could really start to quantify ocean currents in a way we've never done before," Rossby said.
Currents play an important role in the redistribution of heat in the ocean and, hence, climate. Understanding currents helps shipping companies minimize fuel costs; currents significantly influence the distribution of marine life like plankton; they determine how items at the surface is redistributed such as in garbage patches; and currents play a fundamental role in the ocean's uptake of CO2, a major greenhouse gas.
"Accurate current measurements would be useful for a wide variety of disciplines," said Rossby. "We believe there are big changes taking place in current patterns, but we don't have a good understanding of them."
While funding for the project is uncertain, the scientists believe that its benefits far outweigh its costs.
"When the oceanographic communities begin to see the power of what these ships can provide and the advantages of working with the shipping industry, I'm sure they will see what a tremendous resource it is and come up with new ideas and technologies," Rossby concluded.