Around the Pier: Once Languishing, a Global Monitoring Network Returns to Full Strength


A network of drifters that provides what scientists have called the “weather map” of the ocean’s upper layers is back at full strength after a period of decline.

The Global Drifter Program (GDP) first envisioned by late Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, professor Peter Niiler in the 1980s has nearly 1,400 drifters in its network, up from a low of 875 units just two years ago when high malfunction rates took many of them offline.

The revitalization of the network was the result of efforts led by Scripps researchers and engineers in close collaboration with the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory and several national and international parties grouped under the umbrella of the Data Buoy Cooperation Panel (DBCP) of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC). Along the way, the program also received assistance from a variety of entities.

In 2013, the U.S. Navy deployed drifters as part of Pacific Partnership, a collaboration between Scripps and the United States Navy to improve approaches to both disaster preparedness and prevention. In addition, private mariners have volunteered to deploy drifters with the goal of aiding global ocean research.

The drifters measure ocean currents at a depth of 15 meters (49 feet), sea surface temperatures and atmospheric pressure. All are essential climate variables that allow, among several applications, for calibration and validation of remotely sensed sea-surface temperature and more accurate current and weather forecasts.  By linking and disseminating the information relayed from each of these instruments in a global network, scientists and others have been able to produce new details about the world's ocean physical processes, key information for weather, tropical cyclones and climate forecasting, and important calibrations of satellite readings.

The GDP had achieved global coverage on Sept. 18, 2005, when its 1,250th instrument was dropped in the ocean off Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

The program is funded by NOAA and provides open-access real-time data in support of a wide spectrum of activities. The Office of Naval Research supports a significant number of additional drifters every year for regional ocean circulation studies. In addition, the drifter data are used for research and to improve forecasts, and can enhance the effectiveness of activities such as search-and-rescue missions and disaster response operations.

For more information on the recovery of the network, visit the Global Ocean Observing System website.

- Robert Monroe


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