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Avery Point Scientists Seek Breakthrough in Ocean Forecasting
October 11, 1999
he ocean covers 71 percent of our planet - 139 million square miles to be exact. We find tranquility during long walks along her beaches. Her great depths supply us with sustenance. Yet we know so very little about the ocean and its impact on our lives. In the words of UConn oceanographer Philip Bogden, "We have only a limited understanding of what happens beneath the ocean's surface. The things we know for certain amount to a drop in the bucket. What he and fellow UConn oceanographers Dan Codiga and Jim O'Donnell want to do is fill that bucket.
"The ocean is relatively unexplored," says Bogden. "There can be profound differences between what happens at the surface and what happens down deep. Billion-dollar decisions are often based on only a speculative understanding of the ocean."
Bogden, an assistant professor of marine sciences who joined the faculty in 1997, is the lead investigator in a $4 million research partnership aimed at unlocking some of the ocean's great mysteries. It's funded by the National Oceanographic Partnership Program - a joint venture of the U.S. Navy, the National Science Foundation and eight other federal agencies.
The UConn researchers are working with the Navy, Coast Guard, two private companies and three other research institutions to develop cutting-edge technology for a new coastal ocean monitoring system. One aspect of the system is a series of ocean sensors, that would sit on the ocean floor and function somewhat like the weather stations that already exist on land.
Bogden describes it as a new generation of oceanographic research, "The observations of currents and plankton would be unique, and transmitting that information back to shore in real time will provide us with a new capability." The project's ultimate goal is to combine that data with computer models in much the same way that meteorologists use data and computer models to make weather forecasts.
"It's a complex and difficult undertaking and no one institution or private company could do it alone," says Robert Whitlatch, professor and chair of the marine sciences department at the Avery Point campus. He credits Bogden with pulling off a coup on behalf of the University. "It puts us on the ground floor of a very long-term federal commitment to monitor the ocean," Whitlatch says. "Receiving this grant is an elevation of our marine sciences department. It could also turn Bogden into one of the first ocean forecasters in the country."
Predicting the weather?
This kind of ocean forecast on the local newscast may not be such a far-fetched idea. Just as there are fronts that move through the atmosphere and change weather conditions, there are fronts that move through the ocean. Ocean fronts affect water conditions, local weather, and marine life. For this reason, the research is focusing on a region of the coastline where satellites indicate the existence of strong recurring oceanic fronts.
Scientists have the technology to continuously measure weather and climatic conditions on land. They also know that the ocean affects large-scale weather events like El Nino and La Nina. UConn's new ocean monitoring system would provide enough data to detect, understand and more accurately predict changes in the local climate.
Those predictions would provide farmers with information early enough to determine which crops to plant and which ones to avoid. The fishing industry could benefit from an accurate and timely prediction of warmer or cooler water moving into a particular area, giving them an idea where to fish most effectively. Marine ecologists could use the information to anticipate and avoid a collapse in fish stock. Public health could benefit from predictions of red tide and other algal blooms before a health risk develops. The ocean observation system could facilitate the clean-up of oil spills, and help the Coast Guard with search and rescue. For the military, it means a reliable underwater communications system for submarines and surveillance.
The research site is a region of ocean off Long Island's Montauk Point and Block Island's southern coast. It was chosen for two reasons. First, the proximity to Long Island Sound means that less salty inland waters encounter the more salty ocean waters, which provides a prime condition for oceanic fronts. Second, the currents are strong and variable. "Satellite observations of ocean surface temperature provide compelling evidence that something interesting is going on out there. Our objective is to find out just what that is," says Bogden.
Before ocean forecasts become a tried and true reality, an intricate measurement and communication system must be developed. UConn researchers are designing a new underwater bottom mount on which instruments will be placed. One key to the project's success is constructing mounts that won't be snagged or damaged by fishing trawlers, so UConn is working closely with the fishing community to test the equipment.
The second piece of the forecast picture is technology developed by a California company. Three radar towers on land will measure surface currents using technology that is similar to the wind-shear detection systems used at airports.
The third element is satellite imagery that will be compiled by the University of Rhode Island and will contribute data about surface water temperature and water color - which indicates the presence of plankton.
It's an overwhelming amount of information that will be compiled by computers at UConn's marine sciences department and then combined with the computer models. Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will be working with UConn to develop the ocean forecast system.
"It's clear to me that sophisticated underwater research has to be a team project and a multi-disciplinary effort," says Bogden. "It's the 21st-century way of doing science."