Climate change

NASA launches ocean research mission off San Francisco

Written by Oceanographic Staff

NASA embarks on a project off San Francisco to study the ocean’s relationship to climate change.

The organisation better known for its space programmes seeks to find out in what way oceans are involved in climate change 100 miles off the San Francisco coast. As part of the mission, NASA has one ship, two airplanes, numerous robotic research vehicles and saildrones involved.

During the mission that will last until 6 November, the team of scientists seeks to research the ocean surface with its many whirlpools and eddies because they believe that these play a crucial role in the transfer of gases and heat between the ocean and the atmosphere.

Called the ‘Sub-Mesoscale Ocean Dynamics Experiment’, the mission wants to further research sub-mesoscales – ocean dynamics that are smaller than 10 kilometres across, such as ocean eddies. An eddy is a circular water current that can be found on the ocean’s surface where it stirs up water. They are known to have an important effect on the climate.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the ocean absorbs 31 per cent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, and NASA suspects that eddies impact the exchange of heat and gases between the air and sea, thus playing a pivotal role in transferring oxygen, carbon and heat from the ocean surface to the deeper ocean. Because eddies can’t be studied by satellite due to their small size, the S-MODE mission utilises a variety of different instruments closer to the eddies.

The site off San Francisco was chosen because it is located on the California Current which is known for its ocean eddies. While two aircrafts collect data on wind and ocean surface currents from different heights, the ship and research vehicles collect images and measurements in the water. Ultimately, the team hopes to find out more about the involvement of eddies in slowing down the impact of climate change.

Tom Farrar of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the mission’s principal investigator, said in a press briefing: “The goal is to map out a full 3-D structure.” The findings will support an international NASA projects that is planned for next year. It will be the first survey of all bodies of water, including lakes and rivers, on the planet. “Observing ocean circulation directly from space would be a huge leap forward for science,” said Nadya Vinogradova-Shiffer, a programme scientist from NASA’s Earth Science Division.

For more from our Ocean Newsroom, click here.

Photography courtesy of Unsplash.

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