Climate change

Robots sent to deep ocean to improve hurricane forecasts

written by Oceanographic Staff

The unmanned gliders measure salt content and temperature at a variety of depths.

This week, the four robotic ocean gliders will be launched by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists from ships off the coast of Puerto Rico, before more are deployed in other areas of the Atlantic Ocean later in the season.

The gliders, which can operate in hurricane conditions, collect data by diving down to half a mile below the sea surface, before transmitting it back to satellites when they resurface. Once launched, the gliders make regular dives along their designated course and resurface several times each day.

NOAA scientists have been launching these gliders in areas that regularly experience hurricanes since 2014. Understanding the salinity and temperature both at the surface and in deeper areas of the ocean in crucial for hurricane forecasting.

“If the surface of the ocean is much warmer and much less salty than the deeper layers, it will form a cap that prevents the mixing and upwelling of cool water from below,” said Gustavo Goni, an oceanographer at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, who is helping to lead this year’s glider operations.

Warm waters can intensify storms, while colder waters can weaken them. The salt content of the water can also have a significant effect on its temperature. Knowing if a storm will pass over warm water or areas of cold water helps scientists and forecasters predict whether a storm will intensify or weaken as it travels.


“Representing the ocean accurately in forecast models is critical,” said LCDR Benjamin LaCour, glider program manager for NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observing System. “The gliders help us do that because they’re giving us high-volume, information-rich data in areas that are challenging for the models to get right.”

The gliders have the ability to travel long distances over an extended period time time without the need for servicing. The data collected will help scientists create more accurate hurricane forecasts, which are used by coastal communities to decide how best to protect it’s residents.

Photography courtesy of NOAA via Twitter.

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