Planning and data capture

The challenges of working with new ocean data

One of the great challenges of modern science is to further our understanding of the world’s ocean. However, it is surprisingly hard to observe the movement, the chemical make-up and the life in our ocean. Traditional methods of sampling the ocean, such as fixed moorings, sending research ships to sea, deploying surface drifting buoys and relatively coarse satellite data, can only go so far in allowing us to understand how the ocean varies over time and space. Filling the void of data across time and space between these observations is where robotic exploration and expert data management comes in.

A wide range of different platforms contribute to ocean observations across the globe, as part of the Global Ocean Observing System. (Image provided by JCOMMOPS)Ocean observations are invaluable for both immediate use in ocean and weather forecasting, as well as for scientific research. To improve the availability of this essential data, there is an international effort to provide sustained ocean measurements through the development of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), which is an array that includes a wide variety of observation platforms. GOOS is using data from traditional sources as well as more novel approaches such as sensors installed on commercial ships, profiling floats, tagging marine animals, sub-surface gliders and unmanned surface vessels (USVs). Exploring Ocean Fronts is trialling a new generation of USVs that will add to the autonomous observations already provided to the GOOS by sub-surface gliders and profiling floats.

The wealth of data generated by these new platforms needs to be easy to access, well-described and ready to use. This will be achieved by making the quality-controlled data discoverable through web portals, available in consistent formats, and supported with clear documentation. It will allow users to focus on the data appropriate for their analysis and research.

The same source data can have different applications, for example, day-to-day weather forecasts use data that has undergone low level quality control – in fact they need to, so that data is available quickly enough to be used in the forecast. However, climate research and the reanalysis of past weather to improve future forecasting rely on having data of an assured high quality. We are reliant on such intensive quality control to ensure we can continue to have confidence in the quality of ocean, climate and weather research. As research becomes more reliant on interpreting multiple types of data, it is critically important that we can bring together data from a range of different sources so that each can be used in an appropriate and complementary manner.

Making data ready to use isn’t easy though, and there is a real challenge to ensure that new generations of experimental platforms and sensors develop into operational systems that add valuable data to what is already being collected. The British Oceanographic Data Centre (BODC) is helping this process along by applying standard formats to the data produced by the USVs so that it is consistent with sub-surface glider data produced under the Everyone’s Glider Observations (EGO) programme. This will allow for commonality between surface and sub-surface robots, with the data due to the be evaluated for inclusion in UK Met Office weather forecasting, followed by high level quality control for scientific research.

Model outputs used for planning experiments

Images of numerical model results are useful for planning the routes that the gliders and other autonomous vehicles will follow. The first animation shows an annual cycle of temperature and chlorophyll/phytoplankton along a slice of the Celtic Sea, similar to the line along which measurements will be made.

Animation of annual cycle of temperature and chlorophyll concentrations along a west-east section in the Celtic SeaThe state-of-the-art NEMO-ERSEM model development is managed by Marine Systems Modelling at NOC, the Met Office, and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

The second animation is of tidal currents around the Isles of Scilly from the anyTide app.

Tidal currents around the Isles of ScillyThese experiments are part of the Shelf Seas Biogeochemistry programme which aims to reduce the uncertainty in our understanding of nutrient and carbon cycling within the shelf seas, and of their role in global biogeochemical cycles. The programme will also provide effective policy advice and make a significant contribution to the Living With Environmental Change programme.

There is some background information at and the project website is slowly coming to life:‌.