Climate monitoring – gathering marine observations in hard-to-reach locations

Throughout July, we have been exploring the theme of climate monitoring. This is crucial as a means for gathering data which informs our understanding of the current state of our climate and enables us to make predictions about future climate scenarios. There are many different methods of climate monitoring which are used to take measurements and observations of key climate metrics such as temperature, precipitation and sea level rise – to name but a few.

Climate monitoring in its many forms comprises a large part of the work that is undertaken by the Met Office. A lot of focus has been placed in recent weeks on new climate records on land where we all live, but it is also important to measure climatology across the oceans as the engine of atmospheric weather patterns and climate change for our planet. One of the methods that we use to gather observations of air pressure, sea surface temperature and currents over the oceans is to deploy drifting buoys in contribution to the Global Surface Drifting Buoy Array. Drifters are small floats deployed from ships at agreed locations that drift freely with the currents, transmitting real-time, hourly meteorological data back to us via satellite. The Surface Marine Observations Team manage a variety of operational surface marine observing networks both in UK waters and on a global scale to deliver in-situ, real-time observations of meteorological & oceanographic conditions. Here, we speak with Port Met Officer Adam Ryan and Marine Observations Manager Emma Steventon about the work that they do within the team and their recent collaboration with remote explorers, the Turner Twins.

What’s the role of the Surface Marine Observations team?

As part of the Surface Marine Observations Team within Technical Services Observations Operations, we are primarily responsible for the collection and management of the Voluntary Observing Ship (VOS) fleet and Drifting Buoy marine observations networks. Managed by the Marine Observations Manager, the team of Port Met Officers (PMOs) are each responsible for a subset of the 250-strong UK VOS fleet, coordinating recruitment to the programme, installation and maintenance of observing equipment and ongoing feedback on performance. Some members of the team also assist with the deployment of drifting buoys as part of the Global Drifter Programme; sourcing suitable VOS ships scheduled to sail to our target area of the ocean (usually the South Atlantic), arranging delivery of floats and agreeing the most optimal deployment locations along their designated shipping route.

Why is this research important and how does it keep people safe?

Surface marine observations are an essential component of the Global Observing System, monitoring the global oceans and providing in-situ validation of satellite data and also the initialisation and verification of forecasts. Marine observations contribute to everything from the issue of the Shipping Forecast & Warnings, which help to keep mariners safe at sea under the SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) agreement; providing essential information to the shipping industry on vessel & port design, build and efficiency; town planning to future-proof coastal populations against flooding and coastal erosion; and of course specific marine forecasts to advise the UK general public on weather conditions at the beach, essential for knowing whether to pack your surf board!

In the particular case of drifting buoys, hourly measurements of sea-level pressure and sea surface temperature are undertaken. Air pressure data is an element of vital importance to forecasts. Surface marine observations are often the only source of pressure information over the ocean at any given time, as pressure cannot be inferred by satellites. Sea Surface Temperature (SST) is a Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) Essential Climate Variable (ECV), a vital component of the climate system, controlling the atmospheric response to the ocean at both weather and climate timescales.

How do you demonstrate innovation in your work?

As a team, we are constantly innovating and looking to improve and optimise the way we collect marine observations. Most ships sail along standard shipping lanes (for example across the north Atlantic between the UK and USA, and across the north Pacific between the USA and Asia), so we are always on the lookout for new ways to get observations from hard to reach, data sparse areas of the ocean – in particular, polar regions. This can bring great opportunities to work with the general public, research groups and citizen scientists who are keen to support our mission to source high-quality marine observations. In fact, we were recently approached by a very intriguing pair of professional adventurers known as the Turner Twins, who are on a mission to reach the most inaccessible places on Earth.

Can you tell us about the collaboration with the Turner Twins?

Hugo and Ross Turner kindly agreed to deploy a Met Office drifting buoy on route to the most remote point of the Atlantic – the pole of inaccessibility. Interestingly, because drifters typically operate for a few years at a time and send data from the most remote parts of the world, they represent a high relative value to numerical weather modelling per observation, in comparison to other observing networks.

The twins worked on refitting their yacht in Southampton during May and June and the vessel will be 100% emission-free. Furthermore, Hugo and Ross will be conducting a plastic survey to support Plymouth University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit and their long-term clean-up strategy for the oceans.

Follow the latest developments on the twin’s journey on their social media.

Find out more about marine observations on our website.

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