Predicting the Sea
INTRO: Over the years, scientists have learned enough about the atmosphere to accurately predict the weather; well, at least occasionally. Now one oceanographer in Alaska is working on a way to predict the 'weather' beneath the ocean. Doug Schneider explains, in this week's Arctic Science Journeys Radio.
STORY: Before fishermen head out to sea, most of them will listen to the marine weather forecast to learn about approaching storms or rough seas. But what if they could also find out what the weather will be beneath the ocean surface?
Dave Musgrave is an oceanographer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He's behind an ambitious project called the Sea, Air Land, Modeling and Observation Networkor SALMON, for short.
MUSGRAVE: "The SALMON project does relate to fish, but it's more of an acronym. It really operates at the oceanography level, taking in observations of the oceanography, the physical parts and the lower trophic levels, and trying to put that together to see how it impacts natural resources."
The project aims to place a host of scientific instruments into Alaska's Prince William Sound that would track in real time such things as ocean currents, temperature and salinity. The data would be used to create computer models of the Sound's ocean circulation.
Musgrave says the models would be used by scientists to issue a kind of ocean weather forecast about conditions beneath the sea surface. Such forecasts would be useful for everything from helping fishermen find fish to predicting where oil spills would go.
MUSGRAVE: "We started out seeing the applicability to service to the state. So there's a strong service component that we saw that would be very important for coastal ocean observation and monitoring. The most obvious one that we could think of is that if there were a hazardous waste spill or oil spill, you'd like to know where it was going to go. So with these observations and modeling we could put that together and actually predict where it would go. But there are other issues like marine safety. For example, once you have a model and observations you can observe sea state and predict sea state.
Ocean observation networks already exist along the U.S. East Coast, where scientists routinely predict where fishermen will find ocean features such as warm water layers and places where nutrients rise to the surface.
MUSGRAVE: "In fact, people are making ocean circulation predictions already. They went on TV and said they are going to have upwelling in this region, which effects fisheries there, as it would here also. They could also predict sea surface temperatures, tell them where the fronts were to fish on. So that's been done in one place anyway."
Scientists already know in general sense the flow of water in Prince William Sound, but not details like timing, current patterns and the many variables that affect currents. For that, Musgrave says a system of connected scientific buoys is needed.
MUSGRAVE: "We need to put these current meters and observations of currents, temperature and salinity in Hinchinbrook entrance and Montegue to measure what the variability is with time. We know that even across Hinchinbrook that sometimes we get flow in one side and out the other side and flow out the top and bottom, or reverse. Without knowing all those details it's very hard to get an accurate picture of what's going on now or predict what's going on in some short term future like a few days or so."
Musgrave predicts that one day Prince William Sound fishermen will tune into their favorite radio station and listen to the day's ocean forecast. It might go something like this:
'Today's ocean forecast calls for winds out of the southwest to 16 knots and seas to 8 feet, causing surface layer mixing to 25 fathoms. A rising deep-sea current will trigger a nutrient upwelling along the outer coast down to about 40 fathoms that should result in a favorable thermal front near the surface and excellent fishing conditions at least through the next 24 hours.'
OUTRO: This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Im Doug Schneider.
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Thanks to the following individual for help preparing this script:
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The shortcut to our ASJ news home page is www.asjnews.org.
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