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The pandemic made it even harder to check on the ocean’s vital signs

Maintaining the world’s ocean-observing networks was already ‘a struggle’

A man takes a picture of German icebreaker and research vessel “Polarstern” upon arrival at the harbour of nothern German town of Bremerhaven, on October 12, 2020, after a year-long mission, the biggest Arctic expedition in history, bringing home observations from scientists that sea ice is melting at a “dramatic rate” in the region. - The researchers’ observations have been backed up by US satellite images showing that in 2020, sea ice in the Arctic reached its second-lowest summer minimum on record, after 2012. The Polarstern mission, dubbed MOSAIC, spent 389 days collecting data on the atmosphere, ocean, sea ice and ecosystems to help assess the impact of climate change on the region and the world. (Photo by Patrik Stollarz / AFP)
Photo by PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP via Getty Images

After taking a hit during the pandemic, the coming months will be a crucial time for ocean research. People rely on data collected at sea for weather forecasts, understanding climate change, and keeping coastal economies afloat. To make that happen, scientists keep track of everything from the temperatures to salinity and oxygen levels in the deep. But the COVID-19 crisis interrupted research around the world, and ocean scientists are trying to recover.

“Overnight, our vessel transformed from a research ship observing a decade’s worth of ocean changes, into a simple express steam home,” Leticia Barbero, an assistant scientist at the University of Miami, said in a June 2020 press release. She and her team rushed to deploy autonomous instruments to keep taking measurements for climate and weather forecasting.

Despite the best efforts of Barbero and her fellow researchers, throughout 2020 and the first part of 2021, there was a 10 percent decrease in real-time data collected from the world’s ocean-observing networks, according to a report card recently released by the Global Ocean Observing System’s Observations Coordination Group. Some networks saw bigger losses. What’s potentially more worrying is that there was a 15 to 20 percent drop in vital maintenance operations, which could endanger more data collection moving forward.

The Verge spoke with Mathieu Belbéoch, a technical coordinator and lead at the OceanOPS, the joint World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission about what happened last year and what comes next.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do scientists usually gather data in the ocean?

Some instruments are set on board ships, mainly merchant ships. That’s the historical network of the WMO. The ship captains are capturing meteorological observations and logging that. This has been modernized and all that now is shared in real time.

Then there are surface drifters, that are drifting with the surface current. Many are used for meteorology. Then you have a set of moored buoys — a lot at the coastal level, but there’s also a very important network in the tropical bound in particular to monitor El Nino. And then there is the Argo network, kind of a revolutionary network that was raised about 20 years ago to measure the entire water column with robots going up and down from the surface. There are 4,000 of these.

All that is completed by a set of other systems — research vessels, some ocean gliders that you can steer a little bit. And also some animals are used to make measurements — elephant seals mainly.

What impact has the pandemic had on all of these observation networks?

It’s a question we’ve been asked a lot in the last year or so. There was clearly some impact.

The main impact was the lack of ship time available, which makes our lives harder. Some ships are used to make measurements but also to deploy those buoys. So we have to be a bit creative and we have been using some sailing boats, we’ve been partnering with some skippers. The Volvo nautical race around the world, they have been deploying instruments for us.

In terms of data, we see a little loss. One network that suffered is a network called Ship of Opportunity Program (SOOP). It’s using expendable bathythermographs, little sensors that are launched from merchant ships. Along a merchant ship route, you have an operator or an automatic system that is dropping, every hour or so, temperature probes in the ocean. This program has been degraded by 50 percent or more — or even 100 percent at some point, nothing happened for the first six months! So yes, we have lost some data there.

A few moored buoys were not maintained in time, maybe they will be in the next six months. If not, we will start to see the different networks switching off those little points on the map one after the other.

Moored buoys in the tropics are the best tools to monitor El Nino. That system is only working at 60 percent of capacity today, although that’s not all related to COVID because there are funding challenges and other difficulties.

Your recent report card says there’s been a 10 percent overall decrease in real-time data, how might that affect research or forecasting?

It’s tough to say, you know, what’s the price of a single observation. Some very important time series have not been done, so those data are lost forever. You are not there to take those data, so for climate recall this is a loss. For the rest of the series, you have a decrease in the accuracy of the forecast. But for now, the system is handling the shock pretty well, I think.

The heart of the system is autonomous, it’s made of autonomous instruments. Those buoys, some will last a year or two, some others will operate five or more. So when they are launched, they can operate for a long time and if the telemetry infrastructure is okay, the system will continue to work.

Do you expect there to be more challenges moving forward as a result of the pandemic or have things started to go back to normal?

The system can handle six months to a year flag — of delay of renewal. But more than that, we start to be serious. One surface drifter will live for about one year. So if you don’t go to sea for a year, you lose your entire network. And that’s the only way to get air pressure, for example. You don’t get the air pressure from satellites.

This year will be critical because we accumulated a lot of deficits in deployment. So we have some stock to deploy this year, so there will be much more work to be done.

You know, if nobody goes to replace drifters in the Indian Ocean this year — next year, you will have very bad data in the Indian Ocean, for the monsoons and all those critical applications. The models and the services will be degraded. We’re not there yet, but the community has to work hard this year to maintain the system.

It was already a challenge. I mean, maintaining the system is a kind of struggle. This important infrastructure for the world is funded by research at 70 percent, which means the scientists have to apply for proposals and for science projects every two, three, four years. It’s like if your highways were maintained by research, you know, you will find it very strange, because everybody needs a highway. And for the ocean-observing system, it’s the same. This critical infrastructure is maintained on short funding. So before the pandemic, the system was fragile already. And the pandemic has just kind of accelerated some of these challenges.

I would say if the delays continue again like last year, in the next six months or so, we will start to see some measurable impact. Today’s impacts are at the margin. And as I said, the heart of the system is surviving the pandemic.