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Joe and the Argo buoy*

Updated Sunday 28th September 2008

Find out more about Argo buoys, those useful little devices for predicting weather and climate

OK so it is not quite Jason and the Argonauts - but it is close enough. I'll come to the reason for that title below but first a couple of words about who I am. My name is Mark Brandon and as Joe said I am a polar scientist working in the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department of the Open University. Joe and I have worked together for a few years on cross disciplinary climate change projects such as the BBC TV season  Are We Changing Planet Earth, and also teaching together  on many courses such as the new U116 Environment: Journeys through a changing world. In all that time I have been going to the polar regions to study the ocean and climate change, and last year I wrote a blog on this site about one expedition. I am delighted that he has finally gone on a trip with some science to see what actually goes on!

One of the bits of kit being deployed from his ship is called an Argo Buoy and I can't bring myself to talk about the science without enthusing a little about what fantastic things they are.

Argo Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Mark Brandon
Argo buoy

They are only a small cylinder about 1 m long packed with electronic goodies and sensors to record the ocean, on the top is a little aerial. What you do is deploy (the fancy word for "chuck") the tube over the side of your ship, and then it is off. There was a great description written a few years ago on the BBC News website when the project was started.

They control their buoyancy and sink down and drift with the mean current for several days, before coming to the surface to send their position and the temperature and salinity of the water they have drifted in back to us over a satellite link. In total there are over 3100 of these buoys drifting in the worlds oceans and as they drift and report their positions there are some stunning images of the circulation of the global ocean. Today you can even track them in a google earth layer (you need the free Google Earth for this link to work).

Joe asked me what evidence have they provided about climate change? The answer is at trivial level not much yet. The record is still too short to talk about longer term climate change. But where they are making a huge breakthrough is in our understanding of the way that the ocean re-distributes heat around the planet. The fact that there are so few of these buoys in the Arctic means that the buoy the Cape Farewell Expedition are deploying could be very important. Increasing understanding of the oceans will improve climate models and enable predictions of our future world with much more confidence.

Joe's second question was how did this project come about given the cost? This is a great question. The answer is all about predicting the weather and climate. As more and more people live near the coasts weather prediction is vital. This means vast global resources are deployed to understand, track and forecast rapidly moving weather systems over short time scales, and to predict our climate over longer time periods. The scale of the climate system is so big that one nation couldn't possibly fund an entire observation system alone and so the Global Ocean Observing System (or GOOS) was born. GOOS is actually a key component of many other global projects working on the climate such as the Climate Variability and Predictability Experiment (CLIVAR). So far over 20 nations have provided Argo Buoys and the measurements being made in the North Atlantic right now are being used by UK Met Office to improve seasonal predictions of the UK climate. So the bottom line is whilst it may sound expensive - given the importance of the problem it really is cheap.


* Scientists can get a bad press about being dull, but the Argo buoy program is named after the mythical ship Argo which Jason and his argonauts used to find the Golden Fleece. Although the story was immortalized (for my childhood anyway!) by the fantastic animation of Ray Harryhausen in the 1963 film, some have suggested it was the first time an ancient Greek warship sailed on a high sea voyage. The data from the Argo buoys is also complementary to that provided by satellites and so the name links to the JASIN 1 space mission.


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