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Monday, 27 March, 2000, 21:53 GMT
Cyber-sailors to survey oceans
By BBC News Online's Damian Carrington
An ambitious international plan to launch a fleet of 3,000 robotic buoys on to the Earth's oceans is expected to receive UK Government funding "any day".
The UK's contribution is likely to be £3m, BBC News Online has been told, but the total cost will be many tens of millions.
The temperature information on the world's oceans that the floats will collect may lead to forecasts of droughts and other climatic phenomena. It will also create a global data set that could eventually settle the argument over whether humans are causing global warming.
The buoys will use their own power to sink deep under the ocean surface, take measurements and then bob back up, to report the data via a satellite. The project is called Argo and two UK laboratories are involved: the Meteorological Office and the Southampton Oceanography Centre (SOC).
Dr Brian King, head of the hydrography team at SOC, is also a member of the science team on Argo. He said: "The 1997/1998 El Nino event was predicted with moderate success on the basis of 60 moored buoys in the heart of the critical region.
"But Argo is going global and will allow climate predictions three to six months ahead. In principle, it could predict droughts, or the details of a wet season such as whether the rainfall will be heavy, where the rain will fall and whether it will be early or late."
On the longer-term climate question of whether the human burning of fossil fuels is causing global warming, Dr King said: "We look at atmospheric records and they show rising temperatures, but has the heat just moved from one place to another?
"We really need to look at the whole of the planet, but there is a desperate lack of good baseline data for the oceans. Argo will start making that systematic global record.
"If that doesn't sound dramatic, people should realise that the only reason we know about atmospheric heating now is because dedicated people 100 years ago went out and recorded the temperature and then wrote it down in a book."
Filling in the gaps
Scientists in Australia are also involved and Steve Rintoul, of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), pointed out that most data currently collected come from ships, but these avoid large and important parts of the oceans.
"We know that the Southern Ocean influences climate around the globe but ships avoid this remote and hostile region, and as a result few measurements have been made there," said Dr Rintoul.
The UK funding, spread over four years, will come from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Ministry of Defence.
The military are interested because the ultimate goal of Argo - real-time information about the state of the world's oceans - would allow them to make one or two day predictions of the acoustic properties of the waters. These are crucial in both detecting submarines and submarines avoiding detection.
$36m hardware costs
So far, only a small number of floats have been deployed in pilot projects, but 250 more have confirmed funding and will be deployed by mid 2001, in locations all over the world.
Dr King said 2,500 floats are expected to be sailing the world's seas by 2005.
Each float costs $12,000, meaning the hardware costs alone of the full project will be $36m. They are one-metre-long, upright cylinders with a one-metre antenna on top.
They contain a battery-powered pump and bladder, allowing the cylinder to control its buoyancy. Typically, one will sink to 1,500 or 2,000 m below the surface and then drift for 10 days.
Then, it would pump out the water, float back to the top and relay its data back to the scientists via a satellite network. The data collected will be ocean temperature and salinity, crucial factors in both ocean circulation and climate.
The batteries have a five-year lifespan but other more immediate hazards are likely to end the operation of some of the fleet of floats.
A UK pilot study in 1996 released seven floats, but only six made it safely into the water. One was then lost to the east of Greenland, most probably after surfacing beneath an iceberg and being crushed. A third float has stopped operating for an unknown reason but the other four are still working.
When the final design is settled, Dr King believes only 5% of the buoys will stop working before their five years are up.
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