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Argo Project: Ocean robots achieve full coverage of world’s oceans

By Paul Wallis     Nov 12, 2007 in Science
This is one piece of news that you probably won’t find cluttering the headlines, where it should be. There are now 3,000 floating robots working on climate and fisheries productivity. It’s called the Argo Project.
CSIRO, Australia’s peak scientific research body, is involved, and that’s probably the only reason it got coverage.
The CSIRO press release is a bit sparse. Even so, what’s there is something pretty new:
Using a satellite-based data delivery system, the Argo robots provide ocean forecasters and climate scientists with a detailed sub-surface view of nearly all corners of the world’s oceans every 10 days. Vast regions of the Southern Hemisphere oceans, which were previously unmeasurable because of their remoteness and often stormy conditions, are now being systematically probed for the first time.
This is holistic systems in a whole new field. Conceptually, a single reference system for oceanography looks like a pretty simple idea. In practice, most research is carried out piecemeal. Given the sick state of the world’s oceans, this system couldn’t have come on line at a more opportune time.
Looking a bit further, and not having any links on the original article, I found the Argo Project homepage. They’re not kidding about the 3000 floats. They’ve pinpointed every one of them on a map of the world, and it’s quite a sight.
There’s a sort of mission statement, and some history. The Argo Project began in 2000. They’ve had to modify the original floats, and from the info, there’s been an evolution of methods as they went. The floats include temperature and salinity measuring equipment, extremely relevant in terms of the current state of debate about the condition of the world’s oceans.
Nor did they have much in the way of precedent. Have a look at this for an indictment, quoted from the Argo Project site:
Lack of sustained observations of the atmosphere, oceans and land have hindered the development and validation of climate models. An example comes from a recent analysis which concluded that the currents transporting heat northwards in the Atlantic and influencing western European climate had weakened by 30% in the past decade. This result had to be based on just five research measurements spread over 40 years. Was this change part of a trend that might lead to a major change in the Atlantic circulation, or due to natural variability that will reverse in the future, or is it an artifact of the limited observations?”
So much for the glitz and glamour of oceanography. This is therefore the first system approaching real time monitoring of the world’s oceans.
(Where are all these power mad people sitting on advanced technology and knowledge bases, when you need them? People are prepared to ascribe almost mythical abilities to “organizations” in conspiracy theories, yet when you look at them in the real world, it’s a matter of opinion if they could open a can of spaghetti without help and endless committee meetings. Conspiracy of neglect and stupidity, I could believe.)
This is clearly a fundamental first step.
According to CSIRO, there’s a meeting of scientists in Hobart working on the “Argo data engine”, which would be a pretty demanding task, to get the new, complete, system working smoothly.
Have to say, I’m a bit apprehensive about what Argo will find.
Well, Jason had a bit of luck with the Golden Fleece… sort of…
More about Argo project, Csiro, Oceanography