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NASA Satellites and Computer Models Contribute to Ocean Forecasting System
During a leisurely fishing trip, you fall into the ocean and become separated from your boat. You're adrift at sea, bobbing in your life jacket -- but help is on the way. Using a three-dimensional (3-D), three-day ocean condition forecast, the U.S. Coast Guard can tell which way you are most likely to drift. This extra information enables a faster rescue.

With a new forecast system under development at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., this fictional scenario could become a reality. By combining information gathered by NASA satellites, computer models and on-site ocean measurements, scientists hope to gain the capability to forecast ocean conditions many days in advance, similar to weather forecasts on local television news.
This image of Pacific Ocean surface winds was taken by NASA's QuikSCAT satellite on Jan. 8, 2004.
This image of Pacific Ocean surface winds was taken by NASA's QuikSCAT satellite on Jan. 8, 2004.

"It's a three-dimensional look at the ocean, from the surface to the ocean bottom," said JPL's Yi Chao, lead scientist on the project.

Cruise lines, marine rescuers, coastal managers and others will benefit from this exciting research. Armed with the knowledge of how the ocean will behave from top to bottom, large shippers will save fuel costs by steering away from choppy waters or moving with the current.

In the not too distant future, an ocean condition forecast might even be available to help you plan a fun, safe trip out to sea.

A variety of Earth-observing satellites feed data into the forecast system. For example, the SeaWinds instrument on NASA's QuikSCAT satellite provides wind information in near-real time, and NASA's Topex/Poseidon and Jason satellites contribute ocean height measurements, including waves. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is also a participant -- sea surface temperatures are measured by the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer instrument on Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES). The system also relies on an assortment of sensors, meters, ships, shore-based radars, automated underwater vehicles and aircraft data from the Office of Naval Research.

During the study, the data were fed into the forecast system and existing ocean conditions were simulated in 3-D within 24 hours of real-time. Three-day forecasts generated in 3-D were even more accurate.

Researchers hope that the system will eventually lead to round-the-clock forecasts along all U.S. coastal areas. So far, the forecasting model has been used only in Monterey Bay, Calif., and information gathered is not yet available for public use. Further research is planned along an expanded stretch of coastline from Baja, Calif. to the Gulf of Alaska. Sixteen institutions are contributing, either by evaluating the system or providing data.

Read the full text of accompanying JPL news release at:
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Goddard Space Flight Center and Kennedy Space Center