Applications: Observing Oceans from Space
As population grows, technological capability increases and international commerce expands. The proper use of resources becomes more important than ever before. Efficient utilization of the sea is particularly vital to human survival. Today, satellite technology can be employed to observe Earth's oceans from space without much of the uncertainty encountered by mariners of times gone by. By measuring global sea-surface wind speed and direction, ocean scatterometer data can help meteorologists more accurately predict the marine phenomena that affect human life on a daily basis. Some examples follow:
Weather Forecasting – Data from ocean scatterometers greatly enhances overall weather-forecasting capabilities. Most of the weather over the west coast of the United States, and some over the east coast, is generated over the oceans. The measurements derived from ocean scatterometers are assimilated into numerical models (computer programs that represent natural processes in terms of equations), which can be used to predict global and regional weather patterns. The data are delivered to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within two hours, where they are used for timely, accurate weather forecasting.
Storm Detection – The ocean scatterometer data can determine the location, direction, structure and strength of storms at sea. Severe marine storms, hurricanes near the Americas, typhoons in Asian waters, and mid-latitude cyclones worldwide are among the most destructive of all natural phenomena. In the United States alone hurricanes have been responsible for at least 17,000 deaths since 1900, and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage annually. If worldwide statistics are considered, the numbers are substantially higher. Although typically not as violent as hurricanes and typhoons, mid-latitude cyclones exact a heavy toll in casualties and material damage.
In recent years, our ability to detect and track severe storms has been dramatically enhanced by the advent of weather satellites. Cloud images from space are now routine on weather reports. Data from ocean scatterometers augment these familiar images by providing direct measurements of surface winds to compare with the observed cloud patterns. These wind data help meteorologists to more accurately identify the extent of gale force winds associated with a storm, and provide inputs to numerical models that provide advanced warning of high waves and flooding.
Ship Routing – Wind-observation data from ocean scatterometers is of particular significance in ship routing. Prior knowledge of wind behavior will enable ship masters to choose routes that avoid heavy seas, or high headwinds that may slow ships' progress, increase fuel consumption, or possibly cause damage to vessels and loss of life. In the past, ship captains relied on widely spaced measurements from buoys and sporadic, sometimes unreliable reports from other ships. Data from satellite-based scatterometers are much more regular, extensive and dependable.
Oil Production – Earth's oceans are increasingly used as a source of fuel. As continental fossil-fuel supplies are depleted, the more challenging task of extracting oil and gas from the seabed becomes a necessity. Oil and gas production is already on-going at numerous offshore sites around the world, the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, the Persian Gulf, and other areas. Thorough knowledge of the historical wind and wave conditions at any specific location is crucial to the design of drilling platforms. Safe, efficient drilling operations depend on an accurate understanding of the current sea state and warning of impending storms.
In the event of an oil spill, surface-wind information is key to determining how the oil will spread. Ocean scatterometer data could help clean-up and containment crews to minimize the environmental effects of such a disaster.
Food Production – Perhaps the oldest use of the ocean is in the harvesting of food. Today, ocean fishing is a highly systematic activity that makes extensive use of advanced technology to reduce the cost and to increase the value of every "catch". Detailed wind data from the scatterometers can aid in the management of commercial seafood crops. The annual U.S. shrimp harvest in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, depends on favorable on-shore winds that transport offshore, plankton larvae to estuaries where the larvae can develop into adult shrimp. NSCAT and SeaWinds data would be invaluable in the prediction of winds on which such endeavors depend.