Ocean drifters bring science to the classroom
July 23, 1998
By Environmental News Network staff
Has it been a while since you've heard the sound of waves lapping the shore? The National Oceanographic Partnership Program is celebrating the International Year of the Ocean by putting together a program called Project YOTO Drifters, which will bring not only the sounds of the ocean but also real-time ocean science data into classrooms this fall.
More than 200 satellite-tracked drifters are being deployed into the Caribbean Sea/Gulf of Mexico and tropical Atlantic. Several drifters will also be released into a few areas of special interest, such as the iceberg drift region of the North Atlantic. The drifters each have a satellite transmitter for tracking and a sensor to measure sea-surface temperature. Several of the drifters will also be able to estimate ocean color and wind strength.
All of the information -- processed data, drifter positions, tracks, reference images and background information -- is available on a specially designed website, http:\\drifters.doe.gov, which is up and running, but still under construction.
Somewhat surprisingly, the drifters are not all going in the direction the scientists expected. Some of the drifters are moving north or east when scientists expected a more westerly path. Other drifters appear to be following the larger current system of the region and are now heading for the Yucatan Straits. Scientists are keeping track to see if and when they enter the Gulf of Mexico.
Ocean currents play an extremely important role in the global transfer of water, heat, organisms, nutrients, potential pollutants and sediments. One of the earliest attempts to study ocean currents took place in 1872 when scientists aboard the R.M.S. Challenger used a float designed specifically to drift passively with the flow of water. Of course, to track the float, they had to follow it; today the work is done by computers and satellites in real time.
Scientists will be able to use drifter data to build models of climate and weather patterns, such as El Niņo or hurricanes. Data can also be used to predict where pollutants, such as oil or sewage, would go if dumped or accidentally spilled into the ocean. In addition, many organisms in the ocean drift along with ocean currents, especially the larvae or young of many marine species. Studies on the world's fisheries use drifter tracks to understand where organisms, such as the spiny lobsters in Florida, originate, and how they live. Drifters are also used to track the potential movement of icebergs.
As a final payoff, teachers at almost any level should be able to use the data through the web site The site has an ocean curriculum, associated educational activities and a poster-size tracking chart for the classroom that can be ordered.
The GLOBE program is aiding in data visualization to ensure that the scientific data will be readily accessible to the education community. Students and educators can plot the drifter tracks, try to predict their next position and learn along with scientists as they study topics such as ocean currents, the transport of sediment, larvae or pollutants and climate.
The National Oceanographic Partnership Program is a partnership of 12 federal agencies whose mission is to promote national goals in oceanographic research and education.
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