Real-time ocean monitoring: Live streams of information over space and time

We all rely on weather forecasts to decide whether to step outside our homes with a coat or umbrella. What other information about the environment do scientists put out live for public consumption? Today we’ll investigate ocean sensing networks that stream live data for boat navigators, beach goers, shellfish farmers, and the rest of us who just love looking at maps! These weather maps can also give us valuable information about life for marine critters in the wild!

What kinds of environmental data are collected?

Environmental data can be information about the non-living or living parts of our environment. This sort of information is important to understanding critters in both land and water ecosystems. Creatures such as humans and lizards that live on land change their behavior according to temperature, sunlight, and wind. Underwater critters such as fish and sea stars are influenced by seawater temperature and the amount of tiny floating plants and animals known as plankton. Snails and seaweeds that live on the shore in the intertidal zone (underwater at high tide and above water at low tide) must be adapted for both of these environments. Further, they must be able to withstand large wave forces during storms!

Let’s explore some ocean data that is streaming online right now

Water travels in ocean currents in large gyres across the major ocean basins. At the very surface of the water, wind-blown waves can reach 40+ ft. high! Large waves can be an exciting experience for professional surfers but problematic for container ships crossing the ocean, which can lose their containers of items. Here are significant wave heights for today! Can you find places where waves are 20 ft. or higher?

Average height and direction of waves in the Atlantic Ocean. Photo source.
Average height and direction of waves in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Photo source.

A surfer or sea star might not just care about how big the waves are today, but also the sea surface temperature (SST). While a surfer might chose a different wetsuit, knowing the temperature of the water can help predict sea star growth (and possibly predict how vulnerable a sea star is to wasting disease!). Check your place on the map for today's water temperature! Click here for an animation!

Global sea surface temperature. Photo source.

How salty is the ocean? The higher the salinity, the more salt is in the water. Fresh water from snow or ice melt and river runoff lowers salinity, while evaporation can increase it. Ocean currents can also bring dense extra-salty seawater to the surface. Where do you see patches of low salinity (pink) or high salinity (yellow-orange) for today's forecast? Depending on the day, you may see high salinity in the Mediterranean (evaporation) and in the spring and summer, low surface salinity up North, near the Arctic, where ice melts each year.

Global sea surface salinity. Photo source.

Environmental monitoring for sustainable aquaculture

University of Washington graduate student, Laura Newcomb, has teamed up with shellfish farmers at Penn Cove Shellfish to understand what environmental factors, such as seawater temperature, influence the growth and survival of the delicious bay mussel known in scientific circles as Mytilus trossulus. Laura has worked with Penn Cove to set up monitoring equipment that transmits environmental information to a network of Pacific Northwest ocean weather stations called NANOOS (Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems).

Let's take a close look at this graph below from the NANOOS Penn Cove weather station. This is live underwater temperature streamed from the past 2 months from Whidbey Island, WA. Notice that during the winter months the seawater was colder at the surface (blue line) than at depth (green and red lines). As it becomes springtime, you might see the opposite pattern, which is that it is warmer at the surface! It might be hard to tell in the springtime, since shallow and deeper water temperatures might be similar, but often when there is no difference this can be because the water is well mixed!

What might this pattern mean for the mussels grown at the farm? Generally plants and animals grow faster when warmed and this is because the chemical reactions inside the cells of organisms speed up. (They grow more as long as it doesn’t get too hot!) Mussels are hung from rafts on lines that extend down into the water. In the summer, we might hypothesize that mussels could grow faster in the warmer surface water!

Water temperature at three depths in Penn Cove. Photo source.

Food is also important for growth! Although it's difficult to directly measure the amount of food floating in the water every hour on the hour, we can measure the amount of fluorescence, or light given off, from a molecule known as chlorophyll that is made by floating tiny plants, phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are eaten by filter feeders such as barnacles and mussels, and by measuring the amount of fluorescence, we can indirectly measure the amount of phytoplankton, giving us a measurement of the amount of food barnacles and mussels have available for them to eat. As the date of this post, the graph shows that barnacles and mussels had the most filling meals around the beginning of March and then again around the beginning of April! It also looks like there is food both at the surface of the water (green) and at depth (blue), perhaps because the surface water is well mixed with the water at depth!

Chlorophyll at two depths in Penn Cove. Photo source.

As you can see, hourly and daily observations and forecasts of a plethora of environmental ocean data are streamed to maps and graphs online. For more interactive websites, check out the NANOOS data explorer, or the National Weather Service marine models!

Come back in a few days and see how things have changed!

Molly Roberts received a BA in Biophysics from Oberlin College in 2008 and an MSc in Marine Biology through Northeastern University’s Three Seas Program. She is now in the Biology PhD program at the University of Washington Seattle investigating the energetics of dynamic seawater conditions on mussel aquaculture. When not in lab or out in the field, she enjoys playing marimba, browsing vinyl at local record stores, Minecraft, and occasionally salsa dancing.