The Purposes of Ocean Observation


Richard Lampitt
National Oceanography Centre Southampton

There are two broad reasons why we need to make sustained observations of the planet’s oceans. The first is to generate data of sufficient temporal and spatial resolution on variables of critical relevance to the Earth system so that we can determine how the oceans are changing over time and space. The second reason is to obtain simultaneous data on a range of relevant variables so that we gain a better understanding of how these variables relate to each other and hence obtain a deeper picture of the way the system functions. The cost of making these observations is modest in comparison to that of comparable observing endeavours such as astronomy, but the benefits, although difficult to quantify objectively, are substantial (see for example Cristini et al. 2016 in Marine Policy). These benefits may depend on short term observations when applied for instance to recreational activities, maritime transportation efficiency or to target commercial fishing effort. Alternatively they may depend on being sustained over many years to determine for instance the consequence of anthropogenic perturbation on the climate of the planet. One of the massive benefits of the observing systems we now have in place is that the same suite of deployments can be used for a wide range of purposes and on different time scales and as they develop in terms of reliability diversity and accuracy over the coming decades, we should anticipate major advances in our understanding of system function at a time when the oceans will change in a fundamental manner.

There are several platforms for making ocean observations; transect ships, research vessels, gliders, floats, satellites, autonomous surface vehicles, benthic crawlers and, as is the focus of FixO3, fixed point or eulerian observatories. All platforms have strengths and weaknesses and the crucial issue with all of them is that they must generate data which is intercomparable and can be assimilated by computational models such that an understanding of the entire system and its variability can be generated.

There is a wide range of sensors and samplers which are deployed on these platforms and all require expert technical support if they are to function effectively for the period of deployment, often for over a year. Behind this simple word “intercomparable” lies a plethora of methodological detail which cannot be skipped or done in part. For a start the sensors deployed need to have sufficient accuracy and precision, the samplers must retain the collected material without contamination of degradation. Calibration of sensors is essential prior to deployment and after recovery, the data must then be managed and curated in such a way that all relevant metadata is permanently stuck to the data. Data must then of course be readily available so that access is simple and clear and with the appropriate attribution.

It is with this mind-set that data products (or Service Activities, as we call them) were developed within the FixO3 project. The aim of this action is to make data, maps, and trends from FixO3 observatories readily accessible in a centralised way to be used for a wide range of research such as ocean physics and climate change, carbon cycle and acidification, biodiversity and ecosystem assessment, geophysics and geodynamics.