URI oceanographer part of pioneering study to improve weather prediction and global carbon budget understanding

Google.org supports ambitious mission to collect year-round ocean data in the turbulent waters of the Gulf Stream

April 13, 2021

A research team led by Saildrone announced a new mission, partially funded by a $1.7 million grant from Google.org, which will use Saildrone Explorer uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs) to conduct oceanographic missions to gain unprecedented insight into the impact of the Gulf Stream on weather and climate. The University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography is a partner on the scientific mission, which was selected through the Google.org Impact Challenge on Climate to collect data that has the potential to transform weather forecasting and our ability to create more accurate global carbon budgets.

“We received an overwhelming number of applications to the Google.org Impact Challenge on Climate and are excited to be supporting Saildrone with funding and expertise from Google,” said Rowan Barnett, head of Google.org for EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) and APAC (Asia Pacific). “Weather is becoming more extreme, and as a society, we must get better and smarter at predicting it in order to protect our communities. We are enthusiastic about the potential for this project to leverage technology to contribute towards that goal.”

The ambitious project will launch six Saildrone USVs from Newport that will spend the next 12 months traversing the Gulf Stream at various points across the Atlantic Ocean. This mission will collect critical data at a resolution that has not been possible previously, yielding new insights into the transportation of heat and carbon around our oceans. The Saildrone fleet has logged more than 10,000 days at sea in some of the most extreme weather conditions on the planet. The impressive capabilities of Saildrone’s autonomous vehicles have been proven in numerous operational missions for science, ocean mapping, and maritime security, covering over 500,000 nautical miles from the Arctic to the Southern Ocean.     

“70% of the world is covered by oceans, and they control crucial aspects of both weather and climate. The storms that feed off of Gulf Stream heat also pump CO2 into the ocean at some of the highest rates globally,” said Jaime Palter, Associate Professor of Oceanography at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, a collaborator on the Saildrone project who has been studying the North Atlantic for nearly 20 years. “As the Gulf Stream responds simultaneously to warming, shifting winds and the impact of melting sea ice and ice sheets, there is an urgent need to quantify its role in carbon uptake, to predict its stability or vulnerability in the future.”

Saildrone has pioneered the autonomous collection of critical ocean data and will lead the mission in collaboration with some of the world’s leading weather and climate scientists. The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF) will lead weather forecasting research and the University of Rhode Island will lead carbon measurement research using Saildrone data collected with the industry’s most accurate pCO2 sensor, developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. NOAA will support quality control and post-processing of the carbon sensor data.

“Since our first science mission, in the Arctic in 2015, Saildrone has worked tirelessly to measure climate quality data from Earth’s most remote oceans and deliver that data to scientists all over the world,” said Saildrone founder and CEO Richard Jenkins. “We are delighted to be collaborating with Google on this amazing project that will dramatically improve understanding of critical climate processes. We believe this data will enable more accurate predictions of our future, which will in turn help guide global climate policy and decision making.”

The Gulf Stream is a fast-flowing, warm ocean current in the western North Atlantic Ocean, which is hugely influential on weather and climate in Europe and around the globe. It is considered to be a significant carbon sink that can absorb large quantities of carbon dioxide and could have massive economic value in terms of closing the global carbon budget. During the winter, the mid-latitude storm track sends weather systems barreling over the Gulf Stream, creating strong currents and harsh weather conditions that are extremely challenging for critical ship-based data collection and dangerous for scientists and crew.

“The location of the Gulf Stream and the sharp temperature differences on either side can have a big impact on weather forecasts and climate predictions,” said Philip Browne, a research scientist at ECMWF. “We are excited to be able to target saildrones to collect data from this physically and scientifically challenging region and begin exploiting the information they will provide to help improve our earth system approach to forecasting.”

Together with initiatives like the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) and Earth Day, which falls on April 22 each year, Saildrone is hoping to raise understanding and awareness of the ocean’s critical role in driving key systems that affect all of humanity, including global weather, climate, fish abundance, and ocean acidification.