Catching the tide for marine observation
Satellite and in situ data can tell us a lot about the state of the seas, but scientists are not yet able to exploit these data to their full potential. An EU-funded project looked into enriching Europe's marine data products and services - such as those revealing the chemical make-up of our oceans.
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The OSS2015 team delivered methodology, data and insights that could help to further improve the marine data products and services offered by Copernicus, the European Earth Observation programme, previously known as Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES).
The innovations proposed by OSS2015 rely on a combination of space-borne observation and sensors at sea. “Our main objective was to address the “green gap” in the data available through Copernicus,” says project coordinator Odile Hembise Fanton d’Andon of French SME ACRI-ST, which supports space agencies and other clients with research and engineering services for the observation of complex environmental systems. She defines this gap as the shortage of data on biogeochemical parameters — chlorophyll or nitrogen in the water, for example — as opposed to data on dynamic aspects such as sea currents.
Hembise’s involvement in OSS2015 won her an Etoiles de l’Europe (Stars of Europe) prize in 2015. This award is presented by the French Ministry of Education and Research to coordinators of particularly successful EU-funded research projects led from France.
Tackling the increased flow of satellite data
Addressing the gap in the biogeochemical coverage of the seas is not an easy proposition. Doing so would involve securing steady streams of comprehensive, reliable data on a wide range of parameters that can’t be observed solely from space. And, once this has been achieved, the resulting digital deluge could easily become unmanageable. It would be in the order of petabytes, according to Hembise, posing an even greater challenge than the giga- or terabytes of data marine observation currently involves.
Understanding how the various elements fit together in order to make accurate predictions is another challenge. “You have to work on many aspects to make the ecosystem part work properly,” Hembise notes. “And the science is still young, so we don’t really yet know which factors we need to include.”
Floating new ideas
Determined to take the field forward, the partners involved in OSS2015 designed solutions and compiled extensive collections of data on various parameters. They also developed a virtual collaboration platform that enables researchers to access and process this data without having to download it, thereby offering a solution to the emerging big data challenge many research communities face, Hembise remarks.
But the first problem lies in actually obtaining the input. Complications notably arise from the fact that the satellites observe the Earth in the visible to near-infrared range, Hembise explains — so they can’t actually see through thick clouds. Nor can they look beyond the surface of the sea, and yet keeping tabs on what goes on down there is crucial. Chlorophyll peaks, for example, can easily be overlooked from space, Hembise notes.
Combining our eyes in the sky with widgets in the water would help to complete patchy information and cover more parameters, the partners argued, and consequently developed approaches that blend data acquired in orbit and in the seas. To complement the satellite coverage, OSS2015 relies on floats, which are already widely used to secure salinity and temperature data, and can also be equipped to take biological measurements.
OSS2015 ended in October 2014, producing its insights and recommendations at a crucial time in the development of Copernicus and its marine service.
“Big improvements have been made and continue to be made; in fact a small revolution is in progress. OSS2015 helped to trigger some of these changes, and it helped to raise awareness of the usefulness of combining in situ measurements, satellite observation and modelling approaches,” says Hembise.
However, she concludes, we don’t yet have a reliable global system able to capture and forecast the green status of the seas. There is still a lot to be done.