Naval gazing

Australia’s national science agency, along with its bureau of meteorology and navy, has developed BLUElink, one of only four global ocean forecasting systems in existence. BLUElink’s practical applications include everything from making life safer for those on battleships and fishing trawlers through to helping manage oil spills and locate ships in distress.

Ever since mankind took to the seas mariners have sought to predict if dangerous storms or swells would endanger their voyage. In recent decades three navies– the US, UK and France – have developed forecasting technology capable of determining what conditions will be like in any of the world’s waterways up to seven days in advance. That’s impressive enough but what is even more so is that Australia, with a fraction of the resources used by the aforementioned major powers, has now developed technology, called BLUElink, which can do the same thing.

Dr Peter Oke, a senior research scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and key player in the development of BLUElink, is proud that it was built in a decade with a small team. BLUElink’s origins date back to 2002, when the CSIRO, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology and the Royal Australian Navy came together to develop a technology capable of predicting currents, salinity and temperatures in Australia’s coastal and offshore waters. With Australia’s ocean territory about twice the size of its land area, a vast expanse of water needed to be covered. In 2007, the BLUElink team implemented Australia’s first operational ocean forecast system covering the seas and oceans around Australia and, within a year, BLUElink will be expanded to cover the entire globe.

Put simply, BLUElink is a computer model of the ocean underpinned by data gathered from various forms of monitoring. “Every time we produce a forecast we gather together all of the observations of the ocean that we can get our hands on from satellites and profiling floats,” notes Dr Oke.
These floats – 3500 of which are spread throughout the world’s oceans and seas – are programmed to descend into and out of the water every 10 days, measuring the temperature and salinity along the way. “When they get to the surface they send that information to a satellite,” says Dr Oke. “That tells us what the properties of the oceans are almost everywhere.”

The international network of floats, utilised by 50 nations, illustrates that, most of the time, ocean forecasting is a collaborative endeavour and advances made by any one nation raise the overall quality of predictions. All four of the global forecasting systems have their strengths and the data they provide is often combined to provide ‘consensus forecasting’.

“BLUElink is the leader when it comes to satellite altimetry, that is the height of the ocean, but the other systems are better at things such as measuring sea surface temperature,” Dr Oke observes. “The four systems can be combined to create a better overall system, which is what happened, for example, during a bad oil spill off the coast of Western Australia in 2009 so as to provide the most accurate forecast and thus best contain the environmental damage.”

The benefits of being able to accurately predict ocean conditions up to a week in advance are many, but BLUElink has so far been of most use to the military and industry groups.

“The Royal Australian Navy has long been interested in forecasting for obvious reasons,” says Dr Oke. “It’s likely that in any battle the enemy will have roughly equivalent hardware so the tactical advantage that can be gained from knowing what the ocean is going to do is significant. It can make the difference, for example, when it comes to knowing where to hide your subs so they can’t be detected or knowing where the enemy is trying to hide theirs.”

Thankfully, BLUElink has plenty of peaceful uses too. It has been used by the Australian navy to help locate sinking refugee boats that have put in a distress call in Australian waters.  But other uses extend from commercial fishery to marine biology.

BLUElink forecasts are put up daily on Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology website where they can be accessed by people all over the world. They are freely available to everyone from commercial fishermen wanting to know where the cold-water fish might be biting through to cargo ship captains looking to ride currents to cut their travel time and fuel consumption.

BLUElink has even made the jobs of Australia’s marine biologists and fishery officers easier, assisting in the management of tuna and billfish stocks and even helping solve ancient mysteries such as the spawning habits of the Southern Rock Lobster.

“It’s an amazing species that’s found in Australia’s southern waters,” enthuses Dr Oke. “For a long time no one could work out exactly how they reproduced but, thanks to the information provided by BLUElink, it is now believed they spawn near the coast, head offshore for a long time then catch a ride on a drift to make their way back to the coast.”