Local students deploy global ocean drifter off of Massachusetts

Former astronaut joins award-winning students

April 17, 2012

21st century "message in a bottle" collects climate data

Deputy NOAA Administrator Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan is joined by students Maggie Tobin, Heather Gaughan and Annie Harriman of Gates Intermediate School of Scituate, Mass.

Deputy NOAA Administrator Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan is joined by students Maggie Tobin, Heather Gaughan and Annie Harriman of Gates Intermediate School of Scituate, Mass. The students competed in essay and art contests to win the opportunity to launch a NOAA global ocean drifter into the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, off the coast of Massachusetts.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Getting an early jump on Earth Day, students from several Boston-area schools helped ready and deploy a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ocean drifter today, contributing to a global array that yields vital environmental data. Today's student deployment occurred at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Maine.

"A drifting buoy is like a 21st-century message in a bottle, except it is equipped with oceanographic and climate sensors that let it transmit scientific measurements by satellite, helping us understand the oceans," said Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan, deputy NOAA administrator and a former astronaut. "With better understanding, we can better predict the paths of approaching hurricanes, the distribution of fish and other marine species, and the fate of marine pollution and debris. Students in schools across the country can adoptdrifter, and follow its journey via the internet. This relationship makes climate and ocean science more tangible, as students discover the workings of the earth through the lens of their buoy."  

This year, NOAA is supporting student deployments of ocean drifters at six sites around the country, with Boston serving as the kick-off site for this Earth Day event. Schools "adopt" a drifter equipped with climate sensors. As the drifter, or 44-pound floating ocean buoy, moves in the ocean currents, it measures and transmits sea surface temperature via satellite signals. These ocean currents carry heat from place to place, which affects the world's climate.  Each drifter is part of a global ocean array that students can follow online, along with the particular drifter they adopted.

NOAA vessel Auk.

On board the NOAA vessel Auk, students of Gates Intermediate School of Scituate, Mass., the Boston Latin Academy, and NOAA Deputy Administrator Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan launched a NOAA drifter into the NOAA Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The drifter will travel in the ocean currents, joining a full global ocean drifter array that collects vital oceanic and climate data.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Students from the Gates Middle School in Scituate, located in the headquarters community for the sanctuary, and the Boston Latin Academy participated in the Global Ocean Drifter activity program sponsored by NOAA at the New England Aquarium, where the sanctuary's research vessel Auk was stationed for this cruise.

"We're extremely excited to be part of this NOAA initiative, which gives students across the country the chance to learn about our ocean environment right in their classrooms, and with the same near real time data that ocean and climate scientists use." said Craig MacDonald, Stellwagen Bank sanctuary superintendent. "We hope that many additional schools in the area adopt this drifter and learn more about local ocean processes that affect New England's only national marine sanctuary." 

Stellwagen Bank sits at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay and serves, not only as the crossroads for maritime traffic into and out of Boston, but as a key geological feature that guides ocean currents in the southwest portion of the Gulf of Maine. "The currents around Stellwagen Bank are an important force in the movement of zooplankton important for endangered North Atlantic right whales and in the dispersal of larval lobsters, cod and other species," said MacDonald. "This drifter will add to the body of knowledge about how the water in our sanctuary moves.  Over the 400 day life of the buoy we are expecting to learn more about the interconnectedness of the sanctuary and other areas of the Atlantic Ocean."

Drifters also help forecast the path of approaching hurricanes, predict the movement of ocean pollutants, and track the migration of many species. Drifters are helping to forecast where debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami may be heading.  And while satellite technology makes sea surface temperature measurements possible from space, drifters are needed to ensure these measurements are accurate. Without drifter observations to correct satellite measurements, these measurements can err due to dust and other elements in the atmosphere.

The two Scituate students accompanying Kathryn Sullivan on the deployment cruise were winners of a school-based ocean drifter essay contest. Students from the Dominican Republic, where Stellwagen Bank's sister sanctuary helps protect a shared population of humpback whales, will also follow the drifter at computer stations at the Humpback Whale Museum in Santa Domingo.  Students from both schools will share information about their ocean drifter studies.

Student drifter events marking Earth Day are also occurring this month in Miami, Fla.; Mobile, Ala.; Seattle, Wash.; Channel Islands/Santa Barbara, Calif.; and Maui, Hawaii.

NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Join us on FacebookTwitter and our other social media channels.