Round-the-World Racers Lend a Hand to Science

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Observations From Space

NASA's satellite oceanography program has contributed heavily to the Volvo Ocean Adventure program by making the results of its daily observations about ocean wind, waves, and other conditions widely available.

"We have a mandate to view the planet as a whole, and to study Earth and its systems as only NASA can," said NASA oceanographer Eric Lindstrom.

David Adamec, also an oceanographer at NASA, said the agency uses satellites to collect data about a wide variety of conditions, such as water temperatures, levels of marine life, the presence of clouds and water vapor, pollution, ozone, winds, changes in sea level, and the height of waves.

Measurements of the ocean's surface topography increase knowledge of ocean circulation and its effect on long-term weather patterns such as El Niño.

Satellite measurement of wave heights on the ocean's surface, for example, is remarkably accurate. Although the satellites are in orbit 700 kilometers (about 435 miles) above Earth, they can record details to a range as small as two centimeters (about 3/4 of an inch).

Adamec said it's like "someone in Jacksonville, Florida, trying to determine whether someone in Washington, D.C., has their toes hanging over the edge of the sidewalk or not."

NASA charts oceanic winds using a highly accurate instrument called a scatterometer. Many of the Volvo racers are fascinated by such technology because of their ongoing interest in benefiting from bigger and better winds.

Into the Field

Winds play a critical role in ocean ecology. They drive powerful currents such as the Gulf Stream and mix carbon dioxide and other elements into the air and water. Just as water can hold a lot of heat, it can hold a lot of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases.

Wind measurements are useful to help scientists answer research questions that provide greater understanding of Earth's climate and other natural systems, such as how much carbon dioxide the ocean takes from the atmosphere.

"The oceans are the memory for our climate system," said Adamec.

"There is as much heat in the upper six feet of the ocean as there is in the entire atmosphere," he explained. "Without the ocean, the atmosphere would lose its memory of what its climate should be in about two weeks. The seas are not so forgetful."

Volvo Ocean Adventure project doesn't put just sailors and satellites to work. It also works to motivate students and encourage them to pursue environmental activism in defense of the ocean and the life it harbors.

Earle sees that outreach as perhaps the project's most important accomplishment.

"We can inspire the next generation of oceanographers and marine biologists," she said. "We need to win hearts and minds so that people realize the ocean's relevance to us, because our life is dependent on the ocean's well-being."

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