Oceans Up Close - From Space

Jorge Vazquez
by Jorge Vazquez
Oceanographer

Not all oceanographers spend their time out on the seas. As a project scientist for the Physical Oceanography Distributed Active Archive Center here at JPL , I study the world’s ocean from my computer, using data from a series of NASA satellites that orbit Earth. These data measure everything from how the ocean changes during an El Nino to how such climatic changes affect local regions like California’s coast.

This kind of precise data was impossible 100 years ago. In fact, scientific and technological advances over the last century have revolutionized the field of oceanography. Today, we gather data both from instruments in the ocean and from satellites in space. These satellite data measure changes in sea surface topography (the ocean surface has changes in elevation, just like the land), ocean surface winds, sea surface temperature and water pressure at the bottom of the ocean. The satellites view the ocean from 700 to 1,300 kilometers (440 to 800 miles) above Earth. Current advanced technologies allow scientists to combine data from different satellites to view ocean conditions in near-real time, only 6 to 12 hours from when the satellite acquires the data. This information can then be sent to researchers and decision makers for use in improving forecasts for hurricanes to the regional and local impacts of ocean phenomena like El Nino and La Nina.

The image shows temperatures off the coast of California in September of 1997 (El Nino).
Image above: Sea surface temperatures in 1997 during El Nino and in 2008, when the waters had returned to more normal conditions.Image credit: NOAA

Examples of satellite data can be seen in these images. The view on the left shows temperatures off the coast of California in September of 1997 (El Nino). On the right, sea surface temperatures from September of 2008 (normal conditions). Notice the warmer temperatures (seen in red) resulting from the 1997-1998 El Nino event. Such temperature changes have direct impacts on local climate and fisheries. These data are leading to a new understanding of how hurricanes get their energy from the ocean. These satellite data also help forecast regional ocean temperatures, which affect local weather.

As technology improves, along with the availability of these data in real time, new opportunities will continue to expand to better understand our planet and its impacts on our lives.

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    2 Responses to “Oceans Up Close - From Space”

  1. Martin Says:
    April 2nd, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Nice blog

  2. Justin Says:
    June 21st, 2009 at 6:37 am

    Professor Jorge
    First of all, I must show the respect to the work you have done which is very significant to the human beings.
    Secondly, although I am not major in the fields which you are work on, but I am very interest in the El Nino which does a lot destroy to the earth. There are many explainations to the cause of the El Nino, such as the earthquake or something like the earth-warming, so where the heat actually come from?
    Finally, if you think that the El Nino is related to the activities of the human beings, what can we do to relax it?

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