Science

Saildrone to Launch Transformative Gulf Stream Mission

Funded in part by a grant of more than €1m from Google.org, the 12-month mission is expected to yield extraordinary insights into the impact of the Gulf Stream on weather forecasting and global carbon models.

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Saildrone
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April 13, 2021

The Gulf Stream, a fast-flowing, warm ocean current in the western North Atlantic Ocean, is hugely influential on weather and climate in Europe and around the globe and plays a key role in regulating the global carbon budget. Scientists have known for decades that increased Gulf Stream observations might have an outsized impact on weather forecasting and improving understanding of ocean carbon exchange, but the Gulf Stream is chronically undersampled due to strong currents and violent storms that make for ship-based data collection challenging and dangerous for scientists and crew. 

Saildrone is set to launch a first-of-its-kind mission sending a fleet of uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs) into the turbulent waters of the Gulf Stream for one year to study air-sea heat and carbon exchange, in partnership with some of the world’s leading weather and climate scientists. Funded in part by a more than €1m grant from Google.org, the mission is expected to provide extraordinary insights into the impact of the Gulf Stream on weather forecasting and global carbon models.

“Since our first science mission, in the Arctic in 2015, Saildrone has worked tirelessly to measure climate quality data from Earth’s most remote oceans and deliver that data to scientists all over the world,” said Saildrone founder and CEO Richard Jenkins. “We are delighted to be collaborating with Google on this amazing project that will dramatically improve understanding of critical climate processes. We believe this data will enable more accurate predictions of our future, which will in turn help guide global climate policy and decision making.” 

An illustration showing the path of the Gulf Stream and how it impacts weather on both sides of the Atlantic, with data from NOAA National Center for Environmental Information. Photo: RedAndr/Wikimedia.
An illustration showing the path of the Gulf Stream and how it impacts weather on both sides of the Atlantic, with data from NOAA National Center for Environmental Information. Photo: RedAndr/Wikimedia.

Historically, fewer than a handful of ship-based studies in the Gulf Stream have provided only week-long snapshots of air-sea exchange due to the treacherous conditions, especially in winter. Free floating platforms that might gather data tend to get quickly ejected from the Gulf Stream. Attempts to use moored instruments to collect measurements have also been made, but strong currents and winds have led to only short duration successes.

Saildrone USVs are highly maneuverable, wind and solar-powered vehicles designed for long-range data collection missions. The Saildrone fleet has logged more than 10,000 days at sea in some of the most extreme weather conditions on the planet. The impressive capabilities of Saildrone’s autonomous vehicles have been proven in numerous operational missions for science, ocean mapping, and maritime security, covering over 500,000 nautical miles from the Arctic to the Southern Ocean.

A fleet of Saildrone USVs can collect detailed scientific data along the length of Gulf Stream for an entire annual cycle, at a fraction of the cost of using traditional equipment, while replacing diesel with wind and solar power. Such observing power is transformative, both in capturing the surface fluxes along the current and in showing a path forward to using autonomous surface vehicles to monitor oceans globally. 

A saildrone sailing in storm conditions in the Southern Ocean.
A saildrone sailing in storm conditions in the Southern Ocean.

The Gulf Stream mission will collect data at a resolution that has not previously been possible, supporting two concurrent science investigations

The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) will lead weather forecasting research. ECMWF is arguably the world’s premier weather forecasting agency, and it is both a research institute and a 24/7 operational service, producing numerical weather predictions every six hours on a global scale.

“The location of the Gulf Stream and the sharp temperature differences on either side can have a big impact on weather forecasts and climate predictions,” said Philip Browne, a research scientist at ECMWF. “We are excited to be able to target saildrones to collect data from this physically and scientifically challenging region and begin exploiting the information they will provide to help improve our earth system approach to forecasting.”

Dr. Jaime Palter, associate professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, leverages the use of leading-edge technology in the field of climate research. She has been studying the Gulf Stream for more than 20 years and will lead the carbon measurement component, using Saildrone data collected with the world’s most accurate and proven pCO2 sensor, developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (NOAA PMEL) and integrated onto the Saildrone vehicle under a joint cooperative R&D agreement. NOAA PMEL will support quality control and post-processing of the carbon sensor data in collaboration with Dr. Palter.

“70% of the world is covered by oceans, and they control crucial aspects of both weather and climate. The storms that feed off of Gulf Stream heat also pump CO2 into the ocean at some of the highest rates globally,” said Palter. “As the Gulf Stream responds simultaneously to warming, shifting winds, and the impact of melting sea ice and ice sheets, there is an urgent need to quantify its role in carbon uptake, to predict its stability or vulnerability in the future.” 

For carbon dioxide fluxes, this data will be the first in history to quantify variability of fluxes over an annual cycle in the Gulf Stream. Their existence alone will be a primary indicator of success, which enables scientific progress in understanding the carbon cycle budget for forecasting global climate change.

Saildrone previously worked with Palter on a 2019 mission to study air-sea heat and carbon exchange in the Gulf Stream and perform a comparison study between Saildrone data and data collected by the National Science Foundation’s RV Endeavor.

The entire project will take approximately 26 months, beginning with a planning phase in summer 2021. The Saildrone vehicles will be deployed from Newport, RI, in fall 2021, and spend the next 12 months traversing the Gulf Stream at various points across the Atlantic Ocean. All data will be relayed in real time so that weather and carbon research can commence upon vehicle launch. ECMWF and URI are expected to complete all scientific analyses by late summer 2023.

A heat map showing the Gulf Stream current in red, which carries warm water up the eastern coast of the United States and collides with cold North Atlantic waters. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory.
A heat map showing the Gulf Stream current in red, which carries warm water up the eastern coast of the United States and collides with cold North Atlantic waters. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory.

The mission was selected through the Google.org Impact Challenge on Climate to collect data that has the potential to transform weather forecasting and our ability to create more accurate global carbon budgets.

“We received an overwhelming number of applications to the Google.org Impact Challenge on Climate and are excited to be supporting Saildrone with funding and expertise from Google,” said Rowan Barnett, head of Google.org for EMEA and APAC. “Weather is becoming more extreme, and as a society, we must get better and smarter at predicting it in order to protect our communities. We are enthusiastic about the potential for this project to leverage technology to contribute towards that goal.”

Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google, aims to help solve some of humanity’s biggest challenges by combining funding, innovation, and technical expertise to support underserved communities and provide opportunity for everyone. The Impact Challenge on Climate commits €10M to fund bold ideas that aim to use technology to accelerate Europe’s progress toward a greener, more resilient future.

Main photo

A saildrone sails in the Gulf of Trieste after completing the 2019-2020 Atlantic to Mediterranean mission. Weather in Europe and around the world is heavily influenced by the Gulf Stream.

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