RV Lady Amber under plain sail leaving Cape Town, South Africa.

RV Lady Amber under sail leaving Cape Town, South Africa.

Indian Ocean 'workhorse' sows seeds for Australian ocean and climate data

A 20-metre South African yacht chartered by CSIRO has completed an epic voyage around the Indian Ocean deploying 55 ocean profiling robots that are securing valuable ocean and climate data for Australian science.

  • 11 January 2012

The Lady Amber reached Fremantle in Western Australia last week, ending a 6-month voyage during which she deployed the profiling Argo[external link] robotic sensors that will communicate as mid-ocean climate sentinels for at least the next 5–7 years.

Additional sensors have also been deployed during this period by the Royal Australian Navy and US Navy east of the Horn of Africa in a region of the Indian Ocean frequented by pirates.

The program is managed through the UNESCO and the World Meteorological Organisation – Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission Joint Technical Commission for Oceanography and Marine Meteorology. CSIRO's contribution is through the Wealth from Oceans Research Flagship.

The Perth-based head of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission[external link] office in Australia, Dr Nick D'Adamo said today Lady Amber's contribution to scientific understanding of ocean and climate processes cannot be overstated.

RV Lady Amber crew, June 2011.

RV Lady Amber crew, June 2011.

"National research and operational agencies such as CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and Australian Institute of Marine Science are increasingly reliant on receiving real-time data. These Indian Ocean observations also dovetail with Australia's own Integrated Marine Observing System and play a vital role in supporting State-based marine scientific programs critical for Western Australia, across both public and private industry imperatives.

"Australia is the second largest national contributor to the global Argo program deploying more than 490 sensors in the Indian and Southern Oceans and Tasman Sea and providing an infrastructure cornerstone for this innovative but critical research program,” Dr D'Adamo said.

CSIRO's Dr Ann Thresher, who leads the deployment project, said the program is heavily reliant on commercial shipping and research and chartered vessels to deploy the instruments.

"This project has become a significant source of data recording change in ocean conditions relevant to climate but our biggest challenge is finding the vessels from which we can deploy the instruments in locations where we can fill gaps that open up.

"In this case, the Lady Amber provides us with a flexible option supplementing the support we receive in the region from commercial, naval and research vessels," she said.

Regional Manager for the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, Dr Nick D’Adamo, briefs the Western Australian Science and Innovation Minister, the Hon John Day (centre) on the Argo program, watched by Dr Tom Hatton, Director of CSIRO’s Wealth from Oceans Flagship.

Regional Manager for the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, Dr Nick D'Adamo, briefs the Western Australian Science and Innovation Minister, the Hon John Day (centre) on the Argo program, watched by Dr Tom Hatton, Director of CSIRO's Wealth from Oceans Flagship.

The Master of the Lady Amber, Peter Flanagan, said today the yacht and its crew of four had sailed 33 000 nautical miles and deployed 55 Argo robotic sensors since leaving South Africa in December, 2010.

Captain Flanagan considers the charter voyage as payback for a good life at sea.

"I've been on the sea for 48 years and the sea has looked after me.  This is a chance to give something back that will contribute substantially to international science and what we understand of our oceans and how they behave and respond.

"In doing so, we've experienced every kind of sea imaginable to fill in the gaps for the Argo program so science can continue receiving real-time ocean information," he said.

The charter was arranged through French scientist, Mathieu Belbeoch, based in Toulouse, France where he coordinates the global Argo program through JCOMM.

Although the Argo project offers significant shipping and defence benefits, its primary objective is to monitor ocean heat and salinity patterns that drive the climate and monsoonal systems which bring rain to Australia.  The Indian Ocean is a critical source of rainfall for southern and western Australia, and CSIRO has responsibility for deployment of the robotic instruments in much of the Indian Ocean.

Captain Peter Flanagan.

Captain Peter Flanagan steering the yacht.

Over 30 nations contribute to the multimillion dollar Argo project, in which over 3000 robotic instruments provide near real-time observations of conditions such as heat and salinity in the top 2000 metres of the ocean.

At nearly two metres in length the drifting profilers, or 'floats', are programmed to drift at 1000 m for 10 days, then fall to 2000 m and sample as they ascend to the surface to upload their data to satellites.

The International Argo Steering Team is co-chaired by CSIRO oceanographer, Dr Susan Wijffels and Professor Dean Roemmich from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (US).  JCOMM is led by Dr Peter Dexter, from the Bureau of Meteorology.

This work is part of the Australian Climate Change Science Program, funded jointly by the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO.

Read more about the Wealth from Oceans Flagship.