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Monday, November 26, 2001

Robots to the rescue of famine-hit
Michael Byrnes

HI-TECH robots able to dive to two kilometers are being sent to the seas in an underwater weather mapping campaign that could help spare remote villagers from famine as well as guide torpedoes to deadly accurate hits.

Australian scientists are at the forefront of a global drive to tap the secrets of the seas through free-floating robots, after a successful two-year trial of 10 of the sophisticated instruments off the northwest coast of Western Australia.

"A revolutionary international ocean monitoring system has been confirmed," Craig Macaulay of Australia's government-backed science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) said.

Around 3,000 of the floating, diving robots will be placed by 13 nations in the world's seas, including the Southern Ocean that swirls around the Antarctic, over the next five years.

The 1.5 metre-long cylindrical aluminium floats, valued at around $ 30,000 ($15,600) each, are sub-sea equivalents of weather balloons, drifting with currents at depths of two kilometres, surfacing every 10 days to send their data.


The information, beamed to super-computers via satellites, will provide virtually continuous mapping of sea currents, temperatures and salinity, for the first time.

Near real-time accuracy will be precise enough to tell submarine commanders whether to fire that torpedo or whether invisible water conditions will make it a wasted shot. There will be applications for shipping, oil drilling, marine safety and rescue and fisheries, Australian scientists say.

A revolution

But potentially the biggest payoff will be use with atmospheric data to better predict major weather events, including El Nino/La Nina phenomena that have killed and devastated communities over ages with droughts, floods and fires.

"In our world it's like a revolution that we're going through," scientist Neville Smith of Australia's Bureau of Meteorology Research Centre told Reuters.

Smith established the Global Ocean Data Assimilation Experiment (GODAE), which has been conducting Indian Ocean trials between Christmas Island and Australia's Northwest Shelf.

"In a year we'll have the same amount of information on salinity as we've collected in our history. It's that big leap for salinity which has a lot of people very excited," he said.

Salinity dictates how oceans interact with the atmosphere, on short time scales with El Nino events, which cause wild swings in rainfall, and on long time scales for climate change, he said.

Subsea weather maps - which GODAE aims to produce within 24 hours of receiving data - would greatly increase the certainty of predictions of weather events, such as El Ninos, and ocean patterns, used by offshore drillers and in coastal management.

"The biggest impact is that it will introduce some certainty into greenhouse discussions and El Nino forecasts," Smith said.

Powerful currents

The first 10 floats were placed in October 1999, followed by seven more in the Pacific Ocean between Western Samoa and New Caledonia in July this year jointly by Australia and the United States, and deployment will speed up over the next two years.

Britain will place floats in Antarctic waters before the end of this year, Japan will put floats into the Indian Ocean within six months, India will follow with with more floats after that.

About 900 floats will cover the Southern Ocean, which Smith describes as "the oceanic engine-room driving global climate".

Canada, China, Denmark, the European Union, France, Germany, South Korea, New Zealand and Spain are also involved in the $15 million a year programme.

The trial floats deployed by Australia had already helped reveal how powerful currents flowing from the Pacific into the Indian Ocean north of Australia spawned huge ocean eddies 600 kilometres across, said CSIRO oceanographer Susan Wijffels, manager of Australia's robotic floats project.

Scientists had learned that weather across western and southern Australia was linked to patches of warm and cool water in the Indian Ocean, producing an interaction known as the Indian Ocean Dipole, a cousin of the El Nino effect in the Pacific.