Ocean and climate research has come a long way in thirty years

The Argo ocean profiling floats are part of a year-round monitoring network for the world’s oceans. Alicia Navidad/CSIRO

Thirty years ago, a four-day weather forecast was a big deal. Today, thanks to advances in modelling, computing power, observation coverage and data assimilation, the forecast a week ahead is as accurate as the four-day forecast was in the 1980s.

In 1985, the first compact disc was launched to consumers, the first “.com” registered, and Windows 1 was released. It was also the year that CSIRO’s marine laboratories were opened in Hobart, and Australia’s first oceanographic research ship was launched.

The marine labs are one of the three key institutions of marine research in Tasmania, along with the Australian Antarctic Division and the University of Tasmania. Ocean and atmosphere scientists in Tasmania are the largest concentration of this field in the Southern Hemisphere, and Hobart is the gateway to the Southern Ocean and Antarctica – one of the planet’s two main “weather factories”.

Since 1985 the labs have identified and found solutions to contemporary problems and researched others as they emerged to help industry and government to make crucial decisions.

Fishing for answers

We developed the Atlantis ecosystem model, which simulates the marine environment and its interaction with human activities. It combines oceanography, chemistry and biology, and incorporates ecological processes such as consumption, migration, predation and mortality – as well as socio-economic factors.

Using this modelling can help coastal communities make decisions about the way they live. It can also help industries, such as fisheries, oil and gas, shipping, ports, biosecurity and tourism, make decisions taking into account economic and social factors.

Fisheries managers can now “test drive” different approaches to balancing resource use and conservation, instead of acting on best guesses. The United Nations rates it as the best ecosystem model in the world, and regional versions are being used to support management strategy evaluation in more than 30 ecosystems worldwide.

Ocean forecasts

Our research during the past 30 years on ocean and atmosphere observing systems and modelling has also played a major role in the development of ocean forecasting, seasonal prediction systems and state-of-the-art climate models.

The BLUElink system, which CSIRO developed with the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the Royal Australian Navy, uses complex data streams from a range of sources, both sea and sky, to create comprehensive ocean forecasts

BLUElink predicts all types of marine weather scenarios, from local beach conditions to oceanic interactions on a global scale. It is like providing a weather prediction for the ocean. For example, BLUElink provides a forecasts of the oceans’ temperature, its salinity, and other conditions from the surface down to the sea floor.

BLUElink provides a critical capability to Australia’s naval tactical operations, supporting Royal Australian Navy intelligence for tactical decision making and operational exercises. It helps to locate and map historical shipwrecks and hazardous areas. And it supports search and rescue efforts between Australia and other countries.

The oil and gas industry has used ocean-forecasting techniques developed in BLUElink to assist with structural design, operational safety and oil spill management. The same techniques provided predictions of the spread of the 2009 Montara oil spill off Western Australia.

Central to all this work have been our previous research vessels, RV Franklin and RV Southern Surveyor. With our new RV Investigator, we’ll now be able to travel further into the Southern Ocean than previous vessels, opening up new frontiers for research. With its eight dedicated research laboratories, plus other science-related spaces, RV Investigator can collect data ranging from the salinity of the deep ocean to the temperature of the air anywhere it goes, and carry out specialised research on board.

CSIRO’s Battery Point site in Hobart, with RV Investigator docked alongside the labs. Marine National Facility

Watching the oceans

Successive ships have supported our work on air sampling – vital for climate research.

They’ve also been crucial to global research program initiatives on the ocean currents in the Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans that help shape our marine environmental conditions that influence marine environmental and climatic conditions around the world.

This sampling also includes the deployment of Argo floats as part of a worldwide marine observation and sampling collaboration of more than 3,750 floats.

The Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station, funded and managed by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, detects atmospheric changes as part of a scientific research program jointly supervised by CSIRO and the Bureau. CSIRO

For instance, the data from the Argo floats have shown that the oceans are continuing to warm at a rate of 0.002C each year – a tiny figure that represents an enormous amount of heat.

And that brings us to climate. Thirty years ago our model was a basic atmosphere with a slab ocean. Now we have an integrated Earth system simulator. This has had a huge impact on our ability to predict extremes and plan for disaster mitigation.

Our improved climate modelling has also increased our understanding of both the El Niño/Southern Oscillation in the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean Dipole. We now know, for example, that successive positive Indian Ocean Dipole readings are predictors of bad bushfire seasons. What can be predicted can be planned for.

CO2 measurements at Cape Grim (red line) show that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have steadily increased. CSIRO

Our Cape Grim air sampling with the Bureau of Meteorology, too, has fed into our climate knowledge, providing the Southern Hemisphere’s first ongoing measurements of increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere. It also monitors other atmospheric pollutants some of which, like ozone-depleting CFCs, are now showing declining concentrations.

Importantly our modelling shows that the climate projections of 30 years ago have come true. Chasing The Earth is warming, sea level is rising, and weather extremes such as heatwaves are becoming more frequent. This knowledge and these projections can help us plan for the future.