NASA’s S-MODE Takes to the Air and Sea to Study Ocean Eddies

From NASA

May 18, 2021

After being delayed over a year due to the pandemic, a NASA field campaign to study the role of small-scale whirlpools and ocean currents in climate change is taking flight and taking to the seas in May 2021.

Using scientific instruments aboard a self-propelled ocean glider and several airplanes, this first deployment of the Sub-Mesoscale Ocean Dynamics Experiment (S-MODE) mission will deploy its suite of water- and air-borne instruments to ensure that they work together to show what’s happening just below the ocean’s surface. The full-fledged field campaign will begin in October 2021, with the aircraft based out of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

“This campaign in May is largely to compare different ways of measuring ocean surface currents so that we can have confidence in those measurements when we get to the pilot in October,” said Tom Farrar, associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and principal investigator for S-MODE.

The S-MODE team hopes to learn more about small-scale movements of ocean water such as eddies. These whirlpools span about 6.2 miles or ten kilometers, slowly moving ocean water in a swirling pattern. Scientists think that these eddies play an important role in moving heat from the surface to the ocean layers below, and vice versa. In addition, the eddies may play a role in the exchange of heat, gases and nutrients between the ocean and Earth’s atmosphere. Understanding these small-scale eddies will help scientists better understand how Earth’s oceans slow down global climate change.

Sub-mesoscale ocean dynamics, like eddies and small currents, are responsible for the swirling pattern of these phytoplankton blooms (shown in green and light blue) in the South Atlantic Ocean on January 5, 2021.
Sub-mesoscale ocean dynamics, like eddies and small currents, are responsible for the swirling pattern of these phytoplankton blooms (shown in green and light blue) in the South Atlantic Ocean on Jan. 5, 2021. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Ocean Color, using data from the NOAA-20 satellite and the joint NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite.

A Self-Powered Surfboard, for Science!

The team is using a self-propelled commercial Wave Glider decked out with scientific instruments that can study the ocean from its surface. The most important gadgets aboard are the acoustic Doppler current profilers, which use sonar to measure water speed and gather information about the how fast the currents and eddies are moving, and in which direction. The glider also carries instruments to measure wind speed, air temperature and humidity, water temperature and salinity, and light and infrared radiation from the Sun.

“The wave glider looks like a surfboard with a big venetian blind under it,” said Farrar.

That “venetian blind” is submerged under the water, moving up and down with the ocean’s waves to propel the glider forward at about one mile per hour. In this way, the wave glider will be deployed from La Jolla, California, collecting data as it travels over 62 miles (100 kilometers) out into the ocean offshore of Santa Catalina Island.

Decked out with solar panels and several scientific instruments, the wave glider will propel itself from Santa Catalina Island farther out to sea.
Decked out with solar panels and several scientific instruments, the wave glider will propel itself from Santa Catalina Island farther out to sea. Credits: Courtesy of Benjamin Greenwood / Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The new data will allow the scientists to estimate the exchange of heat and gases between Earth’s atmosphere and the ocean, and consequently better understand global climate change.

“We know the atmosphere is heating up. We know the winds are speeding up. But we don’t really understand where all that energy is going,” said Ernesto Rodriguez, research fellow at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and deputy principal investigator for the airborne parts of S-MODE. It’s likely that this energy is going into the ocean, but the details of how that process works are still unknown. The team thinks that small-scale eddies may help move heat from the atmosphere to the deeper layers of the ocean.

Eyes and Scientific Instruments in the Skies

While the Wave Glider continues its slow trek across the ocean’s surface, several airplanes will fly overhead to collect data from a different vantage.

“In an airplane, we can get a snapshot of a large area to see the context of how the bigger- and smaller-scale ocean movements interact,” said Rodriguez.

For example, a ship or wave glider travels slowly along a straight line, taking precise measurements of sea surface temperature at specific times and places. Airplanes move faster and can cover more ground, measuring the sea surface temperature of a large swath of ocean very quickly.

“It’s like taking an infrared image rather than using a thermometer,” explained Farrar.

A flight crew prepares for the B200 King Air Sub-Mesoscale Ocean Dynamics Experiment (S-MODE) at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. From left to right are Jeroen Molemaker and Scott “Jelly” Howe.
A flight crew prepares for the B200 King Air Sub-Mesoscale Ocean Dynamics Experiment (S-MODE) at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. From left to right are Jeroen Molemaker and Scott “Jelly” Howe.Credits: Lauren Hughes, NASA Armstrong

Two planes will be used in the May test flights: a B200 plane from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Center in Edwards, California and a commercial plane from Twin Otter International. The B200 is carrying an instrument called DopplerScatt to measure currents and winds near the ocean surface with radar. The Multiscale Observing System of the Ocean Surface (MOSES) instrument from the University of California, Los Angeles is also aboard to collect sea surface temperature data. On the Twin Otter plane is the Modular Aerial Sensing System (MASS) from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, which is an instrument capable of measuring the height of waves on the surface of the ocean.

Delphine Hypolite, Multiscale Observing System of the Ocean Surface (MOSES) Operator from University of California Los Angeles, performs pre-flight checks on the MOSES Camera System at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.
Delphine Hypolite, Multiscale Observing System of the Ocean Surface (MOSES) Operator from University of California Los Angeles, performs pre-flight checks on the MOSES Camera System at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. Credits: Lauren Hughes, NASA Armstrong

The fleet will gain a third member for the October experiments: NASA’s Langley Research Center Gulfstream III plane with JPL’s Portable Remote Imaging SpectroMeter (PRISM), an instrument to measure phytoplankton and other biological material in the water. The October deployments will also use a large ship and some autonomous sailing vessels, called Saildrones, in addition to planes and Wave Gliders.

After nearly a year and a half of delays due to the pandemic, the S-MODE team is excited to get their planes in the sky and the gliders in the water. “It was frustrating,” Rodriguez said, “but the science team hasn’t slowed down. The science keeps progressing.”

S-MODE is NASA’s ocean physics Earth Venture Suborbital-3 (EVS-3) mission, funded by the Earth System Science Pathfinder (ESSP) Program Office at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hamtpon, Virginia, and managed by the Earth Science Project Office (ESPO) at Ames Research Center.

The fleet will gain a third member for the October experiments: NASA’s Langley Research Center Gulfstream III plane with JPL’s Portable Remote Imaging SpectroMeter (PRISM), an instrument to measure phytoplankton and other biological material in the water. The October deployments will also use a large ship and some autonomous sailing vessels, called Saildrones, in addition to planes and Wave Gliders.

After nearly a year and a half of delays due to the pandemic, the S-MODE team is excited to get their planes in the sky and the gliders in the water. “It was frustrating,” Rodriguez said, “but the science team hasn’t slowed down. The science keeps progressing.”

S-MODE is NASA’s ocean physics Earth Venture Suborbital-3 (EVS-3) mission, funded by the Earth System Science Pathfinder (ESSP) Program Office at NASA Langley Research Center and managed by the Earth Science Project Office (ESPO) at Ames Research Center.

Header image caption: Flight crews at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, flew the Sub-Mesoscale Ocean Dynamics Experiment (S-MODE) installed in the B200 King Air on May 3, 2021. Credit: Carla Thomas, NASA Armstrong


By Sofie Bates
NASA’s Earth Science News Team
Last Updated: May 18, 2021
Editor: Sofie Bates

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dk_
May 19, 2021 2:10 am

I wish them well. Bigger job than the news release lets on. Many years of development ahead. What is it that NASA supposed to be doing, again?

Ron Long
May 19, 2021 3:08 am

The image of the ocean eddies swirling in the South Atlantic, marked by phytoplankton blooms, shows just how complex and chaotic one important aspect of global climate climate control is. My guess is this pattern is not stable but undergoes many changes, even on a daily basis. So understanding the movement of oceanwater, and the attendant heat transfer, in one area does not extrapolate to another area. That’s the Earth’s climate: complex and chaotic.

mike macray
Reply to  Ron Long
May 19, 2021 3:51 am

Seems to be a linear measurement approach to an undulating endlessly equilibrium seeking chaotic response to multiple inputs! Sort of like measuring beach erosion by the advance or retreat of the shoreline along an axis perpendicular to the shore when in fact it is a sinusoidal slow motion undulation, a wave if you will, slowly moving parallel to the shore in response to the offshore current, ….when viewed over time from the air.
The increase/ decrease of phytoplankton blooms should be a good clue to the efficacy of the ocean to soak up CO2.
Cheers
MIke

Ian W
May 19, 2021 3:47 am

Strange that the team chose the Californian Pacific out to Catalina. When a similar S-MODE experiment could be run off the Hebrides to Rockall 🙂 Board shorts would not be the best dress at Stornoway though so “the science” might not be so much fun.

Rich Davis
Reply to  Ian W
May 19, 2021 4:07 am

Yes, indeed. Inexplicable choice.

Right-Handed Shark
May 19, 2021 4:03 am

Why do I get the feeling that the conclusions have been written before the project starts?

Reply to  Right-Handed Shark
May 19, 2021 4:53 am

They at least had face masks on.

fretslider
May 19, 2021 4:22 am

…the role of small-scale whirlpools and ocean currents in climate change

They had to get that in right at the start – for “climate change” we know the underlying meaning, man-made of course. Why else would it be such a much?

“We know the atmosphere is heating up. We know the winds are speeding up. But we don’t really understand where all that energy is going” 

All the data I have seen here and elsewhere does not bear that statement out. I’m sure Ryan Maue might disagree with them. Does that statement not sound just a tad Trenberthian to you? “we don’t really understand where all that energy is going…”

They need to get their ducks in a row:

The science keeps progressing

So it isn’t settled, after all.

Willem69
May 19, 2021 4:31 am

Maybe someone should tell NASA what going ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘nett zero’ is all about?

Reply to  Willem69
May 19, 2021 4:58 am

Just tell NASA it’s an illusion … according to the IPCC …

x1a.jpg
Sweet Old Bob
May 19, 2021 7:26 am

“For example, a ship or wave glider travels slowly along a straight line, taking precise measurements of sea surface temperature at specific times and places. ”

…. slowly along a straight line…. Idiots ? Liars ? Never been at sea ,eh ?

Those eddies have zero effect … but they effect ocean temperatures ..
😉

DMacKenzie,
May 19, 2021 7:31 am

Seems like a waste of money. Satellites can already take infrared pics. This is like sending out a robot surfboard to see what the weather is on the way to Catalina island.

H. D. Hoese
May 19, 2021 7:32 am

 …”the eddies may play a role in the exchange of heat, gases and nutrients between the ocean and Earth’s atmosphere.” from Sverdrup, 1942, p. 92. “With regard to the eddy conductivity, similar reasoning is applicable. When dealing with eddy viscosity it was assumed that the exchange of mass leads to a transfer of momentum from one layer to another, which is expressed by means of A.” It goes on with a discussion of heat equations. Eddies do strange things and are important, but a model with older data is going to be interesting.

Doonman
May 19, 2021 1:44 pm

NASA had to do something to keep Ames open. Since Onizuka and Moffet Naval Air shut down because non millionaires could no longer afford to live and work in Mountain View, they had to lease 1000 acres to Google for 60 years and designate Hanger #1 as a historical monument.

Perhaps NOAA should take over since Ames has little to do with aeronautics and space anymore.

R_G
May 19, 2021 9:13 pm

The sentence below clearly indicates the purpose of this project:

“Understanding these small-scale eddies will help scientists better understand how Earth’s oceans slow down global climate change.”

The inconvenient fact that there is no global warming of the atmosphere despite of the steady increase of C02 level must be explained. It appears that now it is time for a new excuse: “it’s all eddies fault”.

Michael S. Kelly
May 19, 2021 10:49 pm

Let me get this straight. The Earth Science Project Office (ESPO) is running the Sub-Mesoscale Ocean Dynamics Experiment (S-MODE). They’ll be using the Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer (PRISM) to get a handle on phytoplankton, in a sea characterized by the Multiscale Observing System of the Ocean Surface (MOSES) which measures currents and winds, and the Modular Aerial Sensing System (MASS) which measures wave height.

At the end of the day, I imagine they’ll be relaxing on the beach, enjoying some Sub-Mesoscale Ocean Dynamics Research Experiments Snacks (SMORES), and congratulating themselves on having pulled off yet another Scientific Con Acquiring Millions (SCAM).

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