For the last decade, seals with frickin’ sensors attached to their heads have been helping out researchers by collecting data from the far-flung, icy waters in which they live. This information is now part of a freely available data portal called MEOP (Marine Mammals Exploring the Oceans Pole to Pole). The online portal – one of the world's largest oceanographic databases for polar oceans – launched earlier this week, and it offers unprecedented details about the harshest parts of the planet.
Some marine mammals travel for thousands of kilometers and dive to unfathomable depths in search of food across the world’s oceans. Southern elephant seals, for example, hunt in ice-bound, polar regions. To tap into their natural habitat, a team led by University of St Andrews researchers developed battery-operated sensors that can be attached to the massive animals noninvasively. The tags send information back to the lab in short messages via satellite and they fall off when the animal molts.
A small army of sensor-clad seals has been gathering data since 2004. “The fact that animals have collected the data is an interesting innovation in ocean observation. But perhaps of more general importance is that data from these remote and inaccessible places now gives us a much clearer picture of the state of the world’s oceans,” Mike Fedak of St Andrews explains. So far, the seal-and-satellite global ocean observation system has already produced 400,000 environmental profiles.
These observations will be really useful for weather forecasting and predicting ice cover: to help to close the gaps in our understanding of the climate system, the data could be incorporated into oceanographic models. With more than 90 percent of the planet’s extra heat stored in the oceans, it’s especially important to understand the Southern Ocean’s role in this uptake. Not to mention that figuring out the stability of ice sheets in West Antarctica and Greenland will be critical for predicting sea level rise.
“Changes in the polar oceans have global ramifications and a significant influence on weather and climate,” Boehme adds. “Sustained observations are required to detect, interpret and respond to change and a strategic system of observations combining a range of platforms is critical in maintaining the flow of information.”
Images: University of St Andrews (top), Mike Fedak (middle)