Developments in Airborne Oceanography and Air-Sea Interaction

Thursday, 18 December 2014: 4:00 PM
Wallace Kendall Melville, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, CA, United States
One of the earliest ocean-related flights was that of Amundsen to be first across the North Pole and Arctic from Svalbard to Alaska in the airship Norge in 1926. Twenty five years later Cox & Munk flew a B-17G "Flying Fortress" bomber over Hawaiian waters measuring sea surface slope statistics from photographs of sun glitter and wind speed from a yacht. The value of Cox & Munk's "airborne oceanography" became apparent another twenty five years later with the short-lived Seasat microwave remote-sensing mission, since interpretation of the Seasat data in geophysical variables required scattering theories that relied on their data. The universal acceptance of remote sensing in oceanography began in 1992 with the launch of, and successful analysis of sea surface height data from, the Topex/Poseidon radar altimeter. With that and the development of more realistic coupled atmosphere-ocean models it became apparent that our understanding of weather and climate variability in both the atmosphere and the ocean depends crucially on our ability to measure processes in boundary layers spanning the interface.

Ten years ago UNOLS formed the Scientific Committee for Oceanographic Aircraft Research (SCOAR) "...to improve access to research aircraft facilities for ocean sciences"; an attempt to make access to aircraft as easy as access to research vessels. SCOAR emphasized then that "Aircraft are ideal for both fast-response investigations and routine, long-term measurements, and they naturally combine atmospheric measurements with oceanographic measurements on similar temporal and spatial scales." Since then developments in GPS positioning and miniaturization have made scientific measurements possible from smaller and smaller platforms, including the transition from manned to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Furthermore, ship-launched and recovered UAVs have demonstrated how they can enhance the capabilities and reach of the research vessels, "projecting" research and science, just as aircraft carriers "project force". Now we can measure winds, waves, temperatures, currents, radiative transfer, images and air-sea fluxes from aircraft over the ocean.

I will review some of the history of airborne oceanography and present examples of how it can extend our knowledge and understanding of air-sea interaction.