Archive | July, 2013

The End of Upwelling

1 week change in Sea Surface Temperature from July 12 to 19, 2013fig_0719_7day_diff_cb

What a difference a week makes.

Late last week, the waters off New Jersey were between 5-15 degrees below normal thanks a persistent pattern of coastal welling in which warmer surface waters were pushed offshore and replaced by colder waters from below.

This year’s upwelling, which typically occurs this time of year, was longer than usual due to a strong Bermuda High. The High also stalled weather fronts along the eastern seaboard, carrying a lot of moisture up the East Coast from the Gulf of Mexico. But it was the upwelling that caused a lot of consternation among beachgoers in New Jersey, particularly on Long Beach Isltand where the upwelling was strongest. (Warning, the comments on that last link are a sad example of the urgent need for scientists to become more involved in communicating science.)

However, this week, the Bermuda High shifted west, causing record high temperatures across much of the East coast and odd rainstorms out west. It also reversed the coastal upwelling pattern enough so that surface waters could return to their seasonal norms.

The image above shows the change in sea surface temperature over the last week, between July 19 and July 12. (Technically, this map shows the difference between two 7-day composites, one ending on the 19th and the other on the 12th.) Almost the entire region warmed up a few degrees thanks to the strong sun and cloudless days we’ve had. But it is the coastal waters off NJ that increased the most, from 5-12 degrees Fahrenheit. The shift in winds allowed warmer waters from offshore to head back towards the coast, while at the coast, previously upwelled cooler waters were subject to downwelling.

For the ocean, and all the fish in it, this is a huge change to cope with in just a few short days. But if you’re at the beach, it means a more pleasant swim is in your future.

Image Note: I created a new colormap for this image that includes 4 color points instead of the traditional 2 for a divergent color scale (e.g. blue to white to red). Let me know what you think!


Satellites vs. Buoys

A little while back, I received the following question from a Visual Ocean visitor, and thought it would be fun to answer it as a post.

When might satellite sst data be more informative than buoy data?

The short answer is: it depends. You know, like all things in science.

Advantage: Satellites
Perhaps the biggest advantage satellites have is the ability to measure Sea Surface Temperature (SST) over large swaths of the ocean, while buoys can only measure temperatures at a single location.

The typical AVHRR sensor orbiting the Earth from 520 miles up can observe an area that’s over 1,500 miles wide with a resolution of 0.68 miles. By contrast, a single buoy can sample only within a single pixel from the satellite’s perspective. To put that into context, in the Mid Atlantic the typical satellite SST pass contains around 600,000 pixels of data, covering an area of over 250,000 square miles (that’s about the size of 35 New Jerseys). Meanwhile, there are only around a dozen buoys in the same area.

So if you want to study large-scale or regional features like fronts and eddies that occur over a large area, you’ll definitely need to use satellite data. In addition, anyone who has ever seen an SST satellite image knows there is a lot of spatial variability out there, so you’ll also need to use satellite data if you want data close to your study area (or beach house) than the nearest buoy, which could be hundreds of miles away.

Advantage: Buoys
On the other hand, buoys can see through clouds. Well, not really, but many satellite sensors can not, which is why you often see large white areas in SST imagery. Worse yet, when a large storm, like a hurricane, happens to move through an area, it can block the view from satellites for several days. And that’s a problem because the most interesting events in the ocean often occur when storms are overhead.

Similarly, many ocean-sensing instruments are placed on polar orbiting satellites, which are not able to measure the same location constantly. There are several satellites in orbit that measure SST, so this generally isn’t a problem as long as you’re okay with 4-10 measurements a day. Other sensors, like those for chlorophyll or salinity, are on fewer satellites, so it may be several days or more between measurements, and even longer if clouds are in the way.

However, a buoy that is sitting in the ocean can take measurements constantly. Every day, every hour, every second, every microsecond or whatever a scientist might need. In general, buoys that measure SST record data every hour, which is often sufficient for most investigations.

So, if you want to study high-resolution and/or local processes, such as those concerning specific habitats or ecosystems, then buoys are your best bet. Likewise, they’re also quite useful if your favorite fishing spot is nearby.

If you have a question about data visualization in oceanography you’d like me to answer, please let me know using the contact form or send a message to @visualocean on Twitter.


The Ocean in Red, White and Blue

Red, white and blue map of SST Gradients in the Mid Atlantic on July 4, 2013

To celebrate Independence Day, I thought it would be fun to dress up the ocean in a little red, white and blue.

If you’re curious, the image above represents the gradient of sea surface temperature (SST) at each point, and is based off of today’s 7-day composite of SST collected by the AVHRR instrument on NOAA’s polar orbiting satellites.

For every point, if the temperature change from its left (or below) neighbor to its right (or above) neighbor increases, then the gradient is considered positive and is colored red. Similarly, if the temperature decreases as you go from left to right or bottom to top, then the gradient is negative and is colored in blue. If the temperature doesn’t change much, white is used. The darkest colors (red or blue) represent a temperature change of around 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit over 2km of distance.

The map above is actually the sum of the horizontal and vertical gradients (i.e. dT/dx + dT/dy), so areas that are blue, indicate areas where colder temperatures can be found towards the Northeast.

In the image, a few patterns stand out, particularly the north wall of the Gulf Stream which shows up as blue streaks, indicating colder temperatures to the North. The waters off New England show up as a dark mess of blue and red, due to the large number of clouds in the area over the past few days, not to mention all the hot weather warming up the cold waters, both of which resulted in uneven measured temperatures, and therefore chaotic calculated gradient values.

Scientists often use a gradient calculations to identify large-scale features in the ocean, like fronts and eddies, which can be seen in the image. However, to do so they generally would calculate the gradient over larger areas than the 1km pixels used above or use a combination of filtering or averaging to smooth out the features and make them stand out more.

Using raw SST data to calculate gradients results in an image that is very noisy. But then, fireworks are noisy too… and they are also quite beautiful to behold.

Happy 4th!


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