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Diving Deeper: Episode 19 (January 27, 2010) —
What are the benefits of ocean observing data?

HOST: Welcome to Diving Deeper, where we interview National Ocean Service scientists on the ocean topics and information that are important to you!  I’m your host, Kate Nielsen.

Today’s question is…What are the benefits of ocean observing data?

Ocean observing data is critical for many different uses that benefit us every single day. This includes understanding the effects of climate change, getting goods in and out of our ports safely and efficiently; protecting our oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes so that we can work, live, and play in these areas, which are also important and critical to the economic well being of the United States. The information is compiled into the Integrated Ocean Observing System, or IOOS®, and serves as tools for tracking, predicting, managing, and adapting to changes in our marine environment.  

To help us dive a little deeper into this question, we will talk with Zdenka Willis about the benefits of ocean observing data both for managers and for the public. Zdenka is the Director of NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observing System Program. Hi, Zdenka, welcome to our show.

ZDENKA WILLIS: Thank you Kate. Thanks for having me here.

HOST: Zdenka, first, can you remind our listeners from the earlier Diving Deeper podcast that we did last March, why we need to or why we should observe our oceans and coasts?

ZDENKA WILLIS: Certainly, Kate. We need to observe our oceans and coasts to better understand what’s happening and what’s changing. Once we have that initial understanding, then we can increase the nation’s ability to keep our people safe, our economy secure, and our environment healthy and productive.

HOST: Well that sounds like a tall order for one system, but I can really understand the importance of having something like this. Can you maybe give us an example of how we benefit by using IOOS data?

ZDENKA WILLIS: Kate, I’d be happy to. You know, we’re really looking at compatible, easy access to all kinds of data and information from multiple sources. I had a chance to talk to Jared. Jared’s a lobstermen up in the New England area. He has a 42-foot boat. He counts on those buoys to take a look at the weather and the ocean conditions so that he knows whether it’s safe to take his crew out to be able to catch lobster which is livelihood for them. We work with Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural Resources and they rely on IOOS-derived shoreline maps to plan for and respond to storm surge, flash floods, and sea level rise.

In our southeastern region, they teamed up with NOAA’s National Weather Service to put a marine portal together. So they take all the observations that are collected both at the federal level and at that regional level and they put them together. That helps the National Weather Service to do better forecasts and even more important more accurate hazards warnings like small craft. In the Great Lakes we’ve developed models that display real-time and forecasted waterway data in the corridors between Lake Huron and Erie in southeast Michigan. And these applications directly support decision making related to drinking water intakes and any pollution or spill problems we would have in that area.

Turning to industry. Certainly easier, better access to ocean and coastal data is important for our ability to understand those seasonal forecasts. Two examples I think of are both Home Depot and Walmart. They have to make their buying decisions based on those seasonal forecasts. So six months out do they stock hurricane supplies or do they stock beach towels.

HOST: Thanks Zdenka, I think you’ve related IOOS data to every one of our listeners right now. And it’s really great just to show us how it supports our economy so directly. Is ocean observing data also used to support things like emergency response maybe search and rescue operations?

ZDENKA WILLIS: It is. IOOS introduced a state-of-the-art technology called high frequency radar. And this allows us to understand the ocean currents. This means rescuers can get to distressed people more quickly, so that means it’s about saving lives. 

And we just put this effort in action in the Mid-Atlantic region. This was in conjunction with the United States Coast Guard. It was put into their operational Search and Rescue System, and the Coast Guard estimates it can double or triple its success rate in finding victims.

HOST: Thanks, Zdenka. The ability for us to track these ocean currents sounds very critical to be able to improve and have fast search and rescue operations. Do we also use IOOS and ocean observing data for response for natural events maybe such as hurricanes?

ZDENKA WILLIS: We do. We really want to understand total water level. Is your backyard going to get flooded, is the school where your children are going to be affected by this storm? And how can we preposition our resources so that when we have a hurricane or a tropical storm, we can quickly restore the capabilities to the community.

And I’ve got two examples. Scientists are developing The Chesapeake Bay Inundation Prediction System. And this system will allow us to better forecast the amount of water that residents will see by combining the observing systems put out by NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Army Corps of Engineers. They’ll put this data together with higher resolution models and they’ll provide these forecasts in easy-to-use images by both the state managers and for the public to understand.

A second example is that IOOS just completed an effort inside of NOAA. We improved the display to our own forecast called the Sea, Lake, and Overland Surges from Hurricane or SLOSH. And what we did is we worked with our NOAA partners to integrate real-time water level and wind observations from the National Ocean Service and wind observations from the National Weather Service buoys to provide forecasters the ability to overlay these real-time observations and predications on the same map. It was used during this past hurricane season to improve communications to the public on where this water will or will not be in advance of a hurricane.

HOST: Wow Zdenka, that’s really great. From what we’ve talked about so far today, I would imagine that ocean observing data also can help safeguard our national security. Is that correct?

ZDENKA WILLIS: That is correct, Kate. Ocean observing is being used to track ships to improve our security in our own ports and harbors. Additionally, something that I find very exciting is that IOOS-sponsored technology from across the federal agencies such as NOAA, the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research led to an innovation in the area of unmanned, underwater robots called gliders. And very recently the United States Navy actually awarded a contract worth $6.2 million to a subsidiary of Teledyne Technologies (Webb Research Inc) to design, engineer, build, and test, and deliver these battlespace gliders, which will help our national security by understanding the conditions of the water where our naval assets need to perform.

HOST: Zdenka, you mentioned a little bit earlier that we observe our oceans and coasts to get a better understanding of our marine environment. What are some of the things that scientists are learning about our oceans and coasts just from using IOOS?

ZDENKA WILLIS: A really interesting discovery recently happened in central California. All of a sudden hundreds of birds were coated in a yellow-green substance and they began to strand themselves in the Monterey Bay. Now more than 500 of these birds did this and an additional 200 plus died. So this was kind of a mystery substance that ate away from the coating and the oil on the bird’s feathers and without this protection, the birds became vulnerable. They began starving and suffering from hypothermia. 

So at the same time, we noticed that there was a bloom of a kind of algae that was turning the water in the area red. But red tide is considered harmless to marine life. So scientists began studying the satellite imagery, overlaid that with IOOS data on the coastal currents to see where the red tide was traveling. They realized they were able to predict the strandings that would occur 48 hours ahead of time. Scientists then noticed kind of a byproduct of this red tide was this kind of sea foam that no one really been paying much attention to. They tested the sea foam and, sure enough, found it was harming the bird’s feathers and allowing cold seawater to reach their skin. They were literally freezing to death. This was the first such finding of its kind and IOOS data was there to help figure it out.

HOST: Wow, that’s really great. You’ve started by telling us how IOOS is important to us every day, how we use IOOS data for search and rescue, safeguards our national security, and even here just what scientists and researchers are learning a little bit about our oceans and coasts. I think any time that we talk about and we’ve really proven just how beneficial this is, it’s helpful to tie a number to it – it helps us relate and assign that significance when we know what the value is behind something. Is there an example that maybe highlights that economic benefit to local communities and local areas from the U.S. IOOS Program?

ZDENKA WILLIS: So Kate, I’ll talk about one example how ocean forecasting can really support at the local economy level and that’s in the area of harmful algal blooms. While the numbers vary, harmful algal blooms are estimated to cause about $82 million in economic impacts each year to seafood, restaurants, and tourism industries. Eight of the 11 IOOS regions actively work with national and local officials on effective forecasting.  Specifically, in the Northeast Regional Association they’re working with harmful algal bloom researchers and state managers to monitor efforts in the northeast and Canada. Investigators at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution use buoy data to guide harmful algal bloom paths while conducting both research and red tide alert cruises in the Gulf of Maine. This data proved critical in developing community response and state and federal shellfish closures during the historic 2005 and 2009 shellfish poisoning events.

Also, IOOS is a program that really is providing stimulus for the marine industry. Whether we’re talking about industries that are building sensors, are working with us to integrate that data, or the value added industries that are popping up to tailor these forecasts, so that is also providing jobs into those local communities. Additionally with our academic partners, it provides a practical application of their oceanographic theory to work on these IOOS projects and thereby being ready to come into the market. So in all of these ways we are tied into that local economy.

HOST: Because we’re talking about ocean observing data and especially with your last example here on harmful algal blooms, it sounds like there are a lot of direct benefits for coastal residents of the U.S. from IOOS. Is this true?

ZDENKA WILLIS: It is. According to the National Ocean Economics Program, the 30 coastal U.S. states account for 82 percent of the total U.S. population and 81 percent of the jobs based on 2006 data. In 2004, the coastal leisure and hospitality sector alone generated $340 billion of revenue and 10 million jobs. The coastal trade, transportation, and utilities sector generated another $950 billion. In 2005, Hurricanes Wilma, Rita, and Katrina accounted for approximately $157 billion in damages and 1,987 deaths within the coastal communities.

The benefit of having the ocean observing data and a national system such as IOOS will help better secure these local economies. For example, data integration will provide earlier and better information to decision makers needing to enhance zoning, coastal construction, and offshore gas and oil operations in order to minimize impacts of weather, sea level, and flooding.

Specifically, IOOS funded an effort to develop and disseminate near real-time customized Web site for the Long Beach/Los Angeles Harbor. We were able to combine wave data, sea surface temperature data, surface currents, and winds over NOAA’s nautical charting to allow the harbor pilots to better bring in the large ships that are coming into Long Beach.

And so why is that important? For shipping, time is money. And therefore, being able to plan their routes efficiently and effectively means additional dollars for them and lower cost to us.

HOST: And how about for our non-coastal listeners today. What are the economic benefits of IOOS for them?

ZDENKA WILLIS: You know that really is an important issue. Folks in the middle of the country might not think that this is important, but when you think about 95 percent of our goods and services come into our ports, being able to do that safely and efficiently and in an economic way will result in lower prices for all of us.

Also, this oceanographic information is important to our farming community. By taking the oceanographic information combining it with the atmospheric information, we can all provide better seasonal forecasts that allow the farmers to understand what to plant, when to plant, and in some cases when to actually harvest.

HOST: These have really been great examples of how integrating all of this ocean observing data together can help our economy. Are there any other benefits that we haven’t yet discussed today?

ZDENKA WILLIS: I think that there is one that ties this to ocean and human health that I’d like to go over because I don’t know that people have a chance to think of this. So ocean observations are improving scientific ability to detect and mitigate the outbreak of disease and other harmful conditions.

For example, research done under Dr. Rita Caldwell, recently developed a system for predicting cholera outbreaks using satellite monitoring of marine environments. The data shows that the epidemics actually follow seasonal increase in temperature of the ocean and phytoplankton levels. So the tiny organisms increase in the number as the water temperatures rise and bring the cholera pathogen to drinking water supplies. This finding could lead to early warnings for similar ocean health threats.

HOST: Thanks, Zdenka. I really appreciate all of these wonderful examples that you’ve provided for us. I feel like you really showed and highlighted how IOOS impacts us and is important to us every single day. Do you have any final closing words for our listeners today?

ZDENKA WILLIS: I’d like to close on another theme of IOOS and that’s partnership. We cannot, any of us, deliver the capacity that I just talked about singularly. IOOS is a partnership at the federal level with more than 17 federal agencies and institutions participating at that regional to local level that bring together that state, local, tribal government, academia, industry.

And then finally, while U.S. IOOS is certainly our national effort it is part of a larger international framework and we have tremendous cooperation with our international partners because it really is about understanding the ocean, its environment, and the living marine resources, and that’s why I get so passionate when I talk about this thing called the Integrated Ocean Observing System.

HOST: Thanks so much Zdenka for your time and joining us on today’s episode of Diving Deeper and helping us learn more about the many benefits of ocean observing systems. To learn more about ocean observing data, you can visit

That’s all for this week’s show, please tune in in February for our next episode.