Subscribe to Diving Deeper

Ocean Service Feeds

What is a Podcast?

A podcast is a an audio file published on the web. The files are usually downloaded onto computers or portable listening devices such as iPods or other players.

Read more about podcasting from

Find other podcasts from the US government

Diving Deeper : Episode 4 (Mar. 9, 2009) —
What is the Integrated Ocean Observing System?

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 is the Integrated Ocean Observing System?

The Integrated Ocean Observing System, or IOOS®, is a tool for tracking, predicting, managing, and adapting to changes in our marine environment. IOOS delivers the data and information needed to increase the understanding of our oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes so decision makers can improve safety, enhance our economy, and protect our environment.

To help us dive a little deeper into this question, we will talk with Jennie Lyons about the Integrated Ocean Observing System – what it is, how it works, and why it is important to us. Jennie is a communications specialist with NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observing System Program. Hi, Jennie, welcome to our show.
JENNIE LYONS: Thank you Kate for inviting me here.

HOST: Jennie, first, why do we observe our oceans and coasts?

JENNIE LYONS: Well, if you think about how people learn, we really do it by watching and taking in information. It’s the same thing with our oceans and coasts. We really need to observe them to understand what’s happening there. Once we understand, then we can increase the nation’s ability to keep our people safe, our economy secure, and our environment healthy and productive.

HOST: It sounds like IOOS provides a lot of data for scientists and decision makers to use in many different ways. How are these data collected?

JENNIE LYONS: You would not believe the amazing amount of data collection tools out there. I know I couldn’t quite grasp it when I started here with IOOS. I mean, there are satellites, buoys, tide gauges, radar stations, underwater vehicles, and the list goes on.  Some of the tools are in the water, as you might expect with ocean observations, but some are on land, and others still are all the way up in space. Most of the data collected is streamed to a database where IOOS partners are working to make it easier to access and understand. That way, scientists and decision makers can quickly find what they need.

There’s actually a great example of this along the Gulf Coast where our partners are working to link several online databases between Florida and Texas. When they started, scientists would have to go to each of these sites to get the data they needed. But when the effort’s done, they’ll be able to access so much more data from so many sources in that region, and all from one spot. It’ll be so much easier!

HOST: Jennie, so some of the tools and equipment needed to collect data for an integrated ocean observing system already exist. Is it that IOOS is effectively linking this data together in a more comprehensive, easier way for people to use?

JENNIE LYONS: That is one major part of it. So, as I mentioned a minute ago, there are literally thousands of tools – from satellites above the Earth to sensors below the water – that are continuously collecting ocean and coastal data. But, the missing link is one common system to connect all these data. IOOS is really intended to be that link. We’re expanding sources of data and we’re also increasing access to existing data, which will all save users time and money.

HOST: What kinds of data are these systems collecting?

JENNIE LYONS: Oh, a wide variety. IOOS is initially focusing on seven observations – temperature, water level, currents, winds, and waves are a few. There’s also ocean color and salinity, which is how salty the water is. But for IOOS to be successful, data need to be standardized so data collected in different places make sense together. So, one very simple example I like to use is for water temperature. Our partners need to agree to record that temperature in either Celsius or Fahrenheit. Right now, they don’t all record it the same way and you can imagine that makes it tough for data users because then they have to take the time to convert the data into compatible formats. So again, that’s a really simple example, but it does illustrate the point that IOOS is trying to not only make data easier to access, we’re also trying to make it easier to use.

HOST: Jennie, you mentioned ocean color as one of the types of data that are collected. Can you explain what this is for our listeners?

JENNIE LYONS: Sure. Ocean color is just that – it’s the color of the ocean. And that color is affected by how much phytoplankton are in the water. Phytoplankton are just tiny plants that are at the base of the marine food web. The greener the ocean, the more phytoplankton present and the bluer the ocean, the less phytoplankton there are.

HOST: Back to the focus of IOOS, data. Where are data collected?

JENNIE LYONS: Our partners collect data globally, nationally, regionally, and locally.  So, global ocean observations are used to predict things like El Niño events, sea-level rise, and climate change.

Regionally, IOOS data complement existing atmospheric measurements to help predict the path and severity of approaching storms, such as hurricanes. And then at a more local scale, IOOS data help monitor and predict marine conditions. Decision makers can then use those predictions to issue warnings like small craft advisories and beach closures. Each of these examples represents a clear connection to the health and safety of people living near the coast.

HOST: You mentioned that IOOS includes global observations. Is the U.S. working with other countries to collect this data around the world?

JENNIE LYONS: Yes, in fact, we are. So IOOS itself is the U.S. contribution to a global ocean observing system. And that global ocean observing system is just the ocean component of an even larger system which includes atmospheric and land surface observations. But each country handles data collection a bit differently. So our work is cut out for us and collaborations will only expand more in the future.

HOST: It sounds like one of the main benefits of IOOS is the ease at which people can access data. How do you ensure that those who need the data are both aware of IOOS and have the access that they need?

JENNIE LYONS: Well, to be honest, that’s something we’re still working on. So, NOAA stood up its Integrated Ocean Observing System Program two years ago. In that time, we’ve made great progress at getting data recorded in standard formats and available on NOAA’s Web sites. For example, data on ocean currents, based on our standards and protocols, are now available through NOAA’s Harmful Algal Bloom Forecasting System. But, successes like this will only multiply in the months ahead.

HOST: Is IOOS data available to the public?

JENNIE LYONS: Much of it is, yes. And that will also only expand more in the future. But observations from buoys, for example, are available right now on the National Data Buoy Center Web site. The thing is though, in its raw form, not everyone understands what the data means to them. But people like scientists, health officials, and coastal managers do. So, they use the data to figure out what local conditions mean for people in the area. 

So, for example, if our data shows that an incoming storm could mean flooding in one specific coastal community, coastal managers there could take action to evacuate people in the area.

HOST: Jennie, can you provide more of an example of how IOOS data are used?

JENNIE LYONS: I can. There are so many it’s hard to pick a few, but there certainly are some. So, one way responders can use IOOS data is to track oil slicks after a spill, for example, because our real-time data shows the movement of water and therefore the movement of the spill.

Along the same lines, IOOS data is also useful in tracking and predicting harmful algal blooms. And for those who might not be familiar with that term, basically, not all algae is harmful. But, they’re just simple plants that live in the sea and form the base of the food web. But harmful algal blooms happen when certain types of algae multiply and produce harmful effects on people, animals, and birds. Data on ocean currents help forecasters predict both the movement and size of these blooms, so they can act to decrease health risks to people who might have been affected otherwise.

Yet another example – and one of my favorites – of how our data can help happened after the recent emergency landing of that airplane in the Hudson River in January 2009. That jet crashed near sensors within New York Harbor’s Observing Prediction System, which is part of our Mid-Atlantic region. Within minutes, our partners at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey had compiled a detailed report of water conditions around the site and a forecast of conditions for the next 48 hours. They sent the reports to emergency crews. You may recall that all of the plane’s crew and passengers were rescued safely.  And also, in the days after the crash, Stevens provided around the clock assistance to various emergency agencies to help with salvage operations including lifting the plane out of the water.

HOST: Jennie, that’s great. I had no idea that IOOS data could be used for so many events everything from oil spills to even rescue efforts like this. Many of our listeners do not live near the coast. So, how does IOOS impact them?

JENNIE LYONS: Oh, it greatly impacts them – though they might have really never thought about it before. Inland waterways contribute to the overall health of our oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes. Contaminants can travel for miles. So pollutants like pesticides, road runoff, and trash can easily make it all the way to the ocean and kill animals and plants or make people sick.

In turn, the greater bodies of water also impact people living inland. Not everybody knows it, but the oceans drive our weather. Compatible, easily accessible data will increase understanding of how that happens because we don’t totally know yet. And that will enable earlier, more accurate weather forecasts. Longer term predictions will allow farmers to know ahead of time things like what kind of crops to plant and when to harvest. Better forecasts also mean store managers can make more informed decisions – like whether to ship something like snow shovels or flip flops to their store for a coming season.

HOST: Thanks Jennie. There are probably dozens of examples along these lines for how IOOS is impacting our lives every day. Have there been any studies completed to outline the benefits of IOOS?

JENNIE LYONS: There have been a few. One stated that integrated ocean information has helped reduce shipping transit times along the New England coast. That study translated cost savings into about a half a million dollars a year. And reduced shipping costs - in turn - mean many things that we buy, cost less.

HOST: I know partnerships are extremely important for IOOS. Can you expand more though on NOAA’s role with IOOS?

JENNIE LYONS: Sure Kate, and you’re right – partnerships really are critical for us. No single entity has the ability or resources to fully implement IOOS on its own. So, partnerships are really the key to the group’s success. For NOAA specifically, we officially stood up an IOOS program in February 2007. Since then, the 17 federal agencies participating in IOOS agreed that NOAA should take a leadership role in developing the national system and managing the contributions of our 11 regions.

HOST: Thanks Jennie. Any final words on IOOS for our listeners?

JENNIE LYONS: I’d just like to add that we don’t always think about it this way, but the truth of the matter is our nation’s security, economy, and environment are all linked to changes in our oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes. These changes are happening quickly, and in ways we’re not fully able to understand yet. But, IOOS is working hard to coordinate and connect more and better information about our waters to protect and enhance the lives of our citizens.

HOST: Thanks Jennie for joining us on today’s episode of Diving Deeper to help us learn more about ocean observing systems, where they are located, and why they are important.  To learn more about NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observing System Program, visit

That’s all for this week’s show, please tune in on March 23rd for our next episode on nautical charts.