Google-funded ocean drones are now mining carbon data from Gulf Stream

saildrone ocean drones gulf stream florida

A group of ocean drones, funded in part by a $1 million grant from Google.org, have been deployed from Rhode Island’s Newport to build the largest-ever set of wintertime weather and carbon data in the Gulf Stream.

For the next six months, three Saildrone uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs) will sail through North Atlantic’s swiftest current to collect critical, in situ data that will help scientists improve weather forecasts and carbon accounting.

The mission, which is being led by scientists at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) and the University of Rhode Island (URI), won a funding grant of over $1 million from Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google, earlier this year.

Stressing that his company has been working tirelessly to measure climate quality data from Earth’s most remote oceans since its first mission in the Arctic in 2015, Saildrone founder and CEO, Richard Jenkins, says:

We are delighted to be collaborating with Google on this amazing project that will dramatically improve our understanding of critical climate processes. We believe this data will enable more accurate predictions of our future, which will in turn help guide global climate policy and decision-making.

Brigitte Gosselink, Google.org’s director of product impact, adds:

Data is a critical enabler of our shared goals for sustainability at scale. As the pace of climate action continues to accelerate, a lack of quality data can often leave researchers, advocates, and policymakers without a roadmap. Google.org believes open climate data is a public good, and we’re thrilled to support this work.

Also read: Ocean drone captures wild video footage from inside Hurricane Sam

What exactly will these ocean drones do in the Gulf Stream?

The Gulf Stream has a significant impact on both weather systems and the global carbon budget, but collecting data from the area is extremely challenging for traditional crewed ships. Saildrones, meanwhile, can collect data without risking human lives and with a zero operational carbon footprint because they’re powered by the wind and the sun.

Sailing back and forth, the ocean drones will collect data to support two concurrent science investigations:

  • Researchers at ECMWF will examine the precise location of the Gulf Stream and the sharp temperature differences where warm and cold waters collide, and
  • Researchers at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography will study how, where, and how much human-produced carbon dioxide the Gulf Stream can absorb.

One drone will be stationed “upstream,” east of Cape Hatteras, NC, where the current is like a narrow river of water, while a second will be stationed midstream, and the third will be stationed “downstream” off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland where the current broadens, meanders, and breaks into eddies. All three vehicles will sail back and forth across the current to capture as many ocean features as possible.

In addition to the standard suite of oceanographic and meteorological sensors that Saildrone Explorers carry, for this mission, the USVs are also equipped with a special sensor to measure the speed and direction of subsurface ocean currents.

All this data will help to make long-range weather forecasting more accurate, which can both save lives in the event of an impending natural disaster and improve energy management. Knowing where and when to expect extreme weather allows energy managers to make more informed decisions about power generation and consumption weeks and even months in advance.

The three ocean drones are expected to be retrieved in Newport in mid-2022.

Read more: Saildrone raises $100M to gather more hurricane insights, climate data

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