OceanCurrent News

Oceanographer seals

David Griffin
18 May, 2017

 We recently added the tracks of our well-equipped seals to our archive of high-res satellite imagery (chlorophyll, SST and surface current). A 2014 trip by a male New Zealand Fur Seal from Montague Island to Jervis Bay – the long way - is particularly intriguing. The image at right shows the final 2 days of his trip around a warm-core, low surface chlorophyll eddy of the East Australian Current. His voyage started on 8 September and if you step through the images it’s hard not to think he has the imagery in front of him, or that he is laying on his back and just drifting with the current, occasionally diving down to 100m to  check the stratification. Is the edge of the eddy better fishing? Does he like the warm water? Can he sense his drift velocity? Do seals talk all day about ocean currents, fishing, or both?

Fish Die-Off Continues; Now on Tasmanian Beaches

Madeleine Cahill
27 April, 2017

It has been over a month since the tropical leatherjacket species started washing up on the beaches of far-eastern Victoria.  Fisheries Victoria concluded that the event was most likely due to the extreme temperature change associated with the upwelling event off East Gippsland. Fishers reported a sharp ‘temperature break’ with 25° clear water alongside 16°C cloudy water, evidence of which could be seen from the air on March 31. Since then there have been reports of leatherjackets washing up in large numbers on Tasmanian beaches all along the eastern coastline, most recently as far south as Fortescue Bay.  The fish are often observed to be alive but struggling. There have been no strong upwelling events off Tasmania to cause the same dramatic temperature front as seen off Victoria. Indeed, surface temperatures off eastern Tasmania are close to median (50th percentile) values. However, since this species is most commonly found off northern Australia and less frequently along the NSW coastline, Fisheries Tasmania has concluded that they have simply reached the extent of their temperature range and are dying when they encounter the cooler southern waters.

The last event like this in Tasmania happened in 2014 when the East Australian Current had extended unusually far south bringing with it a number of tropical species. This year John McGiveron from the Tasmanian Game Fishing Association says fishers have seen a lot of dead fish floating offshore and that a lot of them are found in the stomachs of bluefin tuna. Events like this have been more common previously off NSW but if the EAC continues its push south we will probably see more of them on Tasmanian beaches. Apparently, though, even last weekend there were still a lot of leatherjackets that hadn’t yet succumbed to the cold. CSIRO oceanographer, Alistair Hobday, reported seeing large schools of leatherjackets swimming in waters off the Tasman Peninsula.
*FishyQuestionMark courtesy of Anna & George Cresswell, made on Taylor's Beach, Tasmania


Mass Fish Die-Off at Mallacoota: Upwelling and the EAC?

Madeleine Cahill
4 April, 2017

Thousands of dead fish have been washing up on the shores of far eastern Victoria and southern NSW. They started appearing on the beach in small numbers around March 11 but came in en masse in the last few weeks of March. Although most of the fish appear to be leatherjackets, there are also whiting, black sole, puffer fish, boxfish, sea urchins, flathead and even some penguins. Locals noticed the die-off coincided with a drop in ocean surface water temperature of 7°C and a lot of algae (described as a browny-green sludge) in the ocean.

These observations are consistent with the satellite imagery. Cold upwelled water is evident from Mar 8 and persists for the rest of the month. SST images, Mar 12 & Mar 25, indicate the upwelled water extended for 50 – 100km along the coast and across Bass Strait.  These images also show the water offshore is a warm 22°C and at times is separated by only 25km from the 14°C upwelled water. The Modis Chl-a image for March 14 shows an intense algal bloom associated with the upwelled water extending for almost 200km along the Victorian coast that persists throughout the month.

The northeastern corner of Bass Strait is a well-known upwelling region and, as for the NSW coast, the two drivers for bringing cold, nutrient rich waters to the ocean surface are wind forcing and dynamic uplift created when EAC currents encroach on the continental slope*. This March these two drivers seem to have combined for maximum effect. Winds were persistently upwelling favorable for the far eastern Victorian coastline and a large EAC eddy sat just offshore for most of the month (Mar 12). SST percentiles (Mar 12) show the upwelled water was within the coldest 10% of temperatures observed in March for that region while the EAC waters just offshore were in the top 10% of temperatures. Colder upwelled water implies a higher nutrient concentration as it is likely to have come from deeper in the water column. Warm EAC water on the other hand, though depleted in nutrients, allows for rapid phytoplankton growth, so there may be increased algal growth where the two water masses meet.

The cause of the fish deaths is still to be established but could include hypoxia caused through oxygen depletion when the algae die off or suffocation due to the algae blocking the fish gills or even shock due to the rapid change in temperature. The Victorian EPA is investigating the event to determine the exact cause of the deaths and the various factors could be complex. Whatever the cause of this fish kill it appears that increased southward extension of the EAC that has become apparent since at least 2014 has contributed to creating both a stronger upwelling event and higher gradients in temperature.

*Roughan, M., and J. H. Middleton (2004), On the East Australian Current: Variability, encroachment, and upwelling, J. Geophys. Res., 109, C07003, doi:10.1029/2003JC001833

Final Port-to-Pub Ocean Forecast

Madeleine Cahill
24 March, 2017

The ocean forecast for the Port-to-Pub swim remains for strong northward flow on Saturday, persisting throughout the day. This strong cross current will increase the swim times for all swimmers by about 15 minutes for the fastest to up to an hour for the slower swimmers. In order to stay close to the buoys but not get swept north of Rottnest we advise heading almost westward at the start and then gradually increasing your southward heading as you approach Rottnest Island and the current becomes stronger. Your best heading will depend on your swimming speed and the swim-optimizer can help you with that.  The good news is that the Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting weak winds from the east so the sea chop should not affect your swim time. Of course, our advice is based on forecasts which may turn out to be different on the day so all swimmers are advised to adjust their plan to the conditions on the day. Good luck to all swimmers from the OceanCurrent team!

The Port-to-Pub Ocean Forecast

Madeleine Cahill
21 March, 2017

The ocean forecast for the Port-to-Pub swim on Saturday is for strong and persistent northward currents, weakly northward near Freemantle but ramping up to almost 1kn about half way through the crossing. There is also predicted to be a slight shoreward push in the currents, which will make the swim take that little bit longer. It’s early days yet though and the swim-optimizer will be updated every morning with forecasts from the Oceans Institute of University of Western Australia with the final forecast coming out on Friday.  Note, we do not factor in the 5 km loop for the ultra-marathoners but you can still use the optimizer for the channel crossing.

Rottnest Swim Forecast

Madeleine Cahill
22 February, 2017

The forecast for the Rottnest swim this Saturday is for southward currents getting stronger throughout the day, particularly near Rottnest Island. So at this point, our advice is to stay close to the northern buoys, throughout the race, particularly those swimmers who will still be in the water after 11am. Winds are expected to be light and from the north-east. You can optimise your swim time based on the ocean current predictions by the Oceans Institute of the University of Western Australia. The ocean forecast depends on the weather forecast, which may change. Our last update is Friday morning.

Sydney-Hobart ocean currents

David Griffin
22 December, 2016

Today's weather briefing for the Rolex Sydney Hobart yacht race foreshadowed a quick race with northerly winds at first then a southerly when the fleet are in southern NSW waters. Ocean currents (on present indications) are also favourable for a quick race, especially at first, when a tail current associated with a large anti-clockwise (warm-core) eddy off Sydney will add a few knots to the fleet's speed over the ground.

The challenge here will be deciding how far offshore it is best to go to optimize current as well as wind. The first image at right (click to expand) shows the cooler coastal temperatures that we often see under these conditions and associate with reduced southward speed. This eddy has been off Sydney since about 7 Dec and is quite likely to still be there on race day.

The first image at right also shows a small clockwise eddy south of Jervis Bay. This will either grow in place or be swept southwards in coming days. In either case, it will mean that inshore and offshore yachts may experience very different currents off southern NSW while also dealing with the southerly wind change presently forecast.

Currents east of Bass Strait do not appear to be particulary strong this year. The rhumbline (2nd image at right) presently cuts across a large but fairly weak clockwise eddy that is likely to persist until race day.

As in past years, anyone wishing to overlay the yachts' positions on our maps of ocean currents can do this using Google Earth.

We wish the competitors a safe but exciting race, and cross our fingers that our computers keep running unattended through our Christmas Shutdown. If our images stop updating, it probably means there has been a power interruption in Hobart.

SealCTDs: Temperature and Salinity Profiles from Ocean Mammals

Madeleine Cahill
7 December, 2016

The IMOS Animal Tracking Facility has deployed over 250 SealCTDs (miniaturized CTD sensors with an ARGOS antenna) on Elephant Seals, Sea Lions, Fur Seals and Weddell Seals since 2009. The data can now be viewed on OceanCurrent. The original motive for the sensors was to provide information about animal behaviour but the physical data they have collected has already been valuable in studies of Antarctic bottom water formation, the global heat budget, Southern Ocean frontal structure and sea ice formation.

Argo float and seals provide different styles of profiling. Argo floats (in standard configuration) transmit a 2000m deep profile, with high vertical resolution, every 10 days whereas the SealCTDs transmit a profile every 6 hours. Each CTD sensor records data from every dive but selects the ascent profile from the deepest dive over the last 6 hours. In order to prolong battery life and to ensure the whole profile is transmitted before the seal dives again, the profile is also compressed (by calculating break-points) before transmission. The SealCTD (or tag) is glued onto the animal's head and drops off during their moult.

The temperature and salinity profiles (right) during a female Elephant Seal’s journey from Kerguelen Island demonstrate the high temporal and spatial resolution possible of the upper 500m of the ocean. During her two-month journey this seal travelled through at least four distinct regions before losing her tag in the melting ice. The time series are also plotted in 10 day sections with the seal’s location indicated. 
Some SealCTDs have been deployed in the Great Australian Bight (GAB) and southern New South Wales. The Sea Lions in the GAB appear to have a different profiling strategy compared to their cousins in Antarctica. One GAB Sea Lion spent 5 months of the 2015/2016 summer repeating a transect across the shelf from the head of the Bight. His travels document the degree of uplifted water coming onto the shelf along the bottom and also the development of a deep water salinity maximum (right).




EAC Eddies are coming to Tasmania

Madeleine Cahill
25 August, 2016

Around the globe 2015 was an exceptionally warm year for both land and ocean temperatures. For Tasmania though, the heat continues with sea surface temperatures off the east coast hotter than ever this year. Much of the warming can be attributed to the unusual presence of EAC eddies south of Bass Strait. For example (right) the eddy off NE Tasmania encountered by the Orange Roughy survey team during July this year. Eddies have been tracked travelling down the coast of Tasmania before - what is unusual is the dramatic increase in the size and frequency of these eddies over the last few years.

An estimate of the spatially-averaged eddy kinetic energy¹ (EKE) in the waters off eastern Tasmania shows how much the eddy climate has varied over the last 24 years. Throughout the 1990s, EKE south of Bass Strait (blue line) is much lower than that in the EAC extension region just north of Bass Strait (red line). Prior to the 1990s few eddies got past Bass Strait. After the 1990s EKE increased gradually both north and south of Bass Strait. In the summer of 2014, Tasmanian waters saw a huge spike in eddy activity (8 times the average EKE of the 1990s) and since then it has peaked a number of times to levels much higher than those seen before 2014. In that time, EKE in the EAC extension has also increased, consistent with an increase in the strength of the EAC.

The influence of these eddies goes well beyond the sea surface temperature. Argo floats sampled the eddy pictured above both at its centre and at its outer edge near the continental slope. Temperatures at the centre of the eddy were more than 2° warmer than the year round average between 100 and 400m depth and almost 1° warmer down to 1200m depth. How much the eddy properties impinge on the shelf is highly dependent on the size and path of each eddy but with their greater frequency and size, these eddies will inevitably impact coastal waters.

In July of both 2015 and 2016 there were large eddies off the NE of Tasmania impacting on the eastern Orange Roughy spawning ground during their spawning time. The eddy velocities of over 2 knots (Rudy Kloser, pers comm) persisted for much of the survey² in July this year. How the spawning ground preference and larvae are impacted by the increased temperatures and velocities due to the eddies is unknown at this stage but given that it has occurred now two years in a row we may well find out in the future. Transport within the EAC extension has increased between 1948 and 2014 and is predicted to increase further with climate change. The observed trend in eddy activity over the last 24 years, particularly off Tasmania, is in agreement with the direction of the trend predicted with climate change. The sudden pulses of eddies, which we have seen over the last few years, may be temporary but at this point we cannot be sure. Impacts on the state’s aquaculture and fisheries are similarly unclear at this point but it does appear that the risk of a continuation of recent trends should be taken seriously.

¹ Eddy kinetic energy was estimated using geostrophic currents from the IMOS OceanCurrent gridded sea level anomaly (GSLA DM00).
² The Orange Roughy survey is part of the SETFIA/AFMA/CSIRO ongoing monitoring program.

Is La Niña coming?

Madeleine Cahill
4 July, 2016

The Niño indices have turned. Nino3.4 and the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) have been in the El Niño phase for almost 2 years but they have both just moved weakly into the La Niña phase and everyone is waiting to see what the future holds. 

During La Niña the trade winds are stronger than usual, allowing a warm pool of water to pile up north of New Guinea, and altimeter data is showing us that the sea level is starting to rise (right).  Sea level anomalies north of New Guinea (SLA-NNG) are strongly negatively correlated with Nino3.4 and both indices have recently jumped sharply.

Warm water is more easily evaporated, providing more moisture to weather systems passing over it. With La Niña’s stronger trade winds this moisture is directed over eastern and northern Australia particularly during winter and spring. For Australia, the La Niña event of 2010-2011 was one of the strongest on record, bringing devastating floods to southeast Queensland and Victoria.
The high western Pacific sea level anomaly associated with La Niña has consequences for the west coast of Australia: inducing a strong Leeuwin Current and warmer ocean temperatures. In early 2011, the west coast experienced an unprecedented marine heat wave (Ningaloo Niño) largely due to the strengthening of the Leeuwin Current during the summertime, when it is usually at it’s weakest, assisted by an anomalous heat flux into the ocean. This warming event caused drastic changes in the marine ecosystem and strongly impacted fisheries off the west coast. The Niño indices can give us some indication of what is to come for the summer of 2017 but leading CSIRO scientist, Ming Feng, warns that the contribution of local air-sea coupling remains unpredictable.

June 6 East Coast Low - Epic Waves

Madeleine Cahill and Mark Hemer
8 June, 2016

The satellite altimeters that we use in OceanCurrent for estimating ocean currents also measure the height of the waves. The East Coast Low that has brought flooding to parts of Qld, NSW and Tasmania has also generated huge swell. The downside to these magnificent waves is highlighted by the Bureau of Meteorology putting the coastal regions on high alert. The potential for coastal property damage is increased when the large waves and storm surge occur during king tides. At 8m, the altimeter estimate of significant wave height falls a little short of the predicted 9m but, as the Swellnet team report, the atmospheric build up for this storm set it apart.

Significant wave height measured by altimeters (Jason-2, Cryosat-2 and AltiKa) is plotted over the wavewatch3 forecast heights in the Tasman Sea on 6 June (right). The wave field changes quite quickly so we don't expect a perfect match as the altimeter passes included in this plot are up to 9 hours after and 7 hours before the forecast. The satellite wave measurements complement in-situ wave measurements (e.g., the NSW Manly Hydraulics Lab waverider buoys), by resolving the spatial variability of the wave field over a larger domain. Together, they are used to assess and ultimately improve wave forecast models.

Slocum gliders track sub-surface warming in the Great Barrier Reef

Jessica Benthuysen and Madeleine Cahill
24 May, 2016

In recent months, widespread coral bleaching has been reported from the Northern to the Central Great Barrier Reef (GBR). The main cause of coral bleaching is persistently high sea temperatures. This bleaching event has coincided with a marine heat wave on the GBR where the monthly average sea surface temperature (SST) anomaly for March was greater than 1º for much of the Central GBR, and reaching 2º for much of the Northern GBR.

Since October 2015, IMOS and CSIRO Slocum gliders have traversed this region, tracking the seasonal evolution of coastal waters. The intensive missions were principally planned to help validate the eReefs model but have also provided unprecedented observations of the formation, persistence and now waning of the thermal stress of the GBR waters. Glider pilots remotely navigate the gliders through complex pathways between reefs, which can be challenging with strong currents and tides. Gliders are capable of making observations in places difficult for ships and can stay at sea for several weeks. By sampling the water in see-saw manner, the gliders can reveal how deep the warming extends. By April 2016, glider observations indicated water throughout the water column on the inner shelf was still warmer than historical observations.

While revealing where the warming occurs, the gliders can also show where cooling occurs. A glider transect in Palm Passage, on the outer Central GBR,  detected upwelling, in which cooler water lifts up onto the shelf from offshore. This cool water may provide relief to marine ecosystems sensitive to the marine heatwave. SST from 27 March (below) indicate the outer reef of the Northern GBR, 2-3 degrees cooler, than the inner reef, may be buffered by a combination of upwelling and tidal mixing.

In May 2016 two gliders identified the existence of dense shelf water cascades for the first time in the Central and Northern GBR. These cascades can occur when heat loss during autumn causes waters to cool and become more dense near the coast. Both cascades occurred nearly at the same time off  Port Douglas and the other off Mission Beach south of Cairns. These cascades flow offshore and can cool the communities living near the sea bed. Ongoing glider deployments into winter will inform how long the warming lasts.

Tracking EAC warm core eddies

Gabriela Semolini Pilo, PhD candidate at UTAS/CSIRO
28 April, 2016

The EAC is the ocean boundary current that flows from Queensland to northern NSW. The current usually separates from coast somewhere north of Sydney and then heads west. During the separation process, the EAC forms a large meander that can close off and release large, O(100km)  rotating structures called eddies. These eddies carry the warm and salty EAC waters as they move along the “Eddy Avenue”, from their formation region down to Tasmania. They can bring warm water to swimmers in Bondi but also relocate some tropical species down to temperate Tasmanian waters. What happens to these eddies when they reach Tasmania? Do they just dissipate or do they keep going?

To answer these questions, ocean eddies were tracked in weekly satellite altimetry gridded maps. This tracking is possible due to their signature in Sea Level Anomaly (SLA) fields. As a result of their dynamics and rotation sense, warm core eddies appear in SLA fields as positive anomalies (i.e. their surface height is larger than the ocean’s mean height).
The tracks (see right) of 12 eddies formed in the EAC show their propagation down the east coast of Tasmania, sometimes moving around the island and heading westward towards the Great Australian Bight. This means that the EAC water trapped inside these eddies can reach regions farther than expected. These results suggest that warm core eddies can carry heat and salt from the tropics all the way to the Great Australian Bight. These warm core eddies rotate at ~20 cm/s at formation and propagate at 3-8 cm/s. They can live up to 4 years before slowing down and dissipating completely.
Recently, since February, a warm core eddy carrying surface waters of 18ºC has been slowly cruising along the Eastern Tasmanian coast. This eddy has a diameter of ~250 km and could be as deep as 1000 km. That is equivalent to 6.5 Sydney Towers! Now, the eddy is about to move beyond Tasmania’s southern tip and continue its journey to the far west  (bottom figure).

The full paper on warm core eddies is available here:
Pilo, G. S., P. R. Oke, T. Rykova, R. Coleman, and K. Ridgway (2015), Do East Australian Current anticyclonic eddies leave the Tasman Sea?, J. Geophys. Res. Oceans, 120, 8099–8114, doi:10.1002/2015JC011026.

The EAC Array - Revealing the Boundary Current

31 March, 2016

Ocean western boundary currents redistribute heat around the world and have a profound effect on the world’s climate. The East Australian Current (EAC) is the major pole-ward flowing current of the South Pacific. It provides the dominant mechanism for transporting heat from the equatorial Pacific to the cooler mid-latitudes. Satellite observations show the spatial extent and variability at the surface but the subsurface velocities and properties can extend to depths of thousands of meters and remain largely unknown.

Data from the first deployment, April 2012-August 2013, reveal the complexity and dynamic nature of the EAC, including the offshore return flow and the episodic nature of the deep northward undercurrent. The EAC array was designed to capture the entire breadth and depth of the flow. For this reason it was placed off Brisbane where the current is almost at full strength and still in jet form rather than as a complex eddy field found further south. Even so, there are a few days in June 2012 when a rarely occurring eddy pushes the main stream of the EAC further offshore than the 150km extent of the array.

Data from the initial 18-month deployment has been calibrated and extensively quality controlled. Tidal signals have been filtered out and for ease of interpretation the data have been interpolated onto a regular grid (10m vertical, 2km horizontal resolution).  These data provide a significant advance in our understanding and begin to expose the complexity of the system. The original dataset is available for download from IMOS. Further details of the deployment, initial results and data preparation are presented in Sloyan et al, 2016

Port to Pub Swim - Ocean Forecast

17 March, 2016

The inaugural Port to Pub race, from Fremantle to Rottnest, is on this Saturday and we have adjusted our swim optimizer to help swimmers make the ocean work for them.  The forecast is in and, as for the Rottnest swim in February, conditions are looking good for a fast swim. The currents are forecast to be weak (less than half a knot) and the winds from the east so the waves will be small. The hourly forecast velocity fields, provided once again by the Oceans Institute of the University of Western Australia, can be viewed using the arrows at the top of the optimizer. The fastest swimmers will find the currents very weak most of the way and may even get a slight assist as they approach Rottnest. Slower swimmers will feel the effects of a weak southward flow, which is expected to develop from 1pm onwards.

We have not factored in the extra 5km loop for those brave swimmers who are taking on the extra challenge but you can still use the optimizer for the remainder of the race across the channel by adjusting the start time of your swim. Of course, the forecast currents may differ from those that are experienced on the day. We wish all swimmers a safe swim and a great day.

Rottnest Channel Swim - Forecast Update

26 February, 2016

Today’s updated forecast is for weaker northward currents than previously forecast and only occuring in the morning. Later in the day, the forecast is for westward flow providing a small boost to slower swimmers and those starting in the later wave times. The westward flow, however, is highly dependent on small scale weather features which are hard to predict.

For the early wave times heading slightly south may still pay off but for anyone who will be still be swimming after noon then heading straight for the finish line is probably your best bet.

You can optimize your swim time based on the ocean current predictions by the Oceans Institute of the University of Western Australia. The ocean forecast depends on the weather forecast, which may change. Our last update is Friday morning.

Rottnest Channel Swim - The Forecast Is In

25 February, 2016

Forecast currents for the race on Saturday are weak currents inshore with northward flow gradually increasing in strength across the approach to Rottnest Island. If these conditions prevail on the day most swimmers will benefit by heading slightly south of the finish line until within a few kilometers of Rottnest. You can optimize your swim time based on the ocean current predictions by the Oceans Institute of the University of Western Australia. The ocean forecast depends on the weather forecast, which may change. Our last update is Friday morning.



The Bonney Coast Upwelling: biological hotspot sampled by an IMOS glider

17 February, 2016

 An IMOS Slocum glider is presently making the most detailed survey ever conducted of the bio-physical properties of a Bonney Coast upwelling event. The dissolved oxygen data are perhaps the most exciting: percent saturation values exceeded 150 within the upwelled water on 3 Feb, confirming that the phytoplankton were very actively photo-synthesizing, producing much more oxygen than was lost to the atmosphere. You can step through the mission seeing either 4 days or 12 days of the mission track at a time.

Excepting some spurious measurements affected by bio-fouling, values this high have not been seen in Australian waters by the glider fleet. The closest comparison was in upwelled waters inshore of the East Australian Current near Coffs Harbour in Dec 2010, but these may have been affected by bio-fouling. The present mission DO data are not suspicious, because the high readings occurred early in the mission.

The Bonney Coast is the 200km-long stretch of narrow continental shelf near Portland, Vic, that is famous (especially, but not only, in marine scientist circles) for its periods of summer-time wind-driven upwelling. Upwelling events are routinely evident in satellite imagery but rarely sampled extensively at sea. MODIS estimates of chlorophyll-a show that the present event is not an extraordinary one. The track of the glider can be seen in the image at left as a blue line at bottom right. See also the chlorophyll-a images for 1 Feb and onwards, and/or sea surface temperature images.

Sydney-Hobart ocean currents

24 December, 2015

This year, there are two anticlockwise-rotating warm-core eddies and one clockwise-rotating cold-core eddy influencing the current speeds that the competitors in the Sydney-Hobart yacht race will encounter. The cold eddy is off Sydney-Jervis Bay and tending to block the southward flow of warm East Australian Current water. If it has moved little, or west since this 18 Dec image was acquired then yachts may encounter very little current during the first section of the race. South of Jervis Bay, however, the situation is probably very different, because of the detached warm-core eddy off southern NSW, where yachts are likely to find strong tail-current. The third player is the large, but possibly not very energetic, warm-core eddy spanning much of Bass Strait as well as much of the east coast of Tasmania. In between, or embedded within, these large systems are several smaller cold-core features which should also be watched. We wish all competitors a safe but challenging race.

A record of record sea surface temperatures

21 December, 2015

Sea surface temperatures around the globe have been exceptionally warm this year. The 2015 ‘godzilla’ El Niño is responsible for much of the warming in the equatorial Pacific, but the Indian Ocean has been quite warm too. Both oceans contribute to Australia’s climate and a record warming year could have dire consequences for already dry regions of our continent and our neighbours.


The warming has been so significant that record warm temperatures have been reached in many places (red contours in plot). In fact this year, more of the ocean has broken records than any other year since 1981.
Figures compliment of Phil Reid at the Bureau of Meteorology.

MH370: Are they searching in the right place?

13 November, 2015

There has been speculation in the media that the on-going sea-floor search for MH370 is being conducted in the wrong area. This speculation rests on modelling that suggested that the flaperon found on La Reunion on 29 July 2015 probably entered the ocean more than 1000km north of the present sea floor search area. This speculation is at odds with CSIRO, who concluded that the finding of the flaperon “did not cast doubt” on the sea-floor search area.

The difference of opinion depends on whether the flaperon is assumed to drift at the average velocity of the ocean’s surface mixed-layer, or whether winds and waves impart an additional velocity. CSIRO argue that the effect of winds and waves cannot be ignored, because the flaperon must have floated within the uppermost few meters of the ocean, where it would have been subject to the Stokes drift, no matter how little freeboard it had to prevent it from sinking.

Perhaps confusingly, ‘surface drifters’ do not measure surface drift. They are fitted with sub-surface sea-anchors (‘drogues’) to avoid the effects of winds and waves (i.e. the Stokes Drift). But these drifters inevitably lose their drogues, at which point, argue CSIRO, their trajectories become the best available guide to the likely drift of the flaperon. But the number of drifters traversing the Indian Ocean in the last 30 years is not large, especially if the data set is sub-setted for the times of year appropriate to the drift of the flaperon. Joining near-intersecting trajectories together, however, provides a much larger number of 508d-long trajectories, which is how long the flaperon was in the water.
Analysis of these composite trajectories suggests that the present sea floor search area is certainly within the area of likely origin of the flaperon, as shown below.
For more information, see http://www.marine.csiro.au/~griffin/MH370/index.html

Sea level in the western equatorial Pacific drops dramatically

15 July, 2015

 The month-average of sea level north of New Guinea has dropped to levels not seen since the ‘super El Niño’ of 1997/1998. An El Niño event occurs when sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific become sufficiently warm that the atmospheric circulation shifts resulting in weaker equatorial trade winds. Low sea levels north of New Guinea (a result of weak equatorial trade winds) are strongly correlated with Nino3.4, the El Niño index that relates best to Australian climate.

The Bureau of Meteorology declared 2015 an El Niño year in mid-May. Sea levels north of New Guinea have continued to drop sharply since then. The map at right shows the June 2015 SLA for the Australasian region, while the time-series below shows that the average for the region north of PNG  (boxed on the map) has only been lower once before since 1992 when satellite sea level observations commenced.

Low sea levels in the western equatorial Pacific are also strongly correlated with the strength of the Leeuwin Current. There is a two month delay between the sea level anomaly off Perth and the region north of New Guinea. The low sea level signal propagates southward along the west coast of Australia weakening the Leeuwin Current and causing water temperatures to be cooler.

Extraordinary eddies of the East Australian Current probed by RV Investigator

17 June, 2015

Australia's new research vessel RV Investigator has performed brilliantly this month during a voyage led by Prof Iain Suthers of UNSW. The 
principal objective of the voyage was an ambitious one: to locate then study the ecological role of one or more frontal eddies. Frontal eddies 
('freddies') are small, short-lived, rapidly-rotating cyclonic (clockwise) eddies that form inshore of the main flow of the East Australian Current.

Larger mesoscale eddies associated with the meandering of the EAC itself were also the subject of the voyage, and since an extraordinary example of a large cold-core eddy happened to be off Brisbane at the start of the voyage, Investigator sampled it from 3 June to 6 June, as shown at right. Note the northward flow where the EAC normally flows southward along the continental margin.

On 6 June Iain and his team were excited to see evidence in IMOS SST imagery of the formation of a ~30km-diameter freddy at 32° 20'S, 153° 30'E (50km off Forster) and by 9 June several transects of it had been completed, delivering a wealth of information from the ship's suite of sensors and nets. As anticipated, the ship recorded elevated levels of fluorescence in the freddy, indicative of higher concentrations of chlorophyll-a. See our technical news item if you wish to explore the voyage in more detail.

By massive coincidence, the French-Indian AltiKa satellite (one of the altimeter missions on which OceanCurrent depends for sea level information) overflew the centre of the freddy on 9 June, so the matchup of ship and satellite observations will help us interpret the combined dataset in the light of the historical archive of altimetry. The freddy is too small to be resolved in our 2D gridded maps but the central depression of 15cm is clear in the raw along-track data, consistent with ship observations of ~1m/s rotational speed.

Slocum glider missions reveal pools of dense shelf water - the 'winter cascade'

5 June, 2015

The Australian National Facility for Ocean Gliders has recently found pockets of dense ‘winter cascade’ water at a surprising number of locations over the continental shelf. These dense pools of shelf water have increasingly been revealed with the high-resolution repeat sampling possible with ocean gliders.

The Winter Cascade was first described by Godfrey et al, 1980, with reference to Bass Strait. The mechanism is simple. Sea temperatures are significantly warmer than air temperatures in winter so the ocean loses heat to the atmosphere. Cooled surface water sinks as a consequence of its density increasing. In shallow water, where there is no deep reservoir of heat, the whole water column can cool down nearly to air temperature. Once dense enough, the cold coastal water slides down the sloping sea floor as a ‘gravity current’ to form a distinct layer underneath the warmer offshore waters.

Four recent Slocum glider missions around Australia (Spencer Gulf, Two Rocks in WA, the Kimberley and Yamba NSW) have all just recently encountered dense shelf water pools. How do we distinguish the winter cascade from upwelling? Its not always clear-cut, but distinguishing features of winter cascade are that 1) the coldest, saltiest water is at the coast, 2) it usually occurs on a wide shallow shelf and 3) it is found after cold winds occur, typically off the land, rather than from the upwelling-favourable direction.

What does a warm North Pacific mean for us?

7 May, 2015
Figure from http://www.oceannetworks.ca/warm-northeast-pacific-ocean-conditions-continue-2015

Early analysis of the warm SST in the North East Pacific is showing temperature anomalies exceeding 4 standard deviations above the mean. This warming began in 2013 and it has been suggested that this may be a new sort of phenomenon not seen before in modern records (http://www.oceannetworks.ca/warm-northeast-pacific-ocean-conditions-continue-2015). Given there is such a significant warming over a long time period, will this have any effect on Australia and our surrounding oceans?

Warming patterns in the north Pacific are often associated with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). The PDO is also linked to ENSO and hence Australian climate. There are no indications to suggest, however, that the PDO or ENSO were drivers of this exceptional warming. Early analysis and discussion on forums are linking this warming to a weaker than average Aleutian Low pressure system in the atmosphere.

Such a big change in the state of the north Pacific could have indirect effects on the development of other climate modes such as ENSO and the PDO, particularly through changes in the strength of the Aleutian Low. Without historical analogues it is difficult to anticipate how the coming year will play out and whether this warming amplifies later this year if an El Niño develops.

NSW floodwaters seen from space and by an IMOS glider

1 May, 2015

The storms that hit the Hunter Valley region of NSW on 21-22 April 2015 caused much flooding as well as damage from winds and huge waves. River discharge mixes with seawater to form a buoyant mixture that can take some time to disperse, depending on the influence of winds and ocean currents. The MODIS satellite image for 25 April says much about the way dispersal works in the ocean. A thin tendril of floodwater, coded yellow-orange in this image, can be seen stretched out along the boundary that already existed between the low-chlorophyll waters of the East Australian Current (coded blue) and the Tasman Sea waters shown in green. Most of the buoyant plume was still close to the coast on 25 April, its seaward edge marked by a sharp but irregular boundary. We will see over the next few weeks where this mass of water goes.

The satellite is not our only way of investigating this significant event. An IMOS Slocum glider was also on the job. Its track is shown in magenta overlain on the MODIS images. Its sensors very clearly distinguish the floodwaters from the ocean waters, especially through the impact on the water's salinity and fluorescence. Click forward from 26 April to see the glider encounter, then depart from, the buoyant pool of floodwaters. The observations during the latter half of 30 April show how the seaward edge of the plume is over-ridden by the EAC water because the temperature effect on density is winning against the freshness effect. High estimates of Coloured Dissolved Organic Matter (CDOM, shown on the ANFOG site) in the low-salinity water suggest that the MODIS estimates of Chlorophyll are probably being 'tricked' by high levels of CDOM as well as by the suspended sediments, but nevertheless, can be used to monitor the dispersal of floodwaters. One very important consequence of the runoff may be the input of nutrients (nitrate, phosphate and silicate) to the Tasman Sea ecosystem. A bloom of diatoms (the preferred prey of many zooplankton, but rarely abundant off NSW) may result from this flood. Shown at right is the diatom Ditylum brightwellii.

El Nino Brewing

24 April, 2015

In the March-April-May period it is difficult to reliably predict the upcoming ENSO phase (known as the Spring Persistence Barrier) until sometime in June or July. Nevertheless, all the signs are there.

The big indicator for an upcoming El Nino is warmer than average temperatures along the equatorial thermocline. This is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for an El Nino to develop. March subsurface temperatures from the Bureau of Meteorology appear to be 4°C above average in the central Pacific. What we are waiting for now is to see if the atmosphere will couple to the ocean to kick off the event. Often this can occur when a Madden Julian Oscillation (MJO) develops over the western Pacific creating a downwelling equatorial Kelvin wave, and giving the already deepened thermocline an extra push.

Warm Sea Surface Temperature anomalies are also appearing, but only in the central Pacific. Typical El Nino events require a warming in the eastern Pacific as well. Recently however the 'central-Pacific' type El Ninos have appeared where the warming is primarily in the central regions.

On a cautionary note, very similar conditions appeared in April of 2014 and El Nino events were predicted with a 70% chance of occurring. The warm anomalies dissipated however, though the reasons why are still being explored.

Shelf-edge fronts and boundary currents

16 April, 2015

We have just finished updating all our high-resolution imagery [technical news item]. Two ocean colour images caught our eye. Both show very sharp colour changes between the clear (low-chlorophyll) waters of Australia's warm, southward-flowing boundary currents and higher-chlorophyll coastal waters that are being drawn offshore by the meanderings of those boundary currents.

Off Perth, the coastal waters were being drawn into a large anticyclonic Leewin Current eddy on 27 Mar 2009. Two IMOS Slocum gliders [1] [2] sampled the water over the continental shelf out to the front, confirming that what we see from the surface is indicative of the higher chlorophyll at depth (measured via fluorescence) but certainly not the whole story.

Off Sydney, three IMOS current meter moorings recorded northward motion of the inner-shelf waters on 18 Dec 2013. This is something our estimation of geostrophic velocities is blind to, but is key to understanding the way the eddy-shedding process of the East Australian Current and shelf-slope exchange are linked.

Summer sea surface temperature summary

26 February, 2015

Summer is often the time when unusual ocean temperatures have the widest range of impacts, from recreational to life-threatening. Tropical Cyclones Marcia and Lam have just left trails of destruction in Queensland and the Northern Territory and, as usual, the question is whether anomalous ocean temperatures contributed to their strength.

The answer to this question lies not in analysis of just the ocean's surface temperature (e.g. our maps of 6-day-average anomalies), because a cyclone needs a deep reservoir of heat for growth, not just a shallow one. That said, the Argo measurements of sub-surface temperature, like the satellite images of surface temperature, were close to normal off NE Australia. The areas of significant temperature anomalies (not all positive) were farther west and/or south. The most conspicuous of these are the positive anomalies off the NW and SE, and some isolated negative anomalies near the coast.

The Tasmanian anomaly is mainly due to the East Australian Current continuing to bring more warm water southwards than usual (see https://theconversation.com/things-warm-up-as-the-east-australian-current-heads-south-31889). The graph at right shows that the difference from usual in summer was positive, but not as great as the previous winter, when average sea surface temperature (SST) of the ocean off Eastern Tasmania remained over 1 degree above average. The result of this sustained anomaly was a change in marine life with more tuna and unusual species such as jellyfish appearing on Tasmanian beaches.

South Australia, on the other hand, has had strong wind-driven upwelling since mid-January. Cold water due to upwelling is a usual summer occurence, but this year it was particularly strong.

Less commonly observed are the relatively cold shelf temperatures seen several times this summer as far north of Perth as Jurien, where coastal upwelling appears to have been happening.

Northward Currents predicted and observed for the Rottnest Channel Swim

25 February, 2015

The Oceans Institute of the University of Western Australia have now compared the IMOS HF radar measurements of surface currents (made during the race) with the model forecast issued before the race. These maps below (click to see them enlarged) show the 'bigger picture', showing how the currents in the shallower waters of the continental shelf were going northwards while the currents off the continental shelf were going southwards, as is often the case. The radar does not have such fine spatial detail as the model but does confirm the general pattern, as well as the increasing northward velocities that were forecast. See also the satellite image closest to the time (06:56Z=1456WST) of the race. The radars (northern system in magenta, southern system in red) have detected the northward shelf flow. The altimetry (black vectors) is often blind to these reversals, and is not yet available for the day of the race. The thermal image confirms the usual association of northward winds and flow with upwelling of waters from depth.

Northward Currents predicted for the Rottnest Channel Swim

20 February, 2015

The Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting southerly winds (15-20 km/h) at dawn then turning south to south-westerly and strengthening (20-30 km/h) in the late morning.

The Oceans Institute of the University of Western Australia ocean current forecast is for northward currents throughout the race, weak near the coast and strongest (0.25 m/s at midday) after the 15 km mark, as shown in the images below.

Northward currents are anticipated to increase from midday due to the sea breeze, making the approach to the island most difficult near the cutoff time.

Click on the images below to see them enlarged.

Rottnest Channel Swim pre-race briefing

13 February, 2015

On Friday 20 February we will show the Oceans Institute of the University of Western Australia ocean current forecast for the following day's race. In the mean time, see our constantly-updated maps of ocean data for the Rottnest Island region and the following introductory material by Prof Chari Pattiaratchi of UWA:

Currents along the Perth Metropolitan coastal area respond to wind patterns. The tides have little influence. During the summer months, the wind pattern between Cottesloe and Rottnest Island is usually dominated by the land/sea breeze system. In the morning, the wind is easterly (i.e. blows from the land to the ocean). During the late morning to early afternoon, the sea breeze changes direction to blow from the south or south-southwest. The sea breeze is usually both much stronger and longer lasting over the ocean than over the land. All of these factors mean that the prevailing currents are usually northward, particularly after several days of sea breezes. This dominant pattern is illustrated above right.

The next most common weather pattern for the region features strong easterly winds. The current at these times flows southwards (below right). This happens when we have several really hot days (i.e. high 30's+) in a row. This is what happened in last year's race .

The current accelerates locally as it flows around Rottnest Island, so currents are stronger along both ends of the island. As the swimmers start off from Cottesloe, the currents will probably be weak and not have much influence. However, as the swimmers get closer to Rottnest Island (about 2-3 km away) they are more likely to experience strong currents. The direction of the currents would depend on the prevailing wind conditions (see above). These currents may be strong (up to 1 knot or 0.5 m/s).