Science collaboration to unlock the secrets of ocean currents off Australia’s North-West Shelf

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A research collaboration between the University of Western Australia and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) will enable the prediction of strong currents along the north-west coast, with future applications for industry, search and rescue and protection.

Little is currently known about spiral eddies, tidal currents and how the ocean responds to tropical cyclones in the region – dynamic ocean processes that cause operational problems for coastal industries.

UWA and AIMS researchers partnering in the ARC Research Center for Transforming Energy Infrastructure through Digital Engineering (TIDE) are deploying sophisticated sensors and collecting seawater samples in the Browse Basin north-west of Broome in Western Australia.

The fieldwork coincided with detailed mapping by the NASA/CNES (Center for National Studies in Space) SWOT (Surface Water and Ocean Topography) satellite, launched in December 2022, and performed during rapid sampling.

Image: The wire-walker is ready to be deployed to collect data on turbidity, temperature, water clarity and chlorophyll. Photo credit: Andrew Zulberti, AIMS

The combined data set is incorporated into ocean models to accurately predict what is happening beneath the sea floor.

TDE Deputy Director and physical oceanographer Professor Nicole Jones from UWA’s Graduate School of Oceans said the aim of the project was to create knowledge and tools to guide decision-making by those working in the exploratory basin through improved understanding of the offshore environment.

“Strong currents in the region are variable and difficult to predict. They can range from 100 meters to 100 km and last for hours or days,” Professor Jones said.

“Present predictors cannot predict these temporal processes because we have not yet adequately measured or characterized them.

“Our research focuses on determining how we can use the new SWOT satellite data to better understand these temporal processes, leading to predictive models that bring greater certainty and understanding to organizations operating in the region.”

AIMS project leader and physical oceanographer Dr. Jessica Benthuysen said a team of scientists deployed instruments from the AIMS research vessel Solander to measure ocean properties and surface-to-ocean currents.

This consists of a vertical microstructure profiler that looks a bit like an exhaust wiper brush. The device measures small movements – turbulence – with very sensitive probes.

“Also, we have deployed crews who have been collecting ocean data for six weeks.

“In the following years, the team will analyze the data and develop products that can be translated into industrial tools.

“Improved forecasting will help beach operators make better operational decisions and ensure safety for their people and the environment.”

The TIDE Research Center (www.tide.edu.au) was established in 2021 with funding from the Australian Research Council, several major industry partners, UWA and the University of Wollongong. AIMS is a partner in TIDE along with other national and international organizations.

A rolling ocean



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