After sending a fleet of autonomous Saildrones into the path of Hurricane Sam to help improve forecast models, Saildrone has now launched three uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs) on a mission to sail through the North Atlantic’s swiftest current: the Gulf Stream. For six months, these vehicles will collect critical, in situ data that will help scientists improve weather forecasts and carbon accounting.
The mission is being led by scientists from the University of Rhode Island (URI) and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF). The ocean drones will brave some of the harshest ocean conditions on earth, collecting data in areas that traditional crewed ships cannot tolerate. They will be collecting data within the Gulf Stream through the winter months in hopes of learning more about carbon uptake – the process by which oceans absorb carbon.
“There is a lot of uncertainty in ocean carbon uptake – nearly 4 billion tons of CO2 separates the average of the model-based estimates from observation-based estimates. That’s nearly as much CO2 as is emitted by the US [about 5 billion tons] each year!” said Jaime Palter, a scientist at the University of Rhode Island who is co-leading the research. “With more in situ observations, we can do better.”
Dramatically increasing in situ observations of ocean carbon uptake is critical to reducing uncertainty in global carbon estimates. This is necessary for addressing global warming and holding countries accountable for lowering emissions.
Saildrone Explorers are well equipped for the risky Gulf Stream mission, having already successfully sailed across the Atlantic in both directions. These vessels are powered by solar and wind, leaving no carbon footprint. A group of Saildrone USVs equipped with a special “hurricane wing” recently captured the first-ever live video from inside the eye of the Atlantic category 4 Hurricane Sam. Another custom model traveled more than 13,670 miles (22,000 km) in 196 days to become the first autonomous vehicle to circumnavigate Antarctica.
The mission will operate in the North Atlantic, the vehicles sailing back and forth across the Gulf Stream for six months. This voyage could push the Saildrones even harder through the harsh winter months of the northern Atlantic. Data will be sent via satellite in near real-time to help scientists at ECMWF improve their earth-system approach to forecasting and those at the University of Rhode Island working to quantify the Gulf Stream’s role in carbon uptake and predict its stability or vulnerability in the future. The three Saildrone Explorers are expected to be retrieved in Newport, RI, in mid-2022.