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Round-the-world sailors help NOAA gather data in Southern Ocean to improve forecasts
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Round-the-world sailors help NOAA gather data in Southern Ocean to improve forecasts

NOAA’s Drifter program will catch a lift with Volvo Ocean Race

If you’ve ever sailed aboard a ship in the ocean, or checked a weather report before heading to the beach, then you are one of many millions of people who benefit from ocean observations. NOAA collects ocean observations and weather data to provide mariners with accurate forecasts of seas, coastal weather forecasts and regional climate predictions. It takes a lot of effort to maintain observations in all of the ocean basins to support these forecasts, and NOAA can't do it alone. Partnerships are essential to maintaining a network of free-floating, data-gathering buoys known as drifters. NOAA’s latest partner is not your typical research or ocean transportation vessel: the six sailboats and crew currently racing around the world in the Volvo Ocean Race.

As one of the world’s major global sailing races, the Volvo Ocean Race depends on accurate predictions of ocean currents and marine weather. The sailors’ lives depend on it. The fifth leg of the race will depart Aukland, New Zealand, on Sunday, March 15 and travel through the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean before rounding Cape Horn and ending in Itajai, Brazil.  All six of the Volvo Ocean Race teams will deploy a drifter, a free-floating sensor measuring surface pressure and ocean currents. The drifter transmits the information by satellite to NOAA from the Southern Ocean – a region oceanographers don't visit regularly, but one that is important to observe.

“The Southern Ocean is poorly sampled compared to other ocean basins because it is so remote from most shipping lanes where observations are collected,” says Rick Lumpkin, Ph.D., who directs the component of the Global Drifter Program at NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami. “However, it plays a critical role in global ocean circulation and climate. It links the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, so it is extremely important to observe currents and temperatures there.”

Lumpkin added: “I would have them deploy 30 drifters in that region if they could. Shipping drifters to Aukland is much cheaper than paying for ship time.”

The operations center of the Global Drifter Program, housed at NOAA’s AOML, continuously seeks opportunities to deploy drifters in remote regions where ocean observing platforms are needed.

Martin Kramp, the ship coordinator for the Joint Technical Commission for Oceanography and Marine Meteorology of the World Meteorological Organization and UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, helped coordinate this unique partnership for NOAA.

“Organized ocean sailing events, such as races and rallies, are a new type of volunteer ocean observation,” explained Kramp. “We have shown the feasibility and efficiency of such partnerships in the last months and we are very happy that the Volvo Ocean Race is collaborating with us as a part of the current race.”

Each of the six racing teams will deploy their drifter at the same predetermined coordinates. As soon as they are in the water, they will drift with ocean surface currents and transmit data on surface pressure and ocean currents through a global satellite network. 

“The oceans are our race tracks and we are delighted we can help build knowledge about them in this way,” said Knut Frostad, chief executive officer of the Volvo Ocean Race. “I look forward to following the data from the drifters that our fleet drops as they race through the Southern Ocean, passing some of the most remote locations on the planet.”

To see data collected by NOAA's Drifter Program, go online to NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory:

More information on the Volvo Ocean Race can be found at:

For more information please contact Monica Allen, director of public affairs for NOAA Oceanic and Atmospheric Research at 301-734-1123 or by email at


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Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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