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Messages in a Bottle: Ocean Feature Mapping

In celebration of our 150th anniversary, we’ve taken a look at just how far ocean mapping technology has come—from drifting bottles and aerial observations to satellite imagery, GPS drifters, and computerized oceanographic models.

 image shows four panels arranged left to right and from background to foreground. The leftmost panel shows a hand drawn map of New Jersey from the 19th century. The next panel shows a map of isotherms on the East Coast. The next panel shows a computer generated map of ocean currents in the Mid-Atlantic Bight and the rightmost panel shows a globe of the Earth with satellite imagery.

Who hasn’t looked out at the ocean and wondered where the waves and currents would take them, or walked along the beach in hopes to find a message in a bottle? Over the years, NOAA scientists have studied and mapped the ocean’s currents and features to help answer questions about fish migrations, larval transport, and how nutrients are carried through the water.

The ocean is not a big, uniform bowl of water. It has rivers of different density water flowing through it and ever changing, and spinning pools of water that trap nutrients and plankton in their currents. In order to understand how these features affect marine animals, we must first be able to map them. Take a quick tour with us and learn how our scientists started mapping ocean features by making visual observations, throwing bottles out of planes, measuring temperatures from space, and tracking waves with radar.  

Early Mapping

image shows two panels side by side. The panel on the left is a monotone chart of ocean depths and channels. The panel on the right shows a hand drawn map of sand deposits in two New Jersey estuaries. Coastlines are drawn at various years from 1835 to 1920.
Left, an 1844 chart of depths, channels, and sand bars in Raritan Bay, NJ off the tip of Sandy Hook. Right, a time-series chart of sand deposits and the changing shape of the coastline of Sandy Hook and Barnegat Inlet, NJ from the 1920s. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jeffrey Pessutti

Early mapping of ocean dynamics was done by ships at sea and through land-based observations. Tidal observations and coastal sand deposits gave early indications of the continuously moving ocean environment. Before aerial photographs, GPS positioning, and computer printing, scientists relied on hand-drawn maps and what they could see to research the forces that influence the movement of marine animals. 

Advances in the 1960s

 image shows three panels side by side. A small panel on the left shows a person’s hand near the paper output of a scientific instrument. The middle panel shows two people operating instruments aboard an aircraft. One person is standing looking down at the instrument and the other is seated, looking out the plane’s window. The panel to the right is a hand drawn chart of isotherms.
Scientists aboard an amphibious aircraft measure and record sea-surface temperatures using infrared radiation thermography and a paper-strip chart recorder. A map of sea surface temperature isotherms produced as a result of aerial surveys. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jeffrey Pessutti

In the 1960s, advances in physics and aviation led to an exciting new method of ocean feature observation. Scientists from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Sandy Hook Laboratory in New Jersey flew aerial surveys aboard a U.S. Coast Guard Albatross aircraft. They used infrared radiation thermography to map sea-surface temperatures. Infrared radiation thermography is a method of detecting radiant heat emissions—in this case from the ocean—and converting those readings to temperatures. A Varian Associates strip-chart recorder printed the sea-surface temperatures captured by the infrared radiometry thermometer. Sea-surface temperatures collected on these monthly flights could then be associated with aerial sighting and other records of aquatic organisms along the Atlantic continental shelf.

Image is a collage of three panels. The panel on the left shows drifter bottles in a bag.  a researcher aboard an aircraft seated in front of a navigational chart. The center panel shows a person’s hand throwing a drifter bottle out of the window of a plane. A Coast Guard propeller engined aircraft hovers at the top of the collage. The third panel shows a view of an ocean current front taken from an aircraft.
Drifter bottles released by Northeast Fisheries Science Center scientists from the U.S. Coast Guard Grumman UF-1G Albatross aircraft during aerial surveys in the 1960s. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jeffrey Pessutti

By 1969, researchers had recorded more than 10,000 observations of fishes, turtles, and marine mammals, in addition to thousands of transect miles of surface temperature. They had released more than 70,000 drift bottles and sea bed drifters. These photographs were likely taken aboard the Grumman UF-1G Albatross, an amphibious U.S. Coast Guard plane. This plane was the primary aircraft model used in the Sandy Hook Laboratory’s monthly infrared radiometry aerial surveys.

People, Collaboration, and Shared Networks

 Image shows two panels side by side. The first panel shows a radar antenna. The second panel shows four people standing on the shore at the side of a GPS-enabled current drifter. One person is holding the drifter and two people are holding kayak oars.
Left - An early high frequency radar antenna from Rutgers University’s CODAR™ current array. Right - A GPS enabled current drifter is about to be deployed from a kayak. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jeffrey Pessutti

Advances in the field of ocean feature mapping aren’t just the result of new equipment and instruments. People and collaborative projects have increased our understanding of ocean dynamics. Consortia of government, academic, and industry scientists have created shared networks of oceanographic data. Scientists from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center relied on data from Rutgers University’s high-frequency radar array to identify current circulation patterns that influence fish movements. Fishermen and students have built and deployed GPS-enabled drifters, and center scientists have made these data available to the public.

Big Data and Powerful Computer Models

 image shows three panels. The panel on the left shows a satellite cloud cover image of the United States. The center panel shows a colorful sea surface temperature map of the east coast with a weather satellite imposed over the corner of the map. The third panel shows moving white vector lines of current patterns off the East Coast.
Left to right: A cloud-cover image over the United States taken from a NOAA satellite, a sea-surface temperature map of the Eastern United States generated from multiple NOAA satellite images, and a surface-current vector display generated from a computerized oceanographic model using the Regional Ocean Modeling System. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jeffrey Pessutti

Today, scientists use the power of community science, satellites in orbit, GPS drifters and powerful, computerized ocean models. They have a much greater understanding of the dynamics of our oceans than the early days of hand-drawn maps and at-sea observations. This wealth of data can be used to better understand fish movements, the development of algal blooms, and the changes to the ecosystem. It is exciting to think what the next 150 years of ocean technology and research will bring.

For more information, please contact Jeff Pessutti