The fourth story in this multi-part feature on gliders in the Gulf focuses on a partnership between GCOOS industry, government, and academic members.

Figure 1. MARS rig platform, Gulf of Mexico (Credit: Shell)

Figure 1. MARS rig platform, Gulf of Mexico (Credit: Shell)

The fourth story of this multi-part feature on gliders in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) shifts from industry operations to collaborative research involving GCOOS members in industry, government, military, and academia. Shell, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Data Buoy Center (NOAA NDBC), National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP), United States Naval Academy (USNA), Integrated Ocean Observing Systems (IOOS), and the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) are working together to operate a profiling glider to collect real-time data for improving hurricane intensity predictions. The project is currently in its second year of operation with the goal to improve real-time hurricane intensity forecast. It is a compliment to other oceanography missions, such as the deployment of Airborne Expendable Bathythermographs (AXBTs), which measure temperature as a function of depth, from the NOAA’s Hurricane Hunter aircraft monitoring hurricane development and progress.

Over the past 20 years, hurricane forecasting research has significantly advanced the lead time for tracking hurricanes. However, the improvements in intensity forecasting have been statistically insignificant. One of the problems with forecasting hurricane intensity is the ability to understand the heat transfer from the ocean to the hurricane and describing this interaction in a real-time prediction model. This problem was underscored during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, in which the intensities were difficult to predict, and both hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast as large, high-level storms.

Figure 2.  Video profile of Seaglider™ diving and surfacing in the Gulf of Mexico  (Click to view video, Credit: Shell & NOAA)

Figure 2. Video profile of Seaglider™ diving and surfacing in the Gulf of Mexico (Credit: Shell & NOAA)

In 2006 at the first State of the Gulf Summit, Shell and NOAA initiated an agreement to explore the use of Shell’s offshore assets to augment NOAA’s efforts for meteorological and oceanographic observations. The collaborative goal was to improve the understanding of the forces created during hurricanes and tropical storms in the Gulf of Mexico, and increase precision in storm severity forecasting. In 2008, then NOAA Administrator Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher and then Shell Oil Company President John Hofmeister signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) to explore collaboratively the use of novel technologies and existing resources to improve tropical storm and hurricane predictions.

To read more about this MoA, please visit

This collaboration leverages complementary strengths between industry and government: NOAA’s scientific expertise with Shell’s significant offshore experience and infrastructure (Fig.1). For Shell, the improvements in storm severity predictions help protect their workers and better engineer and protect onshore and offshore assets for increased survivability. For NOAA, ocean observing and hurricane modeling are identified as top current and future research priorities, especially in the Gulf of Mexico. Partnering with Shell helps NOAA to obtain new information and data from data-sparse areas in the Gulf necessary to improve hurricane forecasting.

The glider program was developed to support one of the collaboration objectives to measure upper ocean heat content. The glider used is a Seaglider™ (technology developed by the University of Washington and now licensed to Kongsberg). It uses adjustable buoyancy to move through the water column in a saw-tooth like pattern, diving down to depths of 1000 meters (Fig. 2). Once at the surface, the Seaglider™ rotates to put its tail fin and antenna out of the water to transmit a GPS location, stored data, and receive updated commands from shore-based pilots.

The Seaglider™ is used to collect water column temperature data (surface to depths of 1000 meters) to better define ocean heat content during pre-storm and post-storm conditions. The data collected will provide insights into the ocean mixing that occurs in the deep Gulf by providing real-time data for the Hybrid Coordinate Ocean Model (HYCOM), a global ocean model run by the Naval Research Laboratory, and assimilated into NCEP’s coupled Hurricane Weather Forecasting Model (HWRF).

Glider operations started in 2012 with a three-month mission, which was re-run in 2013. This past hurricane season the Seaglider™ was in the water over three months (July 5 until October 9) and collected over 1080 profiles of temperature and salinity (Fig.3). In addition 406 dissolved oxygen profiles and 146 color dissolved organic matter (CDOM) profiles were collected. The glider covered over 1200 nautical miles of ocean surface (Fig. 4).

Figure 3. Plots of conductivity, temperature, and dissolved oxygen collected from the Seaglider™ on July 5, 2013 (Credit: NOAA)

Figure 3. Plots of conductivity, temperature, and dissolved oxygen collected from the Seaglider™ on July 5, 2013 (Credit: NOAA)

The Seaglider™ is owned and deployed by Shell and maintained and piloted by NOAA and USM scientists. Shell provides the operational support, including the vessels and crew needed to deploy the SeagliderTM and additional tools, such as remote operated vehicles (ROVs) and underwater transponders to track and monitor deployment and recovery, if necessary (Fig. 5). In addition to monitoring and piloting the glider, NOAA also provides data quality control and makes the data available through the National Data Buoy Center (NDBC).

Figure 4. Seaglider™ flight path from July 5th to October 9th off the coast of Louisiana (Credit: Shell & NOAA)

Figure 4. Seaglider™ flight path from July 5th to October 9th off the coast of Louisiana (Credit: Shell & NOAA)

Shell and NOAA are currently working with GCOOS to share the real-time data in a GCOOS glider mission viewer. Data shared will include the Seaglider™’s locations and temperature data collected during the mission in a 1-D and 3-D visualizer. While this product is in the development stage, the profiles of temperature and salinity collected during this current mission can be viewed at the NDBC website at GCOOS members involved in this collaboration are also serving as members to the GCOOS Gulf Glider Task Team, which is primarily tasked with developing a plan for Gulf glider infrastructure and constructing an implementation plan for continuous GOM glider operations.

Future activities for this collaborative industry-government-research effort include expanding the instruments on the current glider and the number of gliders, collecting long-term or multi-year observations in the deep GOM, and working with GCOOS partners, such as USM, to develop science research questions the Shell-NOAA Seaglider™ can help answer. Moving into deeper waters to access oil and gas resources in the GOM requires collecting data at deeper depths. Both Shell and NOAA believe gliders are one ocean observation tool that is cost-effective in collecting such data. In addition, this information will have long-term benefits in helping to understand the ecological health of the GOM, an important stewardship priority for Shell.

Figure 5. Vessel crew members deploying Seaglider™ for 2013 mission (Credit: Shell)

Figure 5. Vessel crew members deploying Seaglider™ for 2013 mission (Credit: Shell)

This collaboration demonstrates that gliders not only collect data to answer scientific research questions, they are valuable tools for collecting data needed to better protect offshore oil and gas assets and the greater Gulf Coast communities from hazards such as tropical storms and hurricanes. Developing partnerships between industry, government, military, and academia is important to furthering research and expanding ocean observing capacity in the Gulf of Mexico.

Louis Brzuzy, Shell lead on the project, states

“Shell recognizes that the oil and gas industry will increasingly be expected to provide the science necessary in order to explore and produce the oil and gas resources in the Gulf of Mexico. Our collaboration with NOAA in the Gulf of Mexico is a model of one of the best ways to deliver that science. We have learned from each other how to optimize our respective skills and resources to produce collectively a better result. Expanding the use of gliders in the Gulf is a necessary step in providing the geographical coverage and the long-term data needed to assure the ecological health of the Gulf of Mexico, and can best be achieved through collaborative partnerships.”

Ann Jochens, GCOOS Executive Director, adds

“Shell is an exemplary, GCOOS industry partner that is helping to build the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System to the benefit of all Gulf communities. Its commitment to using gliders in the Gulf is a major step in moving forward GCOOS plans for an operational glider network of observations. Shell’s observing contributions in the Gulf, including glider-based measurements that aid in improving the National Weather Service’s hurricane intensity forecasts, demonstrate the power of the integrated observing system, where assets from many sources are combined to advance our understanding of the ocean and its ecosystem health, and to improve our forecasts of its conditions in the interests of human health and safety.”

The Shell-NOAA glider project is a great example to show the benefits of collaborative glider operations in the Gulf of Mexico. This type of collaboration is important to the future of Gulf circulation and hazard monitoring as addressed in the GCOOS Build-out Plan. Increasing the numbers of industry, government, and research partnerships, especially using gliders, will continue to improve GOM operational oceanography and monitoring efforts. Stay tuned later this year for next part of this GCOOS series as GCOOS explores gliders operations in the eastern GOM.