Follow the Saildrone 2019

Follow the Saildrone 2019

17 June - Drone View: Strait (in)to the Ice

1035 in the Ice

View from the saildrone as it enters an ice field in the Chukchi Sea.  Photo: Saildrone Inc. & Post Edited by NOAA



16 June - Strait (in)to the Ice


1035 in the Ice

An ice field the drone accidently entered into June 2019.  Photo: Saildrone Inc. & Post Edited by NOAA


We did it! We reached the ice! It wasn't quite in the plan (yet), but we accidentally got stuck in an ice field on our way to rendezvous with a profiling float. The ice was broken and slushy, so the drone was able to return to open water. It is tricky navigating ice when you are relying on satellites and ocean properties. Our science team, each day, are creatively working to best use the assets available. We considered there might be a chance the really cold ocean temperature (below zero celsius) or fresher salinity near the ice, would help indicate when we were entering the ice field, an hour or so ahead. And unlike we thought (or were hoping), there was no warning evident in the measurements we collected. Both the temperature and salinity decreased, only as we got into the ice field.


Did you know that sea ice is simply frozen ocean water? It forms, grows, and melts in the ocean. And because ocean water is saltier than lakes and rivers, the process by which sea ice forms is much slower. [Learn more about sea ice from the National Snow & Ice Data Center here:]


More posts to come. Stay tuned!

14 June - Drone View: A beautiful day to cross Bering Strait

2019 Bering Strait.jpg
View from a saildrone as it passes Fairway Rock and through Bering Strait.  Photo: Saildrone Inc. & Post Edited by NOAA

The last of the five drones made it's way through Bering Strait yesterday. It was a beautiful, sunny and clear day. Fairway Rock is located about 10 miles southeast of Little Diomede Island at the western end of the Seward Peninsula, Alaska. The rock is 534 feet high, square headed, and steep sided. The rock was first mapped by Captain James Cook in 1778 and named in 1826 by Captain Frederick William Beechey, of the Royal Navy, because it is an important navigation guide to the preferred eastern channel through the Bering Strait. The 58 mile wide Bering Strait links the Bering and Chukchi Seas, forming the Pacific gateway to the Arctic Ocean. The boundary between the United States and Russia extends through this strait, splitting two small islands, Little Diomede (U.S.) and Big Diomede (Russia) only 2.5 miles apart at their closest point. The vehicles stayed well away from land on both sides of the strait, but both were able to see the distant outline of Little Diomede and Fairway Rock on the horizon. This will likely be the last land these drones see for some time.



View from the saildrone as it passes through Bering Strait.  Photo: Saildrone Inc. & Post Edited by NOAA

28 May 2019 - In Pursuit of the Ice Edge

Three saildrones in port prior to launch in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Three of the 2019 Arctic drones are ready for launch in Dutch Harbor, AK.  Photo: Saildrone Inc.

Scientists are sailing drones to the ice edge in the US Arctic Ocean following fur seals and exploring the areas near-ice.

On 16 May, six sailing drones loaded with scientific instruments and cameras launched from a dock in the Alaskan community of Dutch Harbor, gliding past volcanic islands and the iconic fishing fleet, on a northward journey towards the ice edge. Off the coast of Alaska, NOAA and partners are sleuthing ongoing changes to the U.S. Arctic ecosystem food-chain, ice movement, and climate and weather systems. For the fifth year, researchers are using ocean drones to collect these measurements and venturing further and tackling bigger questions on how this cutting-edge technology can be used for innovative science and perhaps provide critical observations in areas that have been difficult to access using traditional methods. 

Satellite measurements are less accurate in the Arctic. This is because there are few ground truth observations to compare them too. This is the first year NOAA and NASA scientists will be working together and intentionally planning that the drones survey as close to the Arctic ice edge as possible. Chidong Zhang, oceanographer with NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Lab, is leading the mission to enhance sea ice prediction. "PMEL has pioneered the application of saildrones to study the marine ecosystem in the open water away from sea ice," Zhang said. "This year, we plan to approach the sea ice—as close as we can. The saildrones gather a much richer, high-resolution dataset to supplement foundational data collected by buoys and vessels used to build forecasting models today."

Measurements collected this summer in the Arctic will not only be used to improve NOAA and NASA satellite ocean temperature measurements, they will also be available to global weather agencies for operational use. Chelle Gentemann, an oceanographer with Earth & Space Research, is the principal investigator on an interagency effort (funded by the National Oceanographic Partnership Program ) collaborating with Dr. Zhang for a sub-set of the NOAA missions. "We are helping to ensure that the saildrone observations are used by NOAA, NASA, and the US Navy scientists for weather forecasting and satellite sea surface temperature measurements in the Arctic," says Gentemann. "The near-ice edge observations taken this summer will be especially important for understanding the accuracy of these satellite observations." After these near-ice edge observations, two of the sailing drones will split off from the group to examine how small-scale variability in the ocean can imprint itself on larger-scale weather patterns.  

While most of the saildrones will be pursuing the ice edge for the duration of the three-month exploration, two other concurrent projects will also tackle some big questions on how the Arctic ocean is changing and what that means for not only humans but the fish and marine mammals that inhabit the region.

Jessica Cross, oceanographer with NOAA's PMEL, is continuing her use of the sailing drones to study how the region is absorbing carbon dioxide and our understanding of ocean acidification in these critical ecosystem areas. "I am extremely excited to be deploying carbon sensing equipment in the far north for the third year in a row," said Cross, who is working with NOAA's Arctic Research and Ocean Acidification Programs in support of the Distributed Biological Observatory. "This is an amazing partnership because the DBO has such a great time series of ecosystem impacts and a history of close community and indigenous relationships. That helps put our carbon work in a real-world context and ensure that our research has the highest impact that it can."

One drone will be on its own this year in the Bering Sea, home to the largest walleye pollock fishery and the depleted stock of northern fur seal. Critical information is still lacking about the relationship between the fur seals and their prey, which is predominantly walleye pollock. The Pribilof Islands support the largest aggregation of northern fur seals in the US, which breed on St. Paul among other nearby islands. This year, Carey Kuhn, an ecologist with NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center, continues to elucidate the feeding behavior of several female fur seals using traditional at-sea tracking techniques combined with the drone and video cameras to get a seals-eye view during fur seal feeding trips. Multi-year data like this are critical to build accurate models to understand the impacts of changing ocean conditions on this depleted population. "Having this additional year to conduct research gives us the opportunity to examine how annual variability in the fur seals' habitat impacts fur seal foraging," said Kuhn. "And we are thrilled to have the opportunity to be a part of the Arctic Saildrone mission for a third year."

Saildrones are powered by wind and the sun's rays and have traveled about 45,000 nautical miles on NOAA Arctic missions since 2015. Each year, Saildrone Inc. refines these vehicles for data collection with NOAA scientists and engineers who have helped integrate over 15 sensors into the drone.


01 May 2019 - Where We Left Off

On 30 June, 2018 four sailing drones launched from Dutch Harbor, Alaska and crossed into the Chukchi Sea, to measure carbon dioxide and the abundance of Arctic cod in the Arctic Ocean, and safely returned to Dutch Harbor, AK. The two missions gathered measurements to identify ongoing changes to the Arctic ecosystem and how those changes may affect the food-chain as well as large-scale climate and weather systems. In 2019, we will continue sleuthing ongoing changes to the U.S. Arctic ecosystem including the return of a Bering Sea mission to carry-out reconnaissance fisheries surveys and follow northern Fur Seals. Stay tuned for more information, as we plan to launch the platforms again, sometime mid-month.