National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2001

Ocean currents evident in satellite wind data

Kelly, K.A., S. Dickinson, M.J. McPhaden, and G.C. Johnson

Geophys. Res. Lett., 28(12), 2469–2472, doi: 10.1029/2000GL012610 (2001)

Satellite-mounted radar scatterometers designed to quantify surface winds over the ocean actually measure the relative motion between the air and the ocean surface. Estimates of the wind stress from conventional surface wind measurements are usually derived neglecting ocean currents. However, when the relative motion is used, the differences in the estimated stress can be as large as 50% near the equator and may even reverse sign during an El Niño. This assertion is supported by the strong relationship between the surface currents measured by the Tropical Atmosphere-Ocean (TAO) array in the Pacific Ocean and the differences between the winds estimated from scatterometer data and those measured by TAO anemometers. The fact that the scatterometer measures relative motion, and not wind alone, makes scatterometer-derived stress a more accurate representation of the boundary condition needed for both atmospheric and oceanic models than stress fields derived neglecting ocean currents.

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