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The Official Magazine of the Oceanography Society

Dohan, K., and N. Maximenko. 2010. Monitoring ocean currents with satellite sensors.
Oceanography 23(4):94103, doi:10.5670/oceanog.2010.08.

This article has been published in Oceanography, Volume 23, Number 4, a quarterly journal of
The Oceanography Society. Copyright 2010 by The Oceanography Society. All rights reserved.

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T h e F u t u r e o f O c e a n o g r a p h y F r o m S pa c e

B y K at h l e e n D o h a n a nd N i k o l a i M a x i m e nk o

Monitoring Ocean Currents

with Satellite Sensors

Abstr ac t. The interconnected ocean surface current system involves multiple 100-km wide), to submesoscale features
scales, including basin-wide gyres, fast narrow boundary currents, eddies, and (1100 km in scale), to turbulence (less
turbulence. To understand the full system requires measuring a range of motions, than 1 m). The differences in scale result
from thousands of kilometers to less than a meter, and time scales from those that from differences in the kinds of forcings
are climate related (decades) to daily processes. Presently, satellite systems provide that induce the motions as well as from
us with global and regional maps of the ocean surfaces mesoscale motion (larger differences in the underlying physics that
than 100 km). Surface currents are measured indirectly from satellite systems. One define the motions characteristics.
method involves using remotely sensed fields of sea surface height, surface winds, Prevailing global winds, such as the
and sea surface temperature within a physical model to produce currents. Another trade winds and the westerlies, together
involves determining surface velocity from paths of drifting surface buoys transmitted with Earths rotation and the restriction
to satellite sensors. Additional methods include tracking of surface features of flow by continental boundaries, set
and exploitation of the Doppler shift in radar fields. The challenges for progress up the general ocean surface circulation.
include measuring small and fast processes, capturing the vertical variation, and These gyres have the basic form of a
overcoming sensor limitations near coasts. Here, we detail the challenges as well as flow around a basin, with an intensified
upcoming missions and advancements in satellite oceanography that will change our western boundary current and broader
understanding of surface currents in the next 10 years. eastern boundary current, the theories
of which were developed by Sverdrup
The Surface motion. Other types span the continuous (1947) and Stommel (1948). This surface
CurrentSystem spectra of spatial and temporal scales, motion description is far from complete,
The ocean is unimaginable without from basin-wide motions, to mesoscale however. Large-scale surface motions
motion. Breaking waves at its surface, a eddies (scales greater than 100 km) and consist of a complex interconnection of
symbol of the sea, are only one kind of fast narrow currents (on the order of local currents, eddies, and turbulence.

94 Oceanography | Vol.23, No.4

Figure1 shows a schematic of this to the Coriolis force. The extent of the LaNia (Philander, 1990).
surface current hierarchy. Although rotation depends on length scales and Finally, the small scales (less than
local currents have been observed for speed of motion, as well as on latitude, 100km) and fast processes (less than a
centuries for purposes such as navigation with large scales being more affected day to evolve), for example, small eddies,
and fishing, the advent of satellite remote than small. The Coriolis force is zero at filaments, turbulence, and surface
sensing has provided us with regular the equator and strongest at the poles. waves, are also important to the surface
and global measurements of the complex Equatorial dynamics are, therefore, current system, not only for stirring and
ocean surface motions. qualitatively different than the rest of the mixing, but also for strong associated
Western boundary currents (WBC) ocean, with predominantly zonal flows vertical motions.
are often less than 100-km wide. They (east-west) and large meridional (north- Because of the complexity of behavior,
are also intense, at speeds on the order south) temperature gradients. Large- the range of temporal and spatial
of 2 m s-1, or 175 km day -1, and are scale waves (10002000-km wavelength) scales, and the dependence on local
responsible for significant poleward heat propagate along these temperature conditions for ocean surface currents,
transport. For example, the Gulf Stream fronts. They play a crucial role in tropical satellite remote sensing is an ideal tool
(the WBC along the eastern coast of dynamics, in particular El Nio and for studying ocean surface dynamics.
North America) transports warm waters
toward the western coast of Europe.
In addition to heat, these boundary
currents transport momentum, chemical
components (e.g.,CO2), nutrients, and
marine life. WBCs eventually separate
from the coasts and extend into the open
ocean, forming large meanders that
shed large eddies, and creating strong
fronts and jets. A full discussion of the
global peak in eddy kinetic energy in the
areas of the extensions can be found in
Fu etal. (2010).
In the Southern Ocean however,
the westerlies force a strong current
that flows from east to west, called the
Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC).
With no continents to force boundary
currents, the motion of this current is
similar to that of wind, flowing entirely
around Antarctica and inhibiting north-
south heat transport. The ACC is the
only current that connects the Pacific,
Atlantic, and Indian oceans, and thus
is crucial for the exchange of prop- Figure1. Schematic of the hierarchy of near-surface currents focused on the Gulf Stream
erties among basins. region in the North Atlantic Ocean. The gyre circulation consists of a broad eastern
Earths rotation causes motions to component and a narrow, fast, western boundary current (WBC). The WBC is enlarged
to highlight the mesoscale (100 km and larger) features and the submesoscale eddies,
be deflected to the right (left) in the filaments, and turbulence. Global winds drive basin circulation, while local winds force
Northern (Southern) Hemisphere, due local Ekman currents, surface waves, and turbulence.

Oceanography | December 2010 95

The regular, repeated coverage offered Satellite altimeters measure the height The Gravity field and steady-state
through satellite systems is unachievable of the sea surface. One compromise Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE)
through in situ measurements. However, that is made during the design of a satellite, launched in 2009 (http://www.
the ability to capture the desired features satellite orbit is between the temporal, is expected
of the global surface current system and spatial resolution, that is, between to finally improve resolution to 100km.
becomes increasingly challenging for the frequency the satellite passes over Until that happens, various ocean
satellite systems as the spatial scales an area and the distance between its observations and techniques are used to
become smaller or the processes take track lines. Having a constellation of characterize ocean dynamics. Rio and
place on faster time scales. satellites solves this compromise. The Hernandez (2004) and Maximenko etal.
field of satellite altimetry thus benefits (2009) combine (in two different tech-
Me asuring Oce an Currents from 18years of international coopera- niques) surface drifter trajectories and
Using Satellite Sensor s tion, when there have been at least two satellite sea level anomalies to compen-
Todays satellite sensors are not capable altimeters in orbit at any given time. The sate for the effect of eddies on the
of measuring ocean currents directly. system of altimeters today captures the oceans mean level. Their mean dynamic
However, remotely sensed data are used mesoscale, with real-time estimation topographies (e.g.,in Figure2a) reveal
to assess current velocity with a variety (less than a day) of global SSH. More a complex structure of main oceanic
of methods. The most direct method details on the satellite missions and frontal systems, such as the Gulf Stream
uses satellite altimetry and ocean vector the SSH data produced can be found and the Kuroshio Extension, improving
winds to estimate surface currents. through the Archiving, Validation and SSH calculations.
Interpretation of Satellite Oceanographic
Currents from Satellite data (AVISO) data distribution site Ekman Currents
Altimetry and Vector Winds ( Geostrophic motions dominate the
Geostrophic Currents To calculate SSH, several measure- mesoscale signal in many regions, but
On scales of tens of kilometers and ments and calculations are required not all motions are geostrophic. Winds
larger, horizontal motions are much along with altimetry data, including exert a stress on the oceans surface,
larger than vertical motions, and the precise determination of the orbit and transferring momentum between the
ocean is approximately hydrostatic (pres- highly accurate tide models. In addition, atmosphere and ocean, driving surface
sure is determined by the height and because satellite altimeters measure SSH currents. In the classical Ekman balance
density of the water column). At these relative to the geoid (the sea surface at (Ekman, 1905), the Coriolis force is
scales, for approximately steady motions, resting state), accurate knowledge of the balanced by the vertical divergence
and away from boundaries, the primary geoid is required. Gravity Recovery and of wind stress and has the shape of a
balance of forces is between horizontal Climate Experiment (GRACE) satel- spiral decaying with depth. The Ekman
pressure differences and the Coriolis lites ( velocity in the Northern (Southern)
force, which drives currents that follow flying since 2002 have greatly improved Hemisphere is 45 to the right (left)
lines of constant pressure, known as accuracy of the gravity model, enhanced from the wind direction, and the angle
geostrophic currents. Because pressure spatial resolution of the geoid to some increases with depth.
is related to sea surface height (SSH), hundred kilometers, and measured for Wind stress can be estimated from
geostrophic currents can be calculated the first time long-term gravity changes winds using empirical relations. Ekman
using horizontal gradients in SSH. due to redistribution of ocean mass. currents can then be derived from vector
wind measurements (winds with both
Kathleen Dohan ( is Research Scientist, Earth and Space Research, direction and speed). The assumptions
Seattle, WA, USA. Nikolai Maximenko is Senior Researcher, International Pacific are steady winds, a well-mixed surface
Research Center, School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, University of Hawaii, layer, and a constant eddy viscosity.
Honolulu, HI, USA. The eddy viscosity is the simplest

96 Oceanography | Vol.23, No.4

parameterization of turbulent processes. such as in the WBCs. Figure3 shows a partly due to the ability to resolve sharp
It is based on the concept that turbu- comparison between OSCARs currents gradients in SSH. The correlation is
lent eddies act on the large-scale flow and those measured from the trajectories particularly high when considering that
like a viscosity. of drifters (drifting buoys, see next the drifters will follow the small features
There are several classes of instru- section) for two monthsfor two months and fast motions that are not captured
ments that measure vector winds: scat- in the Agulhas region (the WBC along by the satellites.
terometers, passive polarimetric sensors, the south tip of Africa). The figure shows
and synthetic aperture radar (SAR). comparisons between one-day binned Global Drifting Buoy Array
Each instrument has its own advantages drifter velocities and OSCAR veloci- Satellite technology has also revolu-
and disadvantages, such as performance ties linearly interpolated to each drifter tionized measurements taken directly
in high winds, in rain, or close to land. time/space point. OSCAR velocities are within the ocean. For example, drifters
Bourassa etal. (2010) provide an over- systematically lower than those of the are buoys that drift on the oceans
view of ocean vector wind sensors. drifters, although with high correlation. surface. These buoys measure surface
The underestimation of amplitude is properties (e.g.,temperature), but they
Surface Current Products
Ocean Surface Current Analyses Real-
time (OSCAR; Bonjean and Lagerloef,
2002;,, Mercator/
SURCOUF (Larnicol etal., 2006;, and
the Centre de Topographie des Ocans
et de lHydrosphre (CTOH; Sudre
and Morrow, 2008; http://ctoh.legos. all provide global surface
current products directly calculated
from satellite altimetry and ocean
vector winds. The variations between
the methods are most notably in the b)
treatment of geostrophic currents at the
equator (where geostrophy becomes
invalid), treatment of wind-driven turbu-
lence, and inclusion of an adjustment
to the currents due to gradients in sea
surface temperature. Although missing
more complex physics, such as nonlin-
earities, the advantage of these methods
is in their lack of assumptions, producing
as close to a direct satellite measurement
Figure2. (a) 19932002 mean dynamic topography consisting of fronts and eddies. Note the strong
of surface currents on a fixed global grid
signal from high-eddy WBCs such as the Gulf Stream (60W, 30N), the Kuroshio (140E, 30N), and
at regular intervals as possible. the Agulhas (30E, 40S). (b) Velocities are calculated during the computation of (a) from simple rela-
These models have shown great tions among drifter velocities, local winds, and sea level anomaly gradients. Mean streamlines shown
here are calculated from 0.25 ensemble-mean velocities between February,15, 1979, and May 1, 2007,
success in capturing currents in areas smoothed to 1. Colors are magnitudes of mean drifter velocity and units are cm/s. From Maximenko
strongly influenced by geostrophy, et al. (2009). Data are available at

Oceanography | December 2010 97

are attached to subsurface anchors sensors detect instantaneous positions phod/dac/gdp_drifter.php) have global
(drogues) designed so that buoy motion of the drifters, and changes in the coor- coverage with more than 1350drifters
is dominated by water motion at drogue dinates can be converted into veloci- launched as of the fall of 2010. The
depth. The data collected by the buoy are ties. The buoys of the Global Drifter drifters are drogued at 15-m depth,
transmitted to passing satellites. Satellite Program ( although the currents may vary with
depth, and drifters suffer from some slip
in high winds, which may affect actual
drifter trajectories.
The advantage of drifters is their high
frequency of information transmitted
(six hourly or better velocities) and their
direct measurement of water properties.
However, the data follow an irregular
trajectory, resulting in irregular sampling
of the oceans surface.

Combining Drifters with

Satellite Derived Currents
Simple relations among drifter veloci-
ties, local winds, and sea level anomaly
gradients recognized during computa-
tions of the mean dynamic topography
(e.g.,Figure2b; Maximenko etal., 2009)
can be used to assess time-varying
velocities. The Surface Currents from
Diagnostic model (SCUD) data set is
produced (Maximenko and Hafner,
2010) at the International Pacific
Research Center (http://apdrc.soest. The data
set uses satellite wind and altimetry,
regressed locally to scarce drifter data,
to expand the latter onto a global,
1/4-degree, daily grid. This product
is particularly useful for studies of
marine debris and other tracers
with properties close to the ones of
Figure3. Comparison of velocity fields between drifting buoys and Ocean Surface Current Lagrangian surface drifters.
Analyses Real-time (OSCAR) surface currents. (a) Snapshot of OSCAR currents in the Agulhas
Current region. (b) One-day binned drifter velocities over two months. Red and blue vectors
denote zonal direction. (c) OSCAR currents interpolated onto the drifter time and space posi-
Velocities Through
tion. Scales of vectors are set to be the same as in (b). Comparison statistics between the two are FeatureTracking
given in the scatter plots of (d) and (e), with N = number of points, Cor = correlation coefficient, An alternative method for measuring
Sk = 1-std(D-O)/std(D), RDS = (std(D)-std(O))/std(D), Slope = slope of the best-fit line, and
where D = drifter and O = OSCAR signal. While overall the comparison is high between the two
surface currents is to track features
fields, the smoothed nature of OSCAR compared to drifters is apparent in the vector fields. on the ocean surface. The Maximum

98 Oceanography | Vol.23, No.4

Cross-Correlation (MCC) technique data assimilation models are able to oriented in the right direction, push
tracks the displacements of small-scale model the scales that remote sensing waters off the coast (due to the Coriolis
features on high-resolution satellite cannot capture, with insights into three- force), forcing colder, nutrient-rich
SSTimages and attributes them to dimensional dynamics, thus aiding the bottom waters to the surface. Much of
advection by ocean currents (Emery understanding of physical processes and the biological production in the upper
etal., 2003). With great possible poten- guiding scientific requirements for future ocean depends on the supply of nutrients
tial, MCC today is limited to areas free satellite missions. from deep layers (Yoder etal., 2010).
of clouds for periods long enough to Surface current trajectories also
identify the displacements. In addition, Doppler-Based Surface impact marine life. Surface current
the accuracy of the velocity estimate is Velocities from SAR patterns define marine migration
impacted by the ability to distinguish An alternative method for calcu- (e.g.,the migration of larvae), and
material features from those associ- lating surface currents is through the knowledge of these paths is important
ated with waves or processes such as exploitation of the Doppler shift in for efficient management of resources.
heterogeneous mixing and local forcing, synthetic aperture radar data (Chapron, Shipping, commercial fishing, recre-
which change the shape of the tracked 2005). This method has promise in ational boating, search and rescue, and
feature. A strong advantage of a feature- particular for coastal zones, although pollutant dispersal (e.g.,oil spills) all
tracking technique is that it can be used there are many technical challenges, rely on surface current patterns. The
on a variety of surface imaged fields. For including isolating the surface currents Great Garbage Patch, a huge cluster
example, a similar technique has been from signals such as wave orbital of floating plastic debris formed in the
used to track mesoscale features in the motion or tides. middle of the subtropical North Pacific
surface height field measured with radar Ocean by converging Ekman currents,
altimetry (Fu, 2006). Similarly, SAR Importance of has the potential to damage marine life
images (Liu, 2009) have been used to SurfaceCurrents and alter the biological environment.
map the surface drift. At all scales, currents are responsible for Figure4 shows these convergent zones
water exchange between different parts for surface tracers.
General Circulation Models of the ocean. The overall ocean circula- The surface branch of the ocean
Some features of the mean circulation tion compensates for the effect of differ- general circulation is the location of
are harder to diagnose exclusively from ential solar heating and air-sea fluxes all air-sea exchange. Although it is a
surface observations. For example, by redistributing heat, momentum, and crucial component of the atmosphere/
rather than being constant, the Antarctic salt between the equator and the polar ocean system, the range of scales neces-
Circumpolar Current is a circumpo- regions, and between the surface and sary to measure the complete system
larly flowing sea of eddies, continually the deep ocean. The surface branch of is an insurmountable challenge for in
focused and defocused into jets, and the circulation is a dominant term in situ sampling. Frequent global satel-
interacting with the bottom, all of heat transport (Boccaletti etal., 2005). lite measurements provide invaluable
which modify the mean circulation Surface currents play a particularly information that greatly increases our
(e.g.,Karsten etal., 2002; Williams etal., important role in the dynamics of such understanding of surface circulation (see
2007). Ocean general circulation models large-scale phenomena as the El Nio for a compre-
(GCMs) and coupled atmosphere-ocean Southern Oscillation and the Pacific hensive overview of the surface system).
GCMs have greatly benefitted from Decadal Oscillation (Lee etal., 2010).
global satellite measurements through Wind variations create convergences Key Challenge s and
assimilation of the satellite data to and divergences of surface currents, Future Developments
improve model performance. For an which in turn force vertical motion Satellite systems can now capture the
overview of ocean state estimation from (downwelling and upwelling, respec- mesoscale global eddy field and western
models, see Lee etal. (2010). In return, tively). Strong winds along coasts, if boundary currents, and with more

Oceanography | December 2010 99

(Madsen etal., 2007). These types of
methods have been shown to accurately
calculate circulation up to 5 km from
land. All involve regional treatment
of the problem, so that developing
any complete global system of coastal
currents will involve combining the
results of all regional studies.

Capturing Small-Scale Features

As resolution increases, both in numer-
ical models and in satellite observations,
the ocean looks more like a sea of inter-
Figure4. Tracer density distribution after 10years of advection by surface currents, consistent with acting eddies than a system of gyres and
statistics from drifters, starting from a uniform initial condition of unity. currents. Blended satellite products, such
as those produced by AVISO, are showing
than 18 years of altimetry data, we can near land, and strong tidal signals. In great success at capturing mesoscale
now begin to observe changes at time addition, coastal processes are often high eddies, as in the rings of Figures 3 and 5a.
scales relevant to climate. However, frequency, small scale, and controlled by These mesoscale eddies are an important
many important physical processes the shape of the seafloor, which would mechanism for drawing nutrients up
remain elusive to satellite remote sensing be missed by gaps between nadir satellite into the euphotic zone. Approximately
because of their faster time scales, tracks. For example, storm surges can 2030% of vertical nutrient transport in
smaller spatial scales, and vertical varia- drastically affect coastal communities, the upper ocean is estimated to occur
tion (see Figure5). with potential increases in severity with within these eddies (McGillicuddy etal.,
climate change. These surges occur too 2003). The planned Surface Water and
Coastal Regions quickly to be consistently captured by Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission
Because the majority of recreational conventional altimetry. will provide an unprecedented global
and commercial ocean use is along the Recent advances in coastal surface characterization of fine-scale features and
coasts, it is of interest to understand current calculations have occurred fronts, with O(10 km) resolution, with
coastal circulation patterns. Knowledge through several approaches. One area much closer coastal coverage. Fu etal.
of these patterns is also important for of research is in waveform retracking (2010, in this issue) include a detailed
tracking land pollutants, river exchange, reprocessing individual satellite track description of the SWOT mission and
and ecological components such as larval signals to recover the distorted wave- existing success at capturing near-real-
migration. Coastal altimetry (applying form as it reaches land (Deng and time mesoscale eddies.
satellite altimetry to coastal regions) is Featherstone, 2006). Another area of Between these eddies are submeso-
an emerging field with a relatively recent development is application of regional scale features, such as small eddies and
history because of limitations in the coastal physics to signal-processing high potential vorticity filaments that
accuracy of the satellite systems signals algorithms, such as customized atmo- are stretched and pulled by the eddies
near land, which are only reliable at spheric physics or local tides (Volkov in ocean turbulence. Filament scales
distances of 25100 km offshore. These etal., 2007). A different approach is are kilometers thick and hundreds of
limitations are due to several factors: size to combine satellite data with in situ kilometers long, with rapid changes
of the altimeter footprint, atmospheric measurements, such as tide gauges on the order of a day, making them
effects (wet tropospheric correction), (Saraceno etal., 2008), and to use difficult to observe by satellite. At wave-
modulation of the altimeter waveform statistics to predict storm surges lengths shorter than 100 km, however,

100 Oceanography | Vol.23, No.4

measurement noise masks submeso- previously missed dynamics, validation from these fields use assumptions about
scales (Fu and Ferrari, 2008). This is of both regional and global numerical the vertical structure of currents in order
somewhat improved with multiple models, and validation for analytical to define a vertically averaged current.
satellites, but filament structure has yet methods such as SQG and Lyapunov Vertical shear modifies calculations of
to be observed globally. Filaments are exponents, as well as new insights into the transport of properties such as heat,
ubiquitous features of the ocean that the physics of surface circulation. momentum, and salt. The trajectories
are consistently seen in high-resolution of suspended pollutants (e.g.,the Great
SST images (Figure5b, for example) but Vertical Shear Garbage Patch) depend on vertical shear.
they have been studied mostly numeri- Satellite sensors measure surface proper- Additionally, shear affects biological
cally and theoretically in the context of ties: SSH, winds at the ocean surface, and processes. For example, if a species
geophysical turbulence. SST (the only exception is the GRACE moves vertically in the water column
Modeling studies that account satellite pair, which measures ocean during the course of the day according
for filaments are beginning to show mass, or ocean bottom pressure). The to the percentage of sunlight, it will be
that motions at these small scales are models that calculate surface currents carried on a path that will rely heavily
responsible for as much vertical trans-
port as the large eddies (Klein and
Lapeyre, 2009). Winds can also play a
significant role in vertical transport,
adding to the challenge of capturing
these scales by satellite. Numerical
studies suggest that fronts, the inter-
face between water masses of different
density, are also responsible for much
of the vertical transport in the upper
ocean (Mahadevan and Tandon, 2006).
Using the principles behind the creation
of tracer filaments from the stirring
caused by mesoscale eddies, advances
are being made in diagnosing submeso-
scale statistics from existing altimetry
(dOvidio etal., 2009).
Use of surface quasi-geostrophic
theory (SQG) has also been successful
(Held, 1995) in extracting three-
dimensional dynamics from surface
fields (Isern-Fontanet, 2008). This
method requires high-resolution fields,
and thus has relied to date more on SST
fields, which have a much higher resolu-
Figure5. Issues in surface current measurements. (a) Time evolution of the breakdown of the Kuroshio
tion than SSH fields. western boundary current into eddies, shown over 17 days on the OSCAR time spacing capability.
The high-resolution SWOT mission (b)MODIS gridded SST at 4.63-km spacing, zoomed into the white box region in (a) (MODIS Terra Global
will provide an unprecedented map of Level 3 Mapped Thermal IR SST from (c) Drifter track overlaid on an OSCAR snap-
shot in the equatorial Pacific. Along with small-scale motions, near-inertial oscillations are prevalent in the
the global submesoscale field, providing drifter signal. (d) Vertical variation of currents seen in mooring data (courtesy of TAO Project Office of
the information needed for estimates on NOAA/PMEL on the same day as the OSCAR snapshot shown in (c).

Oceanography | December 2010 101

on the vertical structure of the currents, Wind-driven Fast Time Scales As we advance our understanding of
both in strength and direction. The Ekman spiral is the response of ocean circulation, it is necessary to
Many processes affect the vertical the ocean surface to a steady wind. In connect the surface to the subsurface.
structure of the upper ocean. Diurnal general, however, winds are far from To this end, the Argo array of profiling
fluctuations in solar radiation cause daily steady in either time or space. Variations floats ( has
fluctuations in temperature structure, from the mean wind have an additional been providing a continuous global
which in turn cause daily fluctuations in wave response, known as inertial waves, map of subsurface pressure, salinity,
mixed-layer depth. Particularly in equa- trapped within the surface ocean mixed temperature, and velocity measurements.
torial regions, the temperature difference layer. Inertial motions can be clearly seen Deployment of Argo floats began in
can be large enough to limit wind-driven as the spiral modulation to the drifter 2000, and over 3000 floats are operating
motions to the shallowest surface layer, trajectory plotted in Figure5c. These at present, providing full global coverage.
funneling motions into a shallow jet waves are an energy source for motions The floats range in depth of measure-
for a few hours over the day. Equatorial that mix the ocean interior, comparable ment, typically down to either 2000 m
regions also exhibit large subsurface to the energy from tides (Wunsch and or 1000 m. The floats descend to depth
jets. An example of the vertical varia- Ferrari, 2004), and they consequently and then ascend to the surface, collecting
tions in upper ocean currents is given in play a significant role in establishing data that are transmitted to satellites at
the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean (TAO) the density structure of the ocean inte- the surface. Subsurface current plots
mooring current plotted in Figure5d. rior and hence the global overturning from Argo data are produced by the
In addition, wind-driven waves and circulation. However, estimates of this YoMaHa project (http://apdrc.soest.
currents are intensified at the surface. transfer, and its subsequent propaga-
Ekman currents have an exponential tion into the ocean interior, rely on Ultimately, for a full understanding
decay in depth on the order of tens accuracy of wind-field measurements of surface ocean circulation and its role
of meters. The penetration depth of that capture both steady features and in thermohaline circulation, informa-
turbulence and momentum transfer fast storms. Storm systems generally tion from long-term extensive in situ
from breaking surface waves depends have scales of hundreds of kilometers, measurement campaigns in key locations
on, among other factors, wind intensity, large enough to be captured by satel- of strong exchange between surface and
with a qualitatively different regime lite systems. Whether a storm turns deep waters will also need to be coupled
depending on whether conditions are clockwise or counterclockwise, though, to the global surface arrays.
mild or stormy (Gargett, 1989). Surface can make an order of magnitude differ-
waves carry an associated Stokes drift, ence in wave amplitude (Dohan and Summary
known to surfers, which decays within Davis, in press), thereby requiring wind The view of the oceans surface move-
the top few meters. measurements that include both speed ment has progressed far beyond the
Surface current calculations, such as and direction. To capture these motions concept of its being simply the surface
those from SSH and winds, will need to requires more than twice-daily measure- branch of the thermohaline circula-
include a vertical component for prog- ments and therefore several vector wind tion that redistributes heat and salinity
ress to be made. The notion of a surface measuring satellites. between the tropics and the poles.
mixed layer with homogeneous turbu- Multiple satellite systems, measuring
lence and constant density will need Connecting Global Satellite SSH, SST, winds, and gravity, along with
to be modified as applications demand Data to the Deep the in situ global drifting buoy array,
more accurate and complete physics. The behavior of surface currents is a have provided us with a comprehensive
These enhanced models will need in situ combination of short-term surface view of open-ocean surface motion,
ocean mixed layer measurements in a forcing and long-term climatic changes. resolving scales on the order of hundreds
variety of dynamical locations for valida- The oceans subsurface properties are of kilometers, and in nearly real time.
tion and development. both affected by and affect the surface. Unprecedented understanding of upper

102 Oceanography | Vol.23, No.4

ocean boundary layer physics and its Fu, L.-L., and R. Ferrari. 2008. Observing at:
oceanic submesoscale processes from space. SCUD/SCUD_manual_02_17.pdf (accessed
connection with the deep will emerge Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical November 2, 2010).
in the next decade with the advent of Union89:488. Maximenko, N., P. Niiler, L. Centurioni, M.-H. Rio,
Fu, L.-L., D.B. Chelton, P.-Y. Le Traon, and O. Melnichenko, D. Chambers, V. Zlotnicki,
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