Topic 3a - Looking at Our Oceans

Welcome to Week 3. This week will focus in more depth on the techniques, technologies and applications involved in observing the oceans and the cryosphere from space.

The oceans cover around 70% of Earth’s surface, and play many vital roles in the Earth system. For example they help regulate the distribution of heat around the planet by transporting warmer water from closer to the equator to the polar regions, and bring cooler waters to lower latitudes. This, influences weather and climate at the local to global scale. The oceans also serve to shield us from the full extent of the radiative forcing and climate change that would otherwise come from our greenhouse gas releases, since they currently soak up around 25% of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions.

Although we are deeply reliant on the oceans for these and many other reasons, and have long-studied their waters using oceanographic instrumentation on buoys, research ships and submarines, it is only by using satellite Earth observation techniques that we can gain a truly global view of their current state and variability, albeit generally only their surface state. Satellite measurements provide otherwise impossible to obtain information about global variations in ocean height, ocean currents, sea surface temperature, sea level rise and the ocean colours related to the distribution of microscopic plants (‘phytoplankton’). It allows us to explore the dynamic relationship between the oceans and the atmosphere, and how this is evolving under our changing climate, and allows us to infer other properties of the ocean depths by connecting the surface observations with models.

In this video, Dr Emily Shuckburgh explains the importance of monitoring the oceans from space and provides an overview of the types of data that we can gather. Dr Helen Snaith looks in more depth at the types of satellite instruments that are used to collect this information, whilst Dr Paolo Cipollini explores what Earth observation, and in particular ocean altimetry, is telling us about global and regional sea level rise in particular.

Featured Educators:

  • Dr Emily Shuckburgh

Other Featured Experts:

  • Dr Helen Snaith
  • Dr Paolo Cipollini

View featured satellites on the satellite tracking app

Don’t forget you can download the video, transcript and take any quizzes available with the links on the right.