New ocean-monitoring technologies delivering terabytes of data are providing a detailed insight into the workings of the ocean, and particularly how marine ecosystems respond to extreme events.

Such events include cyclones, sub-surface ocean storms in the form of eddies, upwellings and heatwaves. Record-high ocean temperatures near Perth in March 2011 caused widespread fish kills.

In an opening keynote presentation to the combined Australian and New Zealand Marine Sciences Associations conference in Hobart this week, CSIRO Wealth from Oceans scientist, Dr David Griffin said there is economic and environmental value in knowing how robust ecosystems are following extreme events.

“I would argue that ‘extreme oceanic events’ have received much less attention than they deserve from the science community.

“Indeed, science doesn’t yet have a developed vocabulary for the many different types of extreme oceanic events,” he said.

Recent Australian examples this year include –

  • June 18: Extremely high sea level, Perth – the Great Australian Bight
  • June 9: Intense cold eddy off Perth
  • May 11: Warm beach temperatures, Sydney
  • April 20: High sea level, Victorian, NSW, Queensland coasts

Dr Griffin said marine scientists are now catching up with meteorologists in terms of  tools and data to monitor variability of environmental conditions. They now have two decades of sea surface height measurements, a decade of the autonomous Argo ocean sampling program, and the emergence of coastal and deep ocean gliders, backing up the traditional ocean mooring arrays and shipboard observations.

A significant contributor in the past five years has been Australia’s Integrated Marine Observing System.

“Marine scientists are moving from a world of sparse observations to one that is becoming much more data-rich. Sensors on satellites complement observations by drifting and diving instruments.

“Agencies around the world have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ocean observing systems. But that is nothing compared to the economic impacts of climate variability, some of which could be prevented by better understanding of the environment.

“The research opportunities are there,” Dr Griffin said.