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3 ways satellites connect scientists with ocean life

June 29, 2020

When most of us think about environmental satellites, we think about the vital weather and climate data these high-orbiting spacecraft gather — but that’s not all they do. 

The Hawaiian Islands seen from NOAA's GOES-17 satellite on November 13, 2018. GOES-17 is among NOAA’s next generation of advanced geostationary weather satellites. The spacecraft provides high-quality data coverage of the Pacific Ocean.

In the world of fisheries observations, satellites have completely changed the game. With their eyes in the sky, these super-high-tech spacecraft provide marine biologists, fishery managers and coastal habitat planners with vital scientific data that would be impossible to obtain from the surface alone. 

Here are 3 ways satellites complement the traditional ways of observing marine life:

1. Satellites reveal how animals ‘see’ their own sea habitats.

A loggerhead sea turtle, with a satellite tag secured to the turtles hard outer shell, prepares for a journey across the sea that scientists will be able to track.
A loggerhead sea turtle, with a satellite tag secured to the turtles hard outer shell, prepares for a journey across the sea that scientists will be able to track. (Jim Abernethy. With permission.)

It is often difficult to know where sea creatures of all kinds are hidden beneath the vast ocean surface. Researchers like to place satellite tags on species like whales, sharks, tuna and turtles to identify migratory tracks in the ocean. Satellites are capable of seeing large-scale features such as currents, fronts and eddies, while the tags allow us to track animals as they navigate around these features. 

When tag data is combined with data from environmental satellites, scientists can see the bigger picture when it comes to understanding why animals choose certain paths when traveling across the sea.

2. Satellites depict ocean productivity in color. 

A satellite composite image of global sea surface temperatures from NOAA's next generation of Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES-R) and the NOAA/NASA Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) for June 23, 2020.
A satellite composite image of global sea surface temperatures from NOAA's next generation of Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES-R) and the NOAA/NASA Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).

To the naked eye, the ocean simply appears as shades of blue. But thanks to satellite technology, fisheries scientists can see much more than meets the eye. Color data provided by environmental satellites like JPSS help experts calculate roughly how much chlorophyll-rich phytoplankton — a food source for marine creatures — and plant pigment is in the ocean surface. This gives us an idea of how productive those waters might be in terms of the size of fish populations and in turn gives fishery experts a deeper understanding of the value and health of the nation’s commercial fisheries and protected resources.

3. Satellites can spot marine debris and oil spills.

Satellite data shows the extent of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the ocean surface compared with the Gulf Coast  (right inset) in April 2020.
Satellite data shows the extent of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the ocean surface compared with the Gulf Coast (right inset) in April 2020. (NOAA Satellites)

Marine debris and oil spills can wreak havoc on an ecosystem by polluting and damaging critical habitat, harming fish and wildlife, and limiting recreation in the water. Highly detailed satellite data equips our experts with the essential information they need to assess marine ecosystems impacted by marine debris and oil spills. With this data, scientists can better initiate response and determine restoration actions needed to protect and restore key fish habitat for generations to come.