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Submarine gliders to protect the Gulf of Mexico
The gliders work by diving into the water as deep as 656 to 3280 feet and returning to the surface once the data is collected - Photo: File photo/EFE

Submarine gliders to protect the Gulf of Mexico

02/06/2018
12:59
Berenice González Durand
Mexico City
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The project is financed by Mexican oil company PEMEX and Mexico’s Ministry of Energy (SENER)

Benjamin Franklin was the first person to publish maps and detailed descriptions of the Gulf Stream. At the end of the 18th century, whale hunters in the United States had come to realize that the cetaceans avoided waters from certain ocean currents, and so, during his travels to and from Europe, the politician and inventor decided to study this phenomenon by taking systematic measures of water temperatures as he sailed through the Atlantic. With measurements carried out with glass bottles and thermometers, he realized that the North-South currents were colder than the ones flowing in the opposite direction and that whales tended to stay away from the cold currents. The scientist’s curiosity and these simple tools made way for physical oceanography.

Although the study of oceans has evolved over time, they still seem like uncharted territory in many ways. Oceans make up around two-thirds of the Earth’s surface and are considered the true pillars of life on the planet. These gigantic water bodies consist of 1500 million cubic kilometers and only 10% of them has been explored. Nonetheless, humans have continued to develop new tools to explore oceans.

These consist of autonomous vehicles that move below the ocean surface and serve to continuously measure several ocean properties, both physical and biogeochemical. In Mexico, there is a group of specialists that use these instruments to study the same ocean currents which once caught the curiosity of Benjamin Franklin. They’re called the Glider Oceanographic Monitoring Group (GMOG), a multidisciplinary group of investigators and technicians from the Physical Oceanography Department (DOF) at the Center for Scientific Investigation and Higher Education of Ensenada (CICESE), and the Center for Atmospheric Sciences (CCA) at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), along with other institutions.

Enric Pallàs Sanz, a specialist from the CICESE, states that his job is to monitor warm mesoscale whirlpools in the west of the Gulf of Mexico. These are large-scale oceanic structures (around 200 to 300 kilometers wide) which usually carry warm water from the Loop Current, between Cuba and the Yucatán peninsula. “These whirlpools carry water from the Caribbean and proceed to spread; it can take seven to nine months for these currents to reach the shores of Tamaulipas. In this region, we monitor their physical and biogeochemical properties.”

Some of the physical properties studied are temperature, thermal conductivity, pressure, and salinity; as for the biogeochemical properties, matters such as chlorophyll levels that report on a site’s marine productivity are closely monitored. “We also measure dissolved organic carbon and the water’s turbidity, which is related to particle concentration in the ocean. We measure dissolved oxygen as well. These are some of the basic properties that we’re currently studying.” He claims that they have two more experimental sensors that still haven’t been used in the five gliders’ missions carried out since the beginning of the program. One of them is for currents, and the other for microturbulence.

For each mission, the submarine gliders can work for three months straight, covering a distance of around 1300 kilometers. The specialist explains that the gliders are relatively new. The technology began to be marketed around a decade ago. The gliders work by diving into the water as deep as 656 to 3280 feet and returning to the surface once the data is collected. They can move both horizontally and vertically.

The research began two years ago, but the gliders have only been operating for a year. The project is financed by the Mexican oil company PEMEX and Mexico’s Ministry of Energy (SENER). It seeks to create a comprehensive system of observation and numeric models, capable of predicting oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico. In monitoring whirlpools, potential impacts to oil platforms may be prevented more efficiently.

Gliders are an alternative to the use of ships, which are much more expensive and impractical. In the near future, these devices may help us discover entire oceanic regions which have remained unknown to this day.

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