The ocean provides not just food and inspiration, but real information that helps us get through our daily routines. For example, much of the weather we experience on a daily basis is driven by the ocean.

In the Gulf of Maine region, oceanographers, meteorologists, and hydrographers are working with universities and other partners to feed regional ocean observations into models that inform not only weekly weather forecasts, but also longer-term seasonal predictions.

Two separate groups, at University of Maine and University of Massachusetts, run models that mimic the daily state of our regional ocean and generate and create forecasts for months into the future. These forecasts are used by National Weather Service meteorologists in Gray, Maine, who work with The National Centers for Environmental Prediction in Washington D.C., modelers to produce regional weather forecasts using as many observational data streams from around the world as possible, including satellite data and some of the local buoy data. In Gray, Maine two National Weather Service meteorologists are on duty around the clock, working with the NCEP model predictions, together with the regional ocean model results and the local buoy and met station data to undertake the art of weather forecasting. Their forecasts, warnings and watches are what television and radio meteorologists use for their broadcast forecasts.

Tom Shyka, Outreach and Communications Specialist for our regional ocean observing system (NERACOOS), said ocean condition measurements are critical for better predicting hurricanes and other storms.

“We are getting the paths of hurricanes right, because the direction depends on atmospheric conditions that are well sampled with weather balloons, dropsondes and satellites,” said Shyka. “But we don’t have the same capability for hurricane strength, which is influenced by the amount of heat in the surface layer of the ocean, and we don’t have that well constrained, because it requires measuring water temperature at multiple depths,” added Shyka. Satellites can capture the temperature at the water surface, but observations below the sea surface require buoys, gliders, or other platforms. Satellite data of ocean conditions is also compromised during the critical period before and during storm events because clouds get in the way.

Because of the lack of observations in the ocean compared to over land and in the air, the weather models don’t work as well over the ocean, so forecast meteorologists in coastal states and around the Great Lakes rely on real-time buoy observations. Buoy data not only inform the general forecast, but also the marine conditions forecast, issued every six hours, that indicates small craft advisory conditions or worse conditions, as well as surf zone and new riptide forecasts, which let surfers and beachgoers know when conditions might be dangerous for swimming.

John Cannon, senior meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine, uses regional ocean observation data from offshore buoys to inform forecasts of weather, and just about everything else. Cannon noted that individual buoys provide different information.

“It blows stronger at Matinicus Rock than any other station, so we usually use that data to set the high end of the forecast. For wave data, Jeffrey’s Ledge and NERACOOS buoy B (off southern Maine) tend to be at the high end of the wave spectrum. They represent waves going into coastal York and Rockingham counties, where sandy beaches are vulnerable to damage, so we rely on those to buoys heavily, especially during northeast wind storms.”

Buoy F, just outside Rockland Harbor in Penobscot Bay, and Buoy E, near Monhegan, are extremely useful for Maine state ferry service shut downs, and for informing the Pen Bay pilots and other marine traffic going in and out of Penobscot Bay.

“We can have all of the model data in the world, but without the buoy data to actually measure and verify what the models are telling us, forecasts would be much less reliable,” said Cannon.

Not only forecasters, but also many other types of researchers are using the buoys to understand historical patterns and make predictions. One day last August, surface water was 83 degrees F at buoy B. This was the all-time high temperature record for the northern Gulf of Maine. Tom Shyka of NERACOOS has documented a long-term trend of warming in the Gulf of Maine, and the rate of warming over the past seven years was ten times faster than the 23-year trend.

As fishermen have done with their own mental models for generations, scientists hope to soon use ocean observations to predict fisheries conditions for coming seasons, such as projecting harmful algal blooms that affect shellfish beds, and estimating the timing of lobster molt.

The ultimate goal of many types of scientific study is prediction. Scientists observe, then develop a mechanistic understanding of underlying relationships. They describe these relationships through mental, mathematical, or computer models. Finally, by combining their observations with models, they attempt to make reliable predictions of the future. Prediction is a kind of “holy grail” of scientific achievement; if the predictions hold, then the scientists can trust that they accurately characterized relationships.

NERACOOS organized briefings between researchers who run regional ocean models and national weather service staff in the days leading up to winter storm Nemo. oceanographers Chengshen Chen and Robert Beardsley who design and run computer models to operationally predict the regional ocean conditions, provided model predictions on potential flooding and inundation along the coast. Had a number of phone briefings with National Weather Service forecasters in Taunton, Rhode Island; Gray, Maine.