Scientists cast adrifta sea of opportunity
Sea-faring robots may be the latest high-profile weapon in the fight against climate change, but are Chinese scientists letting the valuable data they produce go to waste?
Experts working on a major international ocean monitoring project think so - and have blamed the waste on the fact many researchers simply do not know it is free.
Launched at the start of the millennium, Argo is an ongoing and developing program aimead at keeping a regular check on the temperature and salinity of the Seven Seas with satellite-tracked, automated floats.
The robots, which have a lifespan of four years and dive to 2,000 m for 10 days to take crucial measurements, help scientists to better predict changes or trends in the ocean s climate, explained Xu Jianping, a researcher at the second institute of oceanography under the State Oceanic Administration and chief scientist for the China Argo program.
He said China will deploy around 60 floats this year, 10 of which will be placed in the east of the Bashi Channel, in the northwest Pacific Ocean, during a two-week scientific expedition by researchers from the China Ocean University. They were aboard the vessel Dongfanghong 2, which left Xiamen, in Fujian province, on April 3. Another 50 will be cast adrift in northwestern Pacific and the Indian Ocean between June and September.
But while experts in Great Britain, Australia, Japan and the United States have embraced the "revolutionary" research, Xu warned his nation is lagging far behind.
"In most participating countries, scientists from various fields have shown great interest in the Argo program, with climatologists the most enthusiastic," he explained. "But in China, Argo is still little known among scientists, except oceanographers.
"Everyone has access to the same data. Even a high school student who wants to be an oceanographer or climatologist can access it on his desktop. He or she could also catch up with the international research and climate change studies using the Argo data. It would be a great pity if China s scientists miss such a good opportunity."
He said researchers in China were failing to exploit the valuable data from more than 3,000 floats across the globe not because of a "lack of interest", but because of restrictions over project funding or background expertise.
The country s climatologists had got too used to expensive information access systems and had no idea the Argo research could be obtained for free, he said. "Few have shown an interest in the data because they are not used to things being free of charge."
Xu said there had been an improvement in recent years but was still disappointed no climatologists or meteorologists from China attended the recent third International Argo Science Workshop in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.
"The Argo data will demonstrate its greatest value when it is exploited for precision weather forecasts and seasonal to decadal climate prediction," added Xu.
Fellow researcher Zhu Jiang, from the institute of geophysics and meteorology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), agreed and highlighted the fact that, unlike in China, oceanic data for non-profitable use has been distributed free of charge in countries such as the US, Canada and Japan for the last decade.
He recalled that before the Argo program launch in 2000, he emailed a US-based research institute requesting the most up-to-date satellite ocean-monitoring data. He had expected a polite refusal but was overwhelmed when in just a month he received a box filled with more than 100 CD-Rom discs packed with the relevant facts and figures.
"They didn t ask for any payment, not even for shipping," said Zhu. "That was a real surprise for me after so many years doing scientific research."
However, the swapping of such research has not yet set in among Chinese institutes, with the Argo team offering China its first sharing platform for real-time ocean data, he said.
Data from the Argo robots is relayed to China via the French Argo satellite, providing a continuous measure of ocean change and the speed of various currents. And although free to all, the nation has dedicated a team of more than 80 scientists over three State projects to study the results, from which "breakthrough findings can be expected", said Xu.
"This will be the first time such a big group of scientists, mostly oceanographers, will focus on research based on Argo data," he explained, adding the work was vital for such a geographically expansive developing country extremely vulnerable to climate change.
China suffers frequent weather-related disasters, with statistics from the China Meteorological Administration (CMA) showing they caused losses amounting to 2.8 percent of the gross domestic product between 2001 and 2008. And according to Xu Xiaofeng, CMA vice-director, extreme weather events are expected to become even more devastating and harder to manage in the future.
The CMA forecasted all five of the blizzards that affected 22 provinces and cities in January 2008 - the costs of which totaled more than 150 billion yuan ($22 billion) - two to five days beforehand. But with Argo data scientists would be able to better predict the severity of a storm far in advance, allowing them more time to properly pre-warn the general public.
"While weather forecasters have had to use what has happened in the past to predict the intensity of storms, data from the Argo program will give a real-time prediction of just how bad storms will be," said Xu. "But this actually belongs to the expertise of meteorologists and climatologists, not us oceanographers. I hope more climatologists and meteorologists in China will join our research and make the most out of the Argo data."
Meanwhile, Su Jilan, a fellow oceanographer with the CAS, said the Argo floats would also greatly assist oceanographic research in remote and hostile regions that would otherwise be very costly.
"Ocean research has reached a new starting line, not only in China but across the world. Before Argo, scientists had little access to oceanic data, which restricted the potential for comprehensive studies. But Argo makes this possible, that s why we call it revolutionary.
"Such research is critical to our understanding of climate change, as the ocean changes much more slowly than the atmosphere. These gradual changes provide a clearer signal of long-term climate trends than the larger day-to-day oscillations in temperature."
The latest deployment of the autonomous, sensor-loaded floats is not China s first. In 2002, when the country joined the global Argo network, it promised to deploy up to 150 in the Pacific and Indian Ocean. By the end of February, China had deployed 51 - 23 of which are still active - while the total number of active floats across the world stood at 3,325.
Argo was the brainchild of Dean Roemmich, co-chairman of the Argo program steering team and a physical oceanographer at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in California, and intended to help record changes in the climate by measuring what he calls the "vital signs" of the ocean: temperature, salinity and velocity.
"Argo is similar to a satellite in coverage but it s looking at the sub-surface ocean rather than the sea s surface," he said. "So the purpose of having 3,000 floats out there is to give us that sort of dense global coverage that you need in order to really see the variability in the oceans."
The program has so far yielded valuable results that have proved the foundation, or at least a major source, for an annual average of 107 research papers since 2004. The collected data is made available to users quickly and free of restrictions online or on request.
文章来源：China Daily 04/15/2009 page7