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Seagoing "Frisbee"could provide answers to climate questions

One of the most elusive pieces of the climate and weather puzzle may soon be supplied by a simple oceangoing package of sensors the size and shape of a Frisbee.

While scientists have long known that climate and weather are driven largely by the flow of heat from the ocean to the atmosphere, reliable measurements of this "heat flux" have been almost impossible to obtain, according to John R. Anderson, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and an associate director of the Space Science and Engineering Center there.

The development of a drifting ocean heat flux sensor may provide important clues to long-term climate issues as well as insight into seasonal weather events such as the hurricanes and winter storms that frequently lash the eastern United States.

The beauty of the new device, says Anderson, is its simplicity. It consists of a foam ring that serves as a float and sheets of fiberglass mesh stretched across the float that, once wet, firmly hold a paper-thin suite of sensors just below the surface of the water to measure the flow of heat from the ocean to the atmosphere. The measurements are sent via a 30-foot (roughly 10-meter) floating tether to a buoy that houses batteries, a computer, and a transmitter that relays a continuous stream of data to the polar-orbiting ARGOS satellite.

So far, the heat flux sensor has been tested in two freshwater lakes in Wisconsin and twice in the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean; another was shipped to Pago Pago in American Samoa for deployment in the Pacific.

The new sensor, developed with NSF support, was the brainchild of the late Verner E. Suomi, a UW-Madison scientist who is widely credited with developing the technologies that made weather satellites possible.

For further information, contact Anderson (608-262-0783 or anderson@meteor.wisc.edu) or UW-Madison science writer Terry Devitt (608-262-8282 or trdevitt@facstaff.wisc.edu).

This floating package of sensors could provide critical heat flux data from the oceans. Damaged sensor on the left, though, is evidence of one design problem still to be solved: protecting it from sea birds who mistake it for something edible. (Photo by Jeff Miller, courtesy of UW.)

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