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Two Old Dominion University oceanographers are participating in a project that puts seals to work as climate researchers.

Eileen Hofmann and John Klinck, professors of oceanography at ODU's Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography, are part of an international team of scientists who are using seals to collect data from the ocean depths. A story about this work appeared in the Sept. 8 issue of Science magazine.

The two ODU faculty members are involved in an Antarctic project called "Southern Elephant Seals as Oceanographic Sensors," which is funded by the National Science Foundation and includes researchers from the United Kingdom, France and Australia. The project is one segment of the seal-sensor climate research pioneered by Dan Costa, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

About 70 elephant seals and crabeater seals, whose feeding routines require dives of several hundred meters or more, carry sensors that scientists have attached to the animals' heads or backs.

Sensors such as these have been used mostly to collect information about animals' migratory and feeding habits, as well as other life sciences data. But a little ingenuity and technical advances in sensors have now made it possible for seals to send back information-global coordinates, dive depth and duration, water temperature and salinity-that is also useful to climate researchers.

Data from the sensor-equipped seals allows scientists to understand more about deep-ocean currents and other physical characteristics that are important factors in climate modeling.

Research vessels, as well as buoys, have long collected deep-ocean data that go into the World Ocean Database (WOD) funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The data from seals promises to greatly expand the WOD.

"We are showing that we can do real oceanography research with the data sets that seals are collecting," said Hofmann, who, together with Klinck, is involved in the analysis of the data.

Some scientists thought the data would be too sketchy to be of interest to physical oceanographers, Hofmann added. "But, in fact, we're showing that seal data gives better space and time coverage than we get through ship data."

Relying on ships' data to describe conditions of the ocean depths is like characterizing Norfolk's summer weather from measurements taken once at the beginning of the season and again toward the end of the season, Klinck explained. "The seals can fill in what's missing in between."

The scientists have been able to validate information transmitted by the seal sensors by spot-checking it against data from vessels or buoys.

Seal-assisted research in the Antarctic region is even more valuable than it is elsewhere because the animals can take sensors under ice packs where vessels cannot go and where underwater buoys cannot transmit.

Ocean conditions and processes at both polar caps influence global weather patterns and serve as early indicators of climate change. So the more data the seals can gather in the Antarctic region, the more scientists will know about global warming and climate cycles.

Hofmann and Klinck also are working with Costa on a paper about physical transitions from season to season in the top 150 meters of Antarctic waters, focusing on processes such as sea ice formation and breakup, as well as gaseous exchanges between water or ice surfaces and the atmosphere.

This article was posted on: September 22, 2006

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