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At Edwards Air Force Base

An aircraft from NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center is taking part in a study of small ocean eddies, swirling areas of water that scientists believe impact how the ocean affects climate change.

The Sub-Mesoscale Ocean Dynamics Experiment, or S-MODE, uses a combination of instruments taking measurements from the air, the ocean surface and underwater to study these spiraling eddies that were first observed from space during the Apollo 7 mission.

Scientists believe that the smaller versions of these eddies, measuring from one to 3,280 to 32,000 feet across, play a role in how water moves vertically through the ocean, impacting temperature and the exchange of gases that impact climate change, S-MODE Principal Investigator Thomas Farrar said.

Because these eddies evolve rapidly, they are difficult to measure, Farrar said. They are too small to see by satellites, yet too large and short-lived to be effectively studied by ships.

Using a fleet of sometimes novel platforms, from aircraft to ships to waterborne drones, this project aims to collect information throughout the columns of the eddies. The data will be used to verify and improve computer models of the ocean activity, and help scientists to better understand the physics and improve prediction models.

“We at NASA have high hopes for this mission to demonstrate what the future of ocean (research) might look like,” Project Scientist Nadya Vinogradova Shiffer said.

Using infrared imagery of the ocean, researchers were able to identify areas of eddies and see that they impact the temperature and salinity of the ocean, Farrar said.

“You can see that they’re stirring around the ocean,” he said. The effects are important, as temperature and salinity affect heat and gas exchange between water and air.

Some areas of the ocean absorb carbon, while others release it, Vinogradova Shiffer said. The ability to absorb carbon is huge in moderating climate change.

S-MODE is intended to measure these effects in detail and test the hypothesis of the small eddies’ impact.

Armstrong’s B-200 King Air, outfitted with instrumentation, is taking part in the overflights of the eddies in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Francisco.

It joins two other NASA aircraft, a research ship and almost 20 robotic drones on the surface and under the water, all collecting data to help map the structure and movement of the eddies.

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