The quest to gain knowledge and understand the workings of the oceans has been a constant undertaking by mankind since the dawn of history. Information on the sea has served navigators to exploit ocean winds and currents, ancient explorers to reach new continents and merchants to reach distant harbours, fishermen and whalers to ascertain their catches, and navies to master ocean space. The need and practical use of ocean knowledge has become even more important today with our increasing dependence on the sea, and an evolving conscience confessing its commitment to the sustained management of ocean resources and obligation towards ocean governance.


What is Operational Oceanography?

The practical study of the sea has in the last two decades leaped forward along with the advancement in science and technology, improved sensors to observe the sea by direct measurements as well as remotely from space, and in particular with the progress in information technology. It goes today under the name of 'Operational Oceanography' which can be defined as the activity of systematic and long-term routine measurements of the seas, oceans and atmosphere, and their rapid interpretation and dissemination.

Important products derived from operational oceanography are:

•  nowcasts: providing the most usefully accurate description of the present state of the sea including living resources;

•  forecasts: providing continuous forecasts of the future condition of the sea for as far ahead as possible; and

•  hindcasts: assembling long term data sets which provide data for description of past states, and time series showing trends and changes.


Operational Oceanography proceeds usually, but not always, by the rapid transmission of observational data to data assimilation centres. There, powerful computers use processing software and numerical forecasting models to extract added-value information from the data. The outputs are used to generate data products, applications and services often through intermediary value-adding organisations. Examples of final products include warnings (of coastal floods, storm impacts, harmful algal blooms and contaminants, etc.), electronic charts, optimum routes for ships, prediction of seasonal or annual primary productivity, ocean currents, ocean climate variability, etc. The final products and forecasts are targeted for rapid distribution to industrial users, government agencies and regulatory authorities. Operational oceanography thus fulfils the demands of the many marine activities, providing support to recurrent and emerging needs such as for safer and more efficient navigation, improved and new marine services, effective assessments on the state of health of the ocean, mitigation of marine hazards, forecasting climate variability, and furthering in general the mastering of the oceans as a resource of food, materials, energy and space.

What is a Marine Observing and Forecasting System?

A marine observing and forecasting system targets to describe the state of the coastal sea in real time by making adequate observations of key parameters with optimal sampling and using various remote-sensed and in-situ methods of measurements and subsequently enhanced through the integration of data sets, interpolation and extrapolation in both space and time to produce reliable added-value end-user products such as in the form of nowcasts/forecasts and environmental indicators. The key element is the routine acquisition of accurate data through a sustained and systematic endeavour of measurement activities that makes use and combines observations from arrays of automated off-shore buoys, coastal installations and conventional monitoring methods in the nearshore areas. These observations are merged together with space-derived data to furnish comprehensive assessments of the marine environment with the added-value contribution of numerical models to prepare nowcasts and forecasts.

Automated real-time observations include:

  1. physical parameters - waves, currents, temperature, salinity, etc.;
  2. bio-chemical parameters - nutrients, dissolved oxygen, pH, etc.;
  3. other measurements such as in relation to radioactivity levels in the sea.

Besides relying on automated observing systems for continuous data acquisition and control, the full environmental monitoring programme also includes the use of more conventional non-automated delayed-mode monitoring methods including laboratory analysis of regular water sampling, use of bio-indicators, heavy metals, sediment analysis, etc.