NRL-developed Ocean Prediction System Steers Ice-Bound Antarctic Vessel to Open Waters

WASHINGTON —The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s Global Ocean Forecast System (GOFS) provided valuable environmental information on March 18 that helped a research icebreaking ship navigate out of Antarctic’s ice-laden waters.

The U.S. Antarctic Programs' ship Nathaniel B. Palmer, tasked with extended scientific missions in the Antarctic, could not maneuver around huge, stiff ice blocks while attempting to reach open waters traversing around Pine Island Bay in West Antarctica.

Personnel aboard the research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer on March 15 as it moves into the Bellingshausen Sea enjoy a Sunday morning sunrise. The crew participated in the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration in the Amundsen Sea region. The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s Global Ocean Forecast System provided valuable environmental information that helped the ship navigate out of Antarctic’s ice-laden waters. (National Science Foundation photo by Cindy Dean)

The NRL-developed forecasting system assimilates ocean and ice observations from a number of sources and provides sea ice concentration, thickness and drift as well as areas of converging or diverging ice.

Convergence happens when sea ice moves towards each other and becomes more compact. Divergence happens when sea ice moves away from each other.

Palmer’s captain John-Martin Souza credits GOFS’ seven-day forecast for helping the crew safely negotiate the moving sea ice that constantly floats apart, then back together at different speeds and locations.

“With the right imagery and extra support products GOFS provided, I was able to find a way out in only one day, after the previous four days of trying,” said Souza. “Everyone on our ship is grateful for the up-to-date information about the ice conditions.”

The ocean forecast system first released in 2013 evolved to incorporate a growing number of data inputs and a more refined understanding of ocean and ice physics. The Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center and the National Ice Center deploy GOFS and other tools to enable the Navy and coalition forces to safely navigate the ocean and ice environment.

Maintaining the most up-to-date knowledge and cutting-edge technology are goals the laboratory always strives to meet in their prediction systems, Joe Metzger, an oceanographer at NRL, said.

“NRL continuously improves this forecasting capability through new research and development and extensive product validation,” Metzger said. “The Navy wants and needs a real-time and accurate forecast.”

The purple dot shows the location of the research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer on March 18 off the coast of Antarctica. The blue arrows indicate sea ice drift in the region from the Community Ice CodE (CICE) model within the operational Global Ocean Forecast System (GOFS) 3.1. The green colors indicates divergence, which is ice moving away from each other. The red colors indicates convergence, which is sea ice moving toward each other and becoming more compact. (Photo courtesy of the National Ice Center)

About the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory NRL is a scientific and engineering command dedicated to research that drives innovative advances for the Navy and Marine Corps from the seafloor to space and in the information domain. NRL headquarters is located in Washington, D.C., with major field sites in Stennis Space Center, Mississippi; Key West, Florida; and Monterey, California, and employs approximately 2,500 civilian scientists, engineers and support personnel.