A seal equipped with a satellite tag - a 21st century polar explorer

Tweeting seals help gather polar data

Seals equipped with satellite tags have helped researchers to create a huge database of information about environmental conditions in the world’s most inaccessible regions.

The sensors designed by researchers from the University of St Andrews are non-invasive, attached to the animals’ fur and thus shed when the seals moult. The tags, sending data regularly via satellite links, enabled the researchers to create a comprehensive database of information about the conditions of glaciers and ice sheets in polar areas.

“The information sent back to us gives us details about the seal’s immediate physical environment,” said Lars Boehme, a lecturer at the University of St Andrews. “It’s like tweeting.”

In addition to the St Andrews University team, researchers from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Greenland, Norway, South Africa and the US took part in the ten-year project.

“The fact that animals have collected the data is an interesting innovation in ocean observation,” said Mike Fedak, Professor of Biology at the University of St Andrews. “But perhaps of more general importance is that data from these remote and inaccessible places now gives us a much clearer picture of the state of the world’s oceans."

The project, called MEOP, for Marine Mammals Exploring the Oceans Pole-to-pole, marks the first occasion researchers were able to get a glimpse of the situation in some remote areas, which, as Fedak explained, is critical for proper understanding of the processes in the global ocean.

Since 2004, a small army of seals equipped with the sensors has produced nearly 400,000 environmental profiles, resulting in one of the world’s largest oceanographic databases for polar oceans.

Data was decoded and processed back in St Andrews, before being shared with the consortium. Information was also relayed to the Met Office and similar bodies across the world for use in weather forecasting.

The data will be made freely available to scientists around the world as part of a new data portal launched on Monday 1 June 2015.

“Changes in the polar oceans have global ramifications and a significant influence on weather and climate,” said Boehme.

“The new portal will make available all the data collected by animals up to now to the wider international scientific community and will import future animal platform data as well.”


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