Sometimes called the “graveyard of the Atlantic” because of the number of shipwrecks, the waters off Cape Hatteras on the North Carolina coast are some of the least understood on the Eastern Seaboard. UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientist Dana Savidge is leading a team, which includes UGA Skidaway Institute scientist Catherine Edwards, to investigate the dynamic forces that characterize those waters.
The four-year project, informally called PEACH: Processes driving Exchange at Cape Hatteras, is funded by a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Skidaway Institute will receive $1.2 million for its part.
PEACH will focus primarily on the physics of the ocean, but the information the researchers gather also will help scientists more fully understand the chemistry and biology, and may cast light on issues like carbon cycling and global climate change.
“Everyone is interested in the global carbon budget, and the effect of the coastal seas on that budget is not well understood,” Savidge said. “For example, many scientists consider the continental shelf to be a sink for carbon because there is a lot of biology going on and it draws in carbon. However, there are indications that the shelf south of Hatteras is both a sink and a source of carbon. This project may help clarify that picture.”
Two opposing deep ocean currents collide at Cape Hatteras, making the Atlantic Ocean near there highly dynamic. Observation can be challenging in the area.
“It’s difficult to get enough instruments in the water because conditions change rapidly over short distances, and it’s hard to keep them there because conditions are rough,” Savidge said. “Ships work nicely for many of these measurements, but frequently, the ships get chased to shore because of bad weather.”
To overcome the limitations of ship-based work, the research team will use a combination of shore- and ocean-based instruments to record the movement and characteristics of the streams of water. A system of high-frequency radar stations will monitor surface currents on the continental shelf all the way out to the shoreward edge of the Gulf Stream, providing real-time maps of surface currents.
Edwards will lead a robotic observational component in which pairs of autonomous underwater vehicles called gliders will patrol the shelf to the north and south of Cape Hatteras.
To compensate for the notoriously difficult conditions, Edwards will take advantage of a novel glider navigation system she developed with students and collaborators at Georgia Tech that automatically adjusts the glider mission based on ocean forecasts as well as data collected in real time.
The project will run through March 2020.