University of Malta

Operational Oceanography
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What is Operational Oceanography

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.

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 numerical modelling techniques and information technology applications. It often goes today by 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.



Main elements of a coastal observatory (from Ocean Observatories, Oceanus, 2006)


Operational Oceanography generally proceeds by the rapid transmission of observations 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 (e.g. of coastal floods, storm impacts, harmful algal blooms and contaminants, etc.), electronic charts, sea state conditions, optimum routes for ships, prediction of seasonal or annual primary productivity, ocean currents, ocean climate variability, oil spill modelling and response, etc. The final products and forecasts are targeted for rapid distribution to industrial users, government agencies and regulatory authorities.



Last Updated: 28 January 2015

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