Pirates Disrupt Climate Research

Piracy in the Indian Ocean is hampering the efforts of climate change researchers to the point where they have had to call in the Australian Navy.

Pirate activity off the coast of Somalia has increased dramatically over recent years, so much so that a quarter of the Indian Ocean is now considered a “no-go” area.

While it is a major problem for commercial shipping, it is also frustrating for scientists.

Oceanographers and meteorologists say that being locked out of the region has put a hole in their data.

Since January 2010, there have been about 280 reported incidents of piracy off the coast of Somalia and as the activity escalates, the exclusion zone for shipping expands.

The CSIRO’s Ann Thresher says a quarter of the Indian Ocean is currently off limits.

“Pirates are a big problem at the moment for anybody who needs to make any sort of observations in the area of the north-west Indian Ocean,” she said.

“They’re ranging so far up from Somalia that we’re having difficulties getting instruments into that area so it’s a good quarter of the Indian Ocean [that] is a no-go area.

Dr Thresher says research vessels have been pursued by pirates on a number of occasions.

“Yes there have been research vessels in that area that had to make a quick retreat – in one case they actually hired an armed escort for the research vessel. That gets very expensive and we just don’t put scientists at risk like that,” she said.

So scientists are turning to the Navy to help solve the problem.

The United States and Australia have come to the rescue in a joint military and research effort. They are now planning to deliver the floats which scientists hope will fill the data hole.

Dr Thresher says the Navy’s involvement is vital to the success of the project.

“We’re using the Navy to sort of protect our instruments and get them into the right area. We’re also asking the Royal Australian Navy to take nine of our floats up into that area on the next rotation to the Gulf,” she said.

“Now we really need to rely on these guys and we’ll be using them probably much more than we ever have – it’s the only way to get instruments into this area.”

The pirates are hampering research that is crucial in the global understanding of weather forecasting.

The CSIRO is part of an international research team which uses thousands of robotic floats.

They are dropped into the ocean to provide near real time observations and for the last year, scientists have not been able to access the data they need.

Oceanographer Dr Susan Wijffels leads the scientific team, and says the data is of particular importance to Australia.

“So the Indian Ocean as a whole is very important for Australian climate and that area in particular is where there’s a lot of evaporation that happens to fuel the Asian monsoon and not having data there I think is problematic for predictions of what the monsoons are going to be,” she said.

“Then in the longer term especially around the ocean conditions, that area is one of the players in setting up and controlling what happens to a phenomenon called the Indian Ocean Dipole.

“We really do need to have good global coverage and in particular for Australian rainfall forecasting seasonal forecasting, we need good coverage of the tropical Indian and the tropical Pacific so right now half the tropical Indian Ocean is out of bounds for us so it’s a big problem, both for weather forecasting but also for that longer term climate seasonal forecasting.”

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