Aquarius satellite: One year observing the salty seas

Aquarius satellite: One year observing the salty seas

Launched on June 10, 2011, aboard the Argentine spacecraft Aquarius/Satélite de Aplicaciones Científicas (SAC)-D, Aquarius is NASA’s first satellite instrument specifically built to study the salt content of ocean surface waters.

Salinity variations, one of the main drivers of ocean circulation, are closely connected with the cycling of freshwater around the planet and provide scientists with valuable information on how the changing global climate is altering global rainfall patterns. 


This video provides a global tour of sea surface salinity using measurements taken by NASA’s Aquarius instrument aboard the Aquarius/SAC-D spacecraft, from December 2011 through December 2012. Red represents areas of high salinity, while blue represents areas of low salinity. Aquarius is a focused effort to measure sea surface salinity and will provide the global view of salinity variability needed for climate studies. The mission is a collaboration between NASA and the Space Agency of Argentina (Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales).


The colorful images chronicle the seasonal stirrings of our salty world: Pulses of freshwater gush from the Amazon River’s mouth; an invisible seam divides the salty Arabian Sea from the fresher waters of the Bay of Bengal; a large patch of freshwater appears in the eastern tropical Pacific in the winter. These and other changes in ocean salinity patterns are revealed by the first full year of surface salinity data captured by NASA’s Aquarius instrument.

“With a bit more than a year of data, we are seeing some surprising patterns, especially in the tropics,” said Aquarius Principal Investigator Gary Lagerloef, of Earth & Space Research in Seattle. “We see features evolve rapidly over time.”

The salinity sensor detects the microwave emissivity of the top 1 to 2 centimeters (about an inch) of ocean water – a physical property that varies depending on temperature and saltiness. The instrument collects data in 386 kilometer-wide (240-mile) swaths in an orbit designed to obtain a complete survey of global salinity of ice-free oceans every seven days.

The changing ocean

The animated version of Aquarius’ first year of data unveils a world of varying salinity patterns. The Arabian Sea, nestled up against the dry Middle East, appears much saltier than the neighboring Bay of Bengal, which gets showered by intense monsoon rains and receives freshwater discharges from the Ganges and other large rivers. Another mighty river, the Amazon, releases a large freshwater plume that heads east toward Africa or bends up north to the Caribbean, depending on the prevailing seasonal currents. Pools of freshwater carried by ocean currents from the central Pacific Ocean’s regions of heavy rainfall pile up next to Panama’s coast, while the Mediterranean Sea sticks out in the Aquarius maps as a very salty sea.

One of the features that stand out most clearly is a large patch of highly saline water across the North Atlantic. This area, the saltiest anywhere in the open ocean, is analogous to deserts on land, where little rainfall and a lot of evaporation occur. A NASA-funded expedition, the Salinity Processes in the Upper Ocean Regional Study (SPURS), traveled to the North Atlantic’s saltiest spot last fall to analyze the causes behind this high salt concentration and to validate Aquarius measurements.

“My conclusion after five weeks out at sea and analyzing five weekly maps of salinity from Aquarius while we were there was that indeed, the patterns of salinity variation seen from Aquarius and by the ship were similar,” said Eric Lindstrom, NASA’s physical oceanography program scientist, of NASA Headquarters, Washington, and a participant of the SPURS research cruise.


Global tour of sea surface salinity showing data measured from December 2011 through December 2012. Red represents areas of high salinity, while blue represents areas of low salinity.



Video courtesy of NASA.GSFC

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