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The University of Southampton

Secrets of the oceans to benefit African communities through satellite initiative

Published: 6 October 2004

Southampton scientists are contributing to a UNESCO initiative to provide scientists and environmental managers in Africa with up-to-the-minute satellite information to help predict the path of hurricanes and storms, work out rainfall patterns, forecast ocean wave heights, and get information to help with better management of fisheries and coastal resources.

This pioneering computer-based project, which has been dubbed 'Bilko', aims to develop specialist software and training materials in coastal and marine satellite remote sensing, and provide these without charge to forecasters and coastal managers across the world via the Web.

Experts from South Africa, Kenya, Portugal and the UK are contributing lessons to the latest teaching module 'Observing the Ocean from Envisat', which is financed by the European Space Agency and edited by Val Byfield of Southampton Oceanography Centre (SOC).

"To begin with the hope is to promote on-the-job training for scientists and environmental managers across Africa to use satellite data as part of their work," explains Val, whose own specialist area is in ocean colour remote sensing.

"Eventually the aim is to turn Earth Observation data received from satellites such as Envisat into information useful for decision-makers in the wider community," she adds. "Satellite data and adequate processing tools are necessary, but not sufficient on their own. What makes the real difference is the ability of specialists to derive the required information by interpreting satellite data and merging it with field measurements and other inputs."

Earlier this year David Kirugara, from the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, spent two months at SOC working with its satellite team to prepare lessons for the training programme for the countries of the Western Indian Ocean as part of the Bilko project. Now back home, he has just finished the first workshop for environmental scientists and coastal managers from Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique and Tanzania, held at the Luigi Broglio Space Centre in Malindi, Kenya. Participants got hands-on experience in the use of satellite altimetry data to study changes in sea level, forecast ocean wave height, find fish-feeding ocean eddies, and look at large scale climate patterns.

"Information available from satellites such as Envisat includes sea surface temperature (SST), ocean colour and radar images of sea surface roughness," explains Val Byfield.

"SST provides information that can help improve the ability to predict rainfall patterns and the development of hurricanes. Ocean colour reflects information about the amount of phytoplankton in the water, which in turn indicates the amount of food available for marine animals. Radar images of surface roughness are used to monitor internal waves, which can be a danger to off-shore structures, and to monitor pollution such as that caused by oil spills."


Further information on Bilko developments

Supported by the UNESCO Crosscutting Project on the Applications of the Remote Sensing for Integrated Management of Ecosystems and Water Resources in Africa and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), the latest Bilko development initiative is a result of a thorough assessment of capacity building needs in Coastal Ocean Remote Sensing conducted by the Global Ocean Observing Systems for Africa (GOOS-AFRICA).

As part of a five-year capacity building project to develop Regional Ocean Observing and Forecasting Systems for Africa, (ROOFS-AFRICA), it will serve a wide range of specialists and users in the field of operational oceanography and coastal management. The training goes hand in hand with capacity-building in other areas including ocean in situ measurements and observations and modelling. Increasing observations from ships and buoys, building more African satellite receiving stations, improving the network that transmits satellite data across the continent - all need trained experts.

The Malindi workshop was the first in a series of remote sensing training courses planned jointly by the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO, with support from the IOC Regional Programme for the Western Indian Ocean, the Western Indian Ocean Satellite Applications Project, the ODINAFRICA project (Ocean Data and Information and Information Network for Africa), and the Italian Space Agency.

Other African training initiatives are also under development. Research specialists in the Department of Oceanography at the University of Cape Town use the Envisat data to understand the biological machinery driving the Large Marine Ecosystems of the Benguela. Next year they will play hosts to GOOS-AFRICA's first Pan-African Training course, organised in cooperation with the SOC, the LME Projects in Africa and other partners. The theme of this workshop is : 'Integration of Satellite Remote Sensing data with the Ocean in situ Observations and Modelling for a Sustainable Management of African Large Marine Ecosystems'.

Notes for editors

  1. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship. The University has over 19,200 students and 4,800 staff and plays an important role in the City of Southampton. Its annual turnover is in the region of £250 million.
  2. The Bilko Project is steered by an international team of remote sensing experts, the International Bilko Steering Team (IBEST) and the GOOS Project Office of the IOC/UNESCO. Day-to-day project administration is carried out from Southampton.
  3. UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
  4. The UNESCO-Bilko Project
  6. UNESCO Natural Sciences
  7. Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC)
  8. The Global Ocean Observing Systems
  10. European Space Agency & Envisat
  11. Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association
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