IOOS: Observing for the Future

NOAA is leading interagency and regional efforts to build the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS).  IOOS is a coordinated network of people and technology that work together to generate and disseminate continuous data on our coastal waters, Great Lakes, and oceans. IOOS is our nation’s ocean contribution to the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, an international effort designed to monitor Earth and transmit observations globally.  The goal of IOOS is to expand and improve our ability to collect, deliver, and use ocean information—providing information in the right format at the right time to scientists, managers, businesses, governments, and the public.

Integrated Ocean Observing System

The Integrated Ocean Observing System will routinely and continuously provide quality-controlled data and information on past, current, and predicted future states of the oceans and Great Lakes from the global scale of ocean basins to local scales of coastal ecosystems. Click image for larger view.

From weather forecasting to energy predictions, observations of the oceans play a critical role in our daily lives. The United States is making significant progress in collecting data on the nation’s oceans and Great Lakes for use in weather, climate, and economic forecasting and a variety of other related applications. Nevertheless, current efforts only scratch the surface of what we need to know about our oceans and coasts to fully assess their impact on commerce and transportation, weather and climate, and ecosystems.

Diving deeper to discover what makes our planet tick will require a coordinated integration of ocean observations.  The vision for this coordination is the Integrated Ocean Observing System, or “IOOS.”  This article takes an in-depth look at IOOS and how this powerful system can change future exploration and understanding of our world.


The Need for IOOS

Today, many changes occurring in the oceans, from sea level rise and coastal flooding to harmful algal blooms and dead zones, have profound effects on our society.  At present, we do not fully understand the magnitude of these changes, their causes, and their consequences, which makes preparing for, managing, and adapting to future change difficult.

Photo  of Hendersonville, North Carolina

One of the main hazards associated with the coastal zone is flooding. It is a misconception that only properties adjacent to the coastline flood. This photo of Hendersonville, North Carolina, was taken in September 2004, shortly after Hurricane Frances hit the area.  Hendersonville is nearly 300 miles inland from the Atlantic Coast. Click image for larger view.

Currently, many observation tools, such as satellites, tide gauges, and ocean buoys, are in place to collect ocean data.  However, not all of these tools are integrated or designed to work together.  Additionally, some tools needed to build a comprehensive ocean picture are missing.  This is where IOOS comes in.  The process for establishing an integrated system for ocean observations is akin to assembling a quilt—some of the pieces of the quilt are already in place, others are ready to be installed, while others have yet to be designed or imagined.  When all of the pieces are together and assembled, the system will be a powerful tool for understanding our oceans.

The number and variety of people and organizations using ocean observations has exploded over the last decade as new technologies, such as the Internet, have made it technologically and economically feasible to widely distribute observation information.  Ocean observations are also being used with increasing frequency by the scientific community, such as those investigating climate change and fishery issues.  For instance, commercial fisheries are now using ocean data by incorporating climate forecasts into management and harvest decisions.

ATLAS moored buoy

The ATLAS moored buoy was breakthrough technology and a radical departure from existing ideas of how to build an observing system to forecast El Niño. Click image for larger view and full caption.

Weather and climate forecasts are increasingly important to the economy, with average annual damages from tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods nearing $12 billion.  To better understand weather and climate, we have to improve our understanding of the oceans.  For example, real-time data from the Tropical Atmosphere-Ocean (TAO/TRITON) array in the Pacific Ocean has significantly improved our ability to forecast the El Niño-Southern Oscillation. Integrating data from ocean observation networks will also likely help improve NOAA’s storm surge forecasts and will allow emergency managers to make better decisions about evacuation plans. This could save over $640,000 per coastal mile in evacuation and related costs.

Energy industries are also heavily dependent on weather and climate forecasts to predict winter demands for heating oil and natural gas, planning for alternative energy sources (i.e., wind energy), and monitoring air quality.

Once complete, IOOS will be a nationally important infrastructure enabling many different users to characterize, understand, predict, and monitor changes in coastal and ocean environments and ecosystems.  This infrastructure is critical for understanding, responding, and adapting to the effects of severe weather, global-to-regional climate variability, and natural hazards.  Like the examples discussed above, integration of information will ultimately lead to improved environmental decision making.


The Vision

Ocean scientists and engineers are designing and building IOOS – a regional, national, and international partnership to expand and improve our ability to collect, deliver, and use ocean information.

Organization Chart

IOOS is only one part of global Earth observing efforts. These efforts are organized into ocean and full-Earth focuses, as well as national and international components. Click image for larger view.

IOOS will systematically collect ocean observation data and, through data management and communication, provide access to integrated data that scientific modelers, managers, businesses, governments, and the general public can use for a variety of analyses and applications.  By efficiently linking observations, data analysis and modeling, and communication of information, IOOS will ensure that data gathered by individual programs and observing systems are universally available at the right time in the right format for environmental decision making.

IOOS Benefits

From influencing our weather and climate, to providing highways for marine commerce and transportation, recreational opportunities, and natural resources, the oceans are critically important to our society.  An integrated network for monitoring the oceans will increase our understanding of the marine environment, in turn helping us in countless ways. 

Information and services obtained through IOOS will be used to:

  • improve predictions of climate change and weather and their effects on coastal communities and the nation;
  • improve the safety and efficiency of maritime operations;
  • mitigate the effects of natural hazards more effectively;
  • improve national and homeland security;
  • reduce public health risks;
  • protect and restore healthy coastal ecosystems more effectively; and
  • enable the sustained use of ocean and coastal resources.

IOOS Components

A cargo  vessel caught in the rays of the setting sun

A cargo vessel caught in the rays of the setting sun. Data and information collected through IOOS will enhance the safety of travel within the nation’s expansive Marine Transportation System.

IOOS may be viewed as having two interdependent components: a global oceanic component and a national coastal component.  IOOS is the U.S. contribution to the Global Ocean Observing System, or "GOOS."  GOOS is a global system for sustained ocean observations designed to improve weather forecasts and climate predictions.

The coastal component of IOOS is a national effort concerned with the effects of the ocean-climate system and human activities on coastal ecosystems, living resources, and the quality of life in the coastal zone. This component will include several regional observing systems nested in a federally supported national network of observations, data management, and modeling.

Regional observing systems will contribute data and information to this network and, in turn, benefit from access to the entire network of integrated data and information.  Some benefits that may be provided by these regional observing systems include:

  • Improved data to assist in U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue efforts.
  • More efficient routing for marine transportation. Shipping companies rely on ocean current and weather data to find the most efficient routes, and, in a number of regions, depend on NOAA to provide real-time current data.
  • Diminished oil-spill damages. Up-to-the-minute information on currents and winds is essential to effective deployment of oil spill containment and cleanup efforts. For example, even a one-percent increase in the efficiency of oil-spill cleanup would have saved New England $7.5 million over the last 10 years.
  • Improved recreational opportunities, such as planning around inclement marine conditions and identifying prime recreational fishing opportunities.

Regional observing systems will span all of the coastal United States, the Great Lakes, and territories.


NOAA's IOOS Contribution

NOAA owns and operates much of the coastal and ocean observing and data distribution infrastructure.  In addition, through its many programs, NOAA is the only federal agency that has responsibility for some aspect of all IOOS societal goals.  However, NOAA realizes that stakeholders and partners are critical to the overall success of IOOS.  IOOS is a complex multi-agency and organizational undertaking and NOAA remains committed to working in partnership with stakeholders to make IOOS work.

National Water Level Observation Network

NOAA operates the National Water Level Observation Network, which is a network of 175 long-term, continuously operating water-level stations throughout the U.S.

NOAA also realizes that in order to be an effective leader in IOOS, it is imperative that we develop a clear strategic direction for the NOAA contribution that can be communicated to other federal agencies and partners.  In this way, agencies can work together to ensure that various contributions are complimentary, making the most efficient use of the resources and expertise of each group.  NOAA is bringing sharp focus to our activities in two specific ways:  through the newly formed NOAA IOOS Program and through the development of an initial operating capability for data integration.

The NOAA IOOS Program

NOAA’s IOOS Program serves as the central focal point for the administration of NOAA’s IOOS activities and works very closely with the National Office for Integrated and Sustained Ocean Observations (Ocean.US).  NOAA’s IOOS Program and Ocean.US will soon be co-located to improve communication, coordination, and information exchange.  Other federal partners are invited to co-locate to improve inter-agency planning and coordination. 

Initial Operating Capability for Data Integration

Societal challenges facing us today (e.g., coastal populations at risk, compromised ecosystems, climate change) threaten jobs, revenue, and human health.  Answers to these problems require access to better information. 

Data mining and integration are required first steps for many ocean and coastal modeling efforts.  However, data mining and integration cost time and resources.  NOAA is developing an initial operating capability framework to integrate five core IOOS variables (including temperature, salinity, sea level, surface currents, and ocean color) into four NOAA data products. 

Image of harmful algal blooms (Microcystis) in South Bass Island  in Lake Erie, August 4, 2006

Harmful algal blooms are proliferations of microscopic algae that harm the environment and humans by producing toxins. Click image for larger view and full caption.

The initial operating capability framework will allow NOAA to systematically test, evaluate, and benchmark improvements in our ability to save data mining and integration time and money and to more accurately predict hurricane intensity, coastal inundation, and harmful algal blooms and to model, monitor, and assess complex ecosystems.  Hurricane prediction, coastal flooding, harmful algal bloom monitoring, and ecosystem assessments were chosen as part of the initial framework because they are high-priority NOAA efforts that align well with many of the U.S. IOOS societal goals.

NOAA’s goal is to demonstrate value in integrating the IOOS variables into the NOAA data products and to extend this integrated data capability to include other sources of data, parameters, products, and services.  NOAA believes this capability will enable our federal and regional partners to contribute their data and/or access the full suite of existing integrated data.



What we know about the land, the air, and space is based on shared observations over time.  Our ability to see into the ocean and to measure its properties has improved dramatically.  Just as the science of meteorology has given us the means to quickly observe and forecast the weather, the marine sciences are giving us the means to quickly detect and foresee changes in the marine environment. The establishment of a sustained network of atmospheric measurements has produced rapid advances in meteorology.  Likewise, a sustained network of ocean observations will mean more rapid advances in the marine sciences. 

IOOS will benefit society in countless ways—from enhancing the design and location of ocean and coastal infrastructure, helping to locate offshore energy facilities, improving operational planning for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, and mitigating the effects of natural hazards. IOOS data will also contribute to a better understanding of the oceanic and atmospheric environments and facilitate improved fisheries management strategies and response plans to hazardous weather and climate change.


Works Consulted

Adams, R., Brown, M., Colgan, C., Flemming, N., Kite-Powell, H., McCarl, B., Mjelde, J., Solow, A., Teisberg, T., & Weiher, R. (2000). The economics of IOOS: Benefits and the rationale for public funding. Washington, DC: US Department of Commerce, NOAA Office of Policy and Strategic Planning.

Minerals Management Service. (2006). Building the Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS), MMS Ocean Science, Jan/Feb 2006, Vol. 3, Issue 1. Retrieved online March 16, 2007, from

NOAA, Office of Program, Planning and Integration. (2006). NOAA Economic Statistics. Retrieved online March 16, 2007, from

Ocean.US. (2004). The First U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) Development Plan.  Retrieved March 16, 2007, from