Sensor-equipped seals deliver goldmine of climate data

Seals with sensors have been roaming Antarctica's seas for over a decade and the trove of data they gathered is now available to scientists across the world. The research, conducted by an 11-nation consortium called Marine Mammals exploring the Oceans Pole-to-Pole (MEOP), was designed to see how climate change affects sensitive oceans in the region. The sensors record position, sea pressure, temperature and salinity data as the animals dive up to 60 times a day to depths of 7,000 feet. Since 2004, they've gathered more than 300,000 environmental profiles of the sea.

The scientists glue the sensors to elephant seals after immobilizing them on land. (Though it may seem a bit cruel, they fall off when the animals molt naturally after a year or so.) The devices (below) transmit hydrographic information data back to scientists via satellite "like tweeting," as the animals range widely across the seas. Such information would be prohibitively expensive to collect by humans, even with the recent development of autonomous sea bots. It also gives insight into the elephant seals themselves, which naturally adapt their migration patterns in response to changing climate conditions.

The researchers say the timing of the data dump is serendipitous,"as an increasing number of studies now focus on the importance of data from these remote and inaccessible parts of the sea." Groups in the consortium have already generated important research on ocean circulation and other topics. However, by disseminating it to scientists (and regular folks) everywhere, it will help generate new research on critical climate change topics like ice cover and, most importantly, future sea levels.

[Image credit: Cristophe Guinet/AFP/Getty Images]