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How many Argo floats can you fit in a sailing yacht? Eighty is the answer!

Date: 16 November 2021

For the first time, a sailboat loaded with dozens of profiling Argo floats, will sail the Atlantic Ocean to replenish the global Argo array in hard-to-reach locations, contributing to the real-time observation and stewardship of the Ocean with the lowest of carbon footprints. 

On November 14, the S/V Iris left Brest, in Brittany, and is sailing the Atlantic Ocean in support of ocean and climate science.  

During the expedition, under the coordination of OceanOPS*, the French Blue Observer team onboard S/V Iris will deploy a total of 100 autonomous robots, called Argo floats. This is a unique mission for the number of floats that are onboard and will be launched so many floats that the crew and observer team have hardly space to sleep! This is definitely not a luxury cruise. In the 12 weeks of mission Iris will sail to remote parts of the Atlantic Ocean, where few ships visit and where we therefore need these ocean observations.  

Argo profiling floats are autonomous robots that drift with the ocean currents and move up and down between the surface and a mid-water level, collecting pressure, temperature, and salinity profiles from the upper 2 kilometres of the ocean. These instruments - veritable climate sentinels - enable climate variation studies, as well as feed atmospheric forecasting models, vital to understand climate change, and help prediction of extreme weather and climate events. 

The OceanOPS & Blue Observer initiative was born one year ago during the pandemic, when deployment of Argo floats and other oceanographic instruments by research vessels was deeply impacted by Covid-19 restrictions.  

“About 1,000 Argo profiling floats must be deployed every year to sustain the Global Ocean Observing System. Often, they are deployed opportunistically by research ships, but these are very costly, and their trajectories are tied to specific missions and are not able to fill all the gaps or work in all seasons. Collaborations with citizens allows us to reach remote and not yet well sampled areas of the ocean, filling critical observational gaps”, says Mathieu Belbéoch, Manager of OceanOPS. “This mission is an innovative and low carbon footprint operational response to the constraints imposed by the global pandemic and the difficulties of maintaining the usual academic research campaigns”, adds Belbéoch. 

Closing gaps in ocean observing through inclusive international collaboration  

The 3-month oceanographic expedition was launched from the Brest harbour, where the Euro-Argo ERIC Team - in charge of the European contribution to the Argo program - coordinated the ship loading with 17 European Argo floats. The instruments, provided by the Ifremer Institute in France, the Royal Meteorological Institute (KNMI) in the Netherlands, and the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency (BSH) in Germany, will be deployed en route to Woods Hole in the United States.  

“This is a first innovative experience for the Argo Program to coordinate such an operation of floats deployment from a single vessel throughout the Atlantic, and Euro-Argo ERIC is proud to contribute to it”, says Sylvie Pouliquen, Euro-Argo ERIC Director. “If the operation will be successful, sailing boats could be considered as complementary, low-carbon footprint means, to deploy or recover floats at sea”, add Pouliquen. 

After approximately two weeks of transatlantic navigation, the R/V Iris will reach Woods Hole. There, it will be reloaded with the remaining 83 US and Canadian floats, for deployment in under-sampled areas of the south Atlantic Ocean, towards the island of St. Helena.  

Susan Wijffels, Argo Steering Team co-chair and one of the main partners of the project says: “Argo has revolutionized our ability to ‘see’ into the remote and vast ocean regions, and this is vital for better understanding changing weather and ocean extremes, and how climate will evolve over the next decades. The voyage of Iris will help us track vast regions of the Atlantic over the next few years by replenishing the array there". 



Figure 1: Iris sailboat 

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Figure 2: European Argo floats loading onboard Iris in Brest harbour.

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Figure 3: sailing itinerary. The yellow dots on the map are the approximative Argo floats deployment positions.

Contributing to the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development  

The OceanOPS & Blue Observer mission, with its innovative citizen science vision in support of ocean observations, will support the Ocean Decade Odyssey Project led by OceanOPS. With this project, OceanOPS aims at enhancing the GOOS by cooperating with new ocean-going vessel types from ocean races, NGOs, citizens, and private sectors. 

“We urgently need targeted increases in observations, and support from a broader range of actors from private and public sectors, and increased collaboration”, says Emma Heslop, GOOS Project Office. “That is why I am really delighted to support this mission, which embodies the level of response we need to face climate change, for ocean and planet health”. 

One of the challenges of the Odyssey Project is to ensure that ocean data and information are timely delivered and freely accessible to all users. This challenge is in line with the recently endorsed WMO Unified Data Policy Resolution, assessing the free and unrestricted exchange of observational data from all parts of the world, and it is one of the pillars of the OceanOPS & Blue Observer mission.  

During the launch of the expedition in Brest, Dominique Berod, Head of the Earth Monitoring Division at WMO, says: “Observations are key to our understanding of how the complex Earth system – the atmosphere, oceans, freshwater bodies, land, and the biosphere – shapes our weather, climate and hydrology. Data are the start of all our knowledge, and ocean observations are crucial to support essential services needed by all sectors of society, as they face challenges, such as climate change and increasing frequency and impact of extreme weather. I am grateful to all the parties involved in this project, which will contribute with ocean observations and data sharing to our understanding of the ocean”. 

“In the face of a changing climate, and on the wave of COP-26 in Glasgow, now more than ever, ocean observations are needed, for improving the understanding and predictions of weather, climate and ocean conditions. The WMO thanks all those involved in this expedition - wonderful example of international collaboration in science for sustainable development”, adds Sarah Grimes, Head of Marine Services at WMO. 

Oceanography under sail with a legendary sailboat and a multidisciplinary crew 

The R/V Iris has a great track record in circumnavigations. The yacht holds the record for the round-the-world trip in reverse: 122 days, 14 hours, and 49 seconds, set in 2014. In 2007, it sailed around the Antarctic from East to West against prevailing winds, with the famous French sailor Maud Fontenoy. After renovation, the yacht is fully equipped with numerous scientific materials, and hosts a 7 crew, including 4 sailors, 1 engineer, 1 scientist and 1 media person.  

Scientific material onboard includes: 

  • a meteorological station for meteorological data collection (e.g. air pressure, temperature, humidity, etc.), and one drifting buoy for ocean currents measurements, both donated by Météo-France 

  • a thermosalinograph provided by Ifremer, for surface temperature and salinity data measurements 

  • microbiological filters and a humid laboratory for plankton and aerosol samplings collection in the open sea, and to perform analyses onboard 

  •  Argo profiling floats, providing temperature and salinity profiles from the upper 2 kilometres of the ocean.  

Partners’ words 

The OceanOPS & Blue Observer mission, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Argo Canada and Euro-Argo European Research Infrastructure Consortium (Euro-Argo ERIC), is the result of intense collaboration between intergovernmental, public, and private sectors facilitated by OceanOPS.  

“When Woods Hole colleagues first approached me about this opportunity, I was very excited. We have had trouble getting Argo floats to certain areas in the Atlantic Ocean and this was a great way to fill in those observing gaps and to do it in an innovative, emissions-free way that would not contribute to climate change. I think this mission is a great opportunity to showcase how important partnerships are and how we can complete our research missions by being more inclusive”, says Emily Smith, NOAA’s Argo Program Manager. 

Blair Greenan, Research Scientist at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography (Canada), one of the partners of the mission says: “In its role as the champion for ocean observations under the Commonwealth Blue Charter, the Government of Canada has confidence that the OceanOPS & Blue Observer expedition will demonstrate the potential of new approaches for deploying Argo floats, that is both cost effective and environmentally sustainable. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, one of the pioneers of the Argo program, is looking forward to learning from both the successes and the challenges of this venture”.  

* OceanOPS: jointly centre of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO, is the international hub and centre of excellence that provides vital services in monitoring, coordinating, and integrating data and metadata, across an expanding network of global oceanographic and marine meteorological observing communities  

For more information, please contact: 

Mathieu Belbéoch, Manager OceanOPS 

Emanuela Rusciano, Coordinator Science & Communication, OceanOPS 

More photos:


Figure 4: R/V Iris departure on 14 November in Brest


Figure 5: Blue Observer Team


Figure 6: Mission launch ceremony in Brest with WMO and IOC/UNESCO delegates. and French elected officials


Figure 7: R/V in Brest harbour 

blue observer departure

Figure 8: R/V Iris departure on 14 November from Brest