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Australia Resorts to Gunboat Climatology

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—Under threat from pirates, Australian researchers have enlisted naval muscle to plug a critical gap in climate monitoring in the Indian Ocean.

Over the past 2 years, pirates operating out of conflict-riven Somalia have severely disrupted research, says Ann Thresher, an oceanographer at the Wealth from Ocean Flagship program of CSIRO, Australia's national science agency. Particularly hard hit is ARGO, an international program (link: under which Australian researchers track the Indian Ocean Dipole, a fluctuation of sub-surface temperatures in the equatorial region of the southeastern and the western Indian Ocean. The fluctuation's strength is used to predict floods or droughts across Australia. To measure the Indian Ocean dipole, 2-meter-long lithium battery-powered buoys, which look like bright yellow rockets, record temperature, pressure, and salinity.

CSIRO generally receives assistance from commercial ships to deploy buoys on its behalf. But piracy has forced ships to change their routes. "We have not been able to seed about one-quarter of the Indian Ocean [with buoys] since the increase in piracy," Thresher says. "Without that our predictions are suffering; that's why we had to find another way."

In March, researchers were denied permission by the Seychelles government to place buoys in their territorial waters because of the piracy risk. CSIRO later contacted the Australian navy, which has agreed to deploy eight or nine buoys in the Gulf of Aden in the next 4 to 6 months. In a separate initiative, a U.S. naval vessel is carrying one CSIRO buoy and nine more from the United Kingdom and is expected to deploy them on the east coast of Africa next month.