A dedicated player

Print edition : November 07, 2003

At the Visakhapatnam harbour, a digital display board giving information on the availability of fish in different areas of the sea. - COURTESY: INCOIS

The Hyderabad-based INCOIS has emerged as a major player in ocean information and advisory services in a short span of time.

FROM using satellite imagery to provide accurate information on fish abundance to some 10 million fishermen to giving forecast on the state of the sea to the Indian Navy and other user agencies, the Hyderabad-based Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) has carved a niche for itself in the realm of ocean information and advisory services. It has emerged as a major player in the International Argo Project and the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS).

INCOIS was set up on February 9, 1999 as a knowledge-and-information-technology enterprise to provide a cost-effective, reliable and user-friendly ocean observation system and disseminate timely information about the ocean and advisory services to various users including the fishing community, industry, government and scientific institutions. Apart from helping to improve the socio-economic status of the fishing community and facilitating safe operations and travel on the sea, the other missions of INCOIS are to provide timely information on a broad spectrum of marine phenomena - including changes due to the vagaries of the seas such as cyclones, that affect more than 350 million people living on the edge of the coastline - especially tropical and gain an in-depth understanding of oceanic processes to improve weather prediction.

Talking to Frontline, the Director of INCOIS, Dr.K. Radhakrishnan, explained how the Centre had been making significant strides since its inception and contributing to the national development process. He said that the Potential Fishing Zone (PFZ) advisory services were among its thrust areas. Short-term forecasts in the form PFZ advisories were being provided to fishermen in 10 coastal States and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. They contain details such as the latitudes and longitudes of the areas of fish abundance and the distance and direction from different fishing harbours/ landing centres. The advisories are provided using information on chlorophyll and Sea Surface Temperature (SST), derived from Oceansat-1 and the American NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) satellites in near real time.

The forecasts, based on satellite data and provided in the local languages thrice a week, have significantly reduced the search time for fishermen. A variety of media are used to disseminate the advisories, including electronic display boards, satellite radio and the Internet, besides a chain of 225 fax nodes in the coastal belt. A study along the coastline of Kerala has revealed that the search time has reduced by 30-70 per cent because of the use of the advisories by fishermen. The advisories have made such a positive impact on the fishing community that INCOIS has been receiving a spate of fax and e-mail requests seeking regular updates on the PFZs.

He said the electronic display boards were initially installed at Ratnagiri, Kakinada, Machilipatnam, Visakhapatnam, Veraval, Malpe and Gopalpur under a pilot project. "We updated the satellite-based information regularly from INCOIS and this made a very huge impact." It is now being planned to extend this facility to 60-70 major fishing harbours in the country through an institutional arrangement with the respective State Fisheries Departments and Fishery Survey of India.

For the satellite radio experiment, Worldspace receivers were mounted on eight deep-sea fishing vessels chosen from Ratnagiri, Mangalore, Kochi, Munambam, Manakkodam, Kakinada, Machilipatnam and Visakhapatnam. "INCOIS gave the broadcast in five languages twice a day and this experiment conducted during March-May 2003 was received very well. In fact, the fishermen were quite excited about receiving the information directly on board the vessel," he said.

With INCOIS getting ready to broadcast information in all local languages along the 7,500 km-long coastline, owners of at least 500 deep-sea fishing vessels were expected to equip their vessels with Worldspace receivers in the next season, he said. Another project on the anvil is to set up in coastal villages information kiosks that would receive basic information from INCOIS through the Internet and render value addition by including "local wisdom". He said INCOIS had intense interactions with fishing communities at fishing harbours to ensure effective use of the advisories as also to receive feedback.

In recognition of its role in ocean observation and services, INCOIS has been accorded a lead role in projects in the Indian Ocean, such as the International Argo Project and the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS). Pointing out that the oceans have a remarkable capacity to store and transport heat, Dr. Radhakrishnan said that the upper three metres of the ocean can store as much heat as the entire atmosphere. He said several basin-scale oceanic phenomena such as El Nino Southern Oscillations were reported to have influence on regional and global climate. For improved climate forecasts, it was essential to study the changes in temporal and spatial distributions of heat and freshwater, he said.

The Argo project, a major international collaborative venture, has scientists from 25 countries joining hands to collect information from the upper oceans using a fleet of robotic floats that will enable long-term climate forecasting and oceanographic and climate research. The Argo project has been undertaken in the Indian, Pacific, Atlantic and Southern Oceans and is sponsored by the World Climate Research Programme's Climate Variability and Predictability Project (CLIVAR) and the Global Ocean Data Assimilation Experiment (GODAE).

Scientists of INCOIS and NIOT testing an Argo float on board Sagar Kanya before deploying it in the sea.-COURTESY: INCOIS

Under the project, a fleet of 3,000 Argo robotic floats will be deployed in all the oceans for collecting and transmitting real-time data through satellite. The floats will measure the temperature and salinity as they drift with currents at depths ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 metres. After drifting for 10 days, each float rises to the surface by increasing its buoyancy. Once it reaches the surface, the float relays the data on temperature and salinity to an orbiting communications satellite. The real-time data are then processed and distributed globally through the Internet and the global telecommunications system.

So far 910 floats have been deployed by 15 countries; India has deployed 31 floats in the Indian Ocean and plans to deploy 120 more during 2003-06. Of the total number of floats to be deployed by various countries, about 450 would be deployed in the Indian Ocean by 2006.

Dr. Radhakrishnan said that Argo had made a sea change in the way oceans were observed. He added: "Our scientific community has already started analysing this valuable data to study the monsoon phenomena of 2002 and 2003 and the upper ocean response during cyclones." He said that it was a matter of satisfaction that 50 per cent of the target of 450 floats in the Indian Ocean had already been achieved. There is one regional coordinator each for the Atlantic, Pacific, Southern and Indian Oceans. INCOIS has been designated as the regional coordinator for the Indian Ocean.

He said that India achieved the leadership for ocean observations in the Indian Ocean by spearheading the process of establishing IOGOOS, GOOS' regional alliance for the Indian Ocean. The alliance has 19 organisations from 10 countries. India, Australia, South Africa, Madagascar and Sri Lanka are the founder-members of IOGOOS. As the chairman of IOGOOS, the INCOIS Director has been asked to formulate and guide projects on ocean observations and applications of common concern for the region. Besides, INCOIS will host the IOGOOS Secretariat for the next six years. Radhakrishnan has also been made chairman of the inter-sessional working group of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) to implement the recommendations of the GOOS working group.

GOOS, and internationally organised system of the IOC, was evolved in 1992. It is co-sponsored by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU). It envisages, among other things, effective management of the marine environment and sustainable utilisation of its natural resources, an internationally accepted global design to address the broad realms of oceans and climate, and to set up regional alliances of countries that will focus on issues of common concern.

in situ

INCOIS is also involved in a multi-institutional endeavour to translate scientific data into a service that will be useful for safe operations and travel at sea. In a joint venture with Space Applications Centre (SAC), the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and other institutions, INCOIS has undertaken a pilot experimental ocean state forecast study with the focus on parameters such as wave and tidal currents. He said the operational needs of 10 organisations, including the Navy, the shipping industry, the oil industry and the fishing community, were being met by the study.

Besides, under the Satellite Coastal and Oceanographic Research, INCOIS in partnership with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA), has been utilising data from Oceansat-1 and other foreign ocean remote sensing satellites to enrich the PFZ advisories as well as certain geophysical parameters. Radhakrishnan explained that the retrieval of oceanic data and information from satellite sensors was a challenging task as it involved an understanding of the oceanic processes, development of algorithms and validation using "sea truth" and collateral data. He said Oceansat-2, which the ISRO planned to launch in the next few years, would give an impetus to satellite oceanography. Oceansat-2 will have ocean colour monitors that will provide continuity to PFZ applications and a scatterometer to provide data on wind speed and direction. "INCOIS will be one of the major users of Oceansat-2," he added.

The modelling of the ocean-atmosphere system was another major programme undertaken by INCOIS towards enhancing the knowledge base on oceanic and atmospheric processes for predicting ocean, climate and catastrophic weather events and for improving operational predictions by the respective national agencies.

About INCOIS' future plans, he said that operationalising information kiosks and achieving the capability to predict "fish abundance" in terms of the availability of species were among its immediate tasks. Assimilation of Argo data into ocean models was also a priority. He said INCOIS' guiding credo was: "We have a reason to exist if our presence makes a difference to the country."

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