Coastal Observing

coastal observing system is a combination of many components used to gather information and turn it into useful products that support human populations, coastal economies and a healthy, sustainable environment.  In short, observing systems are our eyes on the oceans, coasts and Great Lakes. They provide timely, actionable information developed from reliable and user-driven science to provide insight into present and future conditions.  Regional coastal observing systems are designed to meet the unique needs of the regional environment and population. Information collected aids in:

Regional IOOS

Coastal ecosystems are complex. U.S. waters encompass 11 Large Marine Ecosystems that range from the cold waters of the Arctic to the warm waters of the tropical Pacific Islands. The Great Lakes, with over 10,000 miles of coastline, are the world’s largest system of freshwater lakes. Each region is characterized by unique geological, physical and chemical properties, biological productivity and human uses. The national network of eleven regional observing system provides services to the entire coastline of the U.S.

The 11 IOOS Regional Associations (RAs) design, maintain and operate regional coastal observing systems. Each RA is managed by a Board of Directors drawn from stakeholders in the region.  The RAs works with agencies, industry, scientists and others to tailor an observing system to address specific regional issues.


Established by the Integrated Coastal and Ocean Observation System Act of 2009 (ICOOS Act), U.S. IOOS is a interagency network that brings that brings together 17 Federal agencies that, in collaboration with the regional system, provide quality information about our coasts, oceans and Great Lakes.  The US IOOS Program Office, located in NOAA’s National Ocean Service, provides leadership and coordination for the program.  The Interagency Ocean Observing Committee (IOOC) coordinates the activities of the Federal level. The program also:

  • Certifies the RAs as Regional Information Coordinating Entities,

  • Supports a merit-based competitive funding process,

  • Implements a national data management and communications system, and

  • Seeks advice from a System Advisory Committee


Each observing system uses a variety of platforms to collect data. The following are the major types of platforms used in IOOS.

Moorings include a number of technologies that are moored to the ocean floor with a floating surface structure. Buoys can be for a single purpose such as waves or include a variety of sensors mounted both above and below the water surface. Most buoys relay data back to shore in real-time. Profiling buoys include senor packages that regularly move up and down the mooring rope providing a comprehensive look at the water quality. Buoys can be outfitted with sensors for wind, waves, currents, salinity, chlorophyll, ocean chemistry and biology.

Shore Station

Shore stations are installed on coastal beaches, islands, on piers and offshore platforms to provide wind speed, gusts, and direction, air temperature, relative humidity, barometric pressure, solar radiation, rainfall, water temperature data and more. These basic measurements provide important real time information on storms and helps predict changes to the weather and climate.

A glider is an autonomous, unmanned underwater vehicle that can be equipped with sensors that can measure ocean properties such as water temperature, Chlorophyll A, salinity and fish acoustics. It sawtooths up and down the water column and follows a GPS path set by the researcher. Every few hours the glider surfaces to call home, transmits data and awaits further instructions.  Gliders are flexible platforms that can be used for continuous monitoring and can be deployed in the event of an oil spill or harmful algae bloom and other major events.


Ships have been used to collect ocean information since the days of Captain Cook.  Research and fisheries vessels carry a variety of sensors to gather physical, chemical and biological information on ocean conditions along the cruise route. Some sensors are mounted on the ship and take regular measurements of water and atmospheric conditions.  Scientists also deploy instruments into the ocean and Great Lakes to gather information on conditions throughout the water column.

High Frequency Radar
Land-based high frequency radar (HFR) provide real-time information on the speed and direction of surface currents over a large coverage area. This information can be useful in tracking oil or other hazardous materials and harmful algal blooms. Because of the large coverage area, HFR data also are valuable input for ocean models and for assisting with search and rescue operations at sea.  IOOS operates the nation’s only HFR network provide data to the Coast Guard and NOAA for use in search and rescue and spill response.
Observations from satellites are an essential component of IOOS.  Earth observing satellites orbit the Earth at an altitude of 500 to over 20,000 miles and collect imagery that allows us to measure ocean conditions including sea surface temperature, ocean color, and sea surface height.  Satellite data can be used to identify ocean fronts, harmful algae blooms, oil spills, hurricanes and polar ice distributions.

Statistical and numerical models are powerful tools that can forecast ocean and Great Lake conditions. IOOS observation data is incorporated into computer models that simulate the coastal environment. Models can be used to forecast circulation patterns, flooding, the movement of harmful algae, fish larvae or pollutants through the ecosystem, and more.


Data management is key to the success of IOOS.  The goal of the IOOS data strategy is to ensure that users have seamless access to quality and timely data, in a format they can access and understand.   IOOS data management uses state-of-the are IT techniques to integrate data from multiple federal and non-federal sources and to make the data available in real time.

The IOOS Regional Associations engage with various user communities to understand their information needs – how they use the data, how often, in what format and for what purposes – in order to transform raw data into useful information.  Websites are the primary way users access the information they need but at user requests, data is also made available through smart phone apps and on marine radio reports.  Example products include: real-time information on sea state conditions for mariners; early warning for flooding or harmful algae blooms; water quality information for shellfish growers, marine weather trackers and more.