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Predictive models for tides, hydrodynamics, and bio-optical properties affecting the visibility and buoyancy of coastal waters are needed to evaluate the safety of personnel and equipment engaged in maritime operations under potentially hazardous conditions. Predicted currents can be markedly different for two-layer systems affected by terrestrial runoff than for well-mixed conditions because the layering decouples the surface and bottom Ekman layers and rectifies the current response to oscillatory upwelling- and downwelling-favorable winds. Standard ocean models (e.g. Princeton Ocean Model) require initial and boundary data on the physical and optical properties of the multilayered water column to provide accurate simulations of heat budgets and circulation. Two observational systems are designed to measure vertically structured conditions on the West Florida Shelf (WFS): a tethered buoy network and an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). The AUV is described with a focus on the observational systems that challenge or limit the communications command and control network for various types of measurement programs. These include vertical oscillatory missions on shelf transects to observe the optical and hydrographic properties of the water column, and bottom-following missions for measuring the bottom albedo. Models of light propagation, absorption, and conversion to heat as well as determination of the buoyancy terms for physical models require these measurements.