Oceanography The Official Magazine of
The Oceanography Society
Volume 23 Issue 04

View Issue TOC
Volume 23, No. 4
Pages 94 - 103

Monitoring Ocean Currents with Satellite Sensors

Kathleen Dohan Nikolai Maximenko
Article Abstract

The interconnected ocean surface current system involves multiple scales, including basin-wide gyres, fast narrow boundary currents, eddies, and turbulence. To understand the full system requires measuring a range of motions, from thousands of kilometers to less than a meter, and time scales from those that are climate related (decades) to daily processes. Presently, satellite systems provide us with global and regional maps of the ocean surface’s mesoscale motion (larger than 100 km). Surface currents are measured indirectly from satellite systems. One method involves using remotely sensed fields of sea surface height, surface winds, and sea surface temperature within a physical model to produce currents. Another involves determining surface velocity from paths of drifting surface buoys transmitted to satellite sensors. Additional methods include tracking of surface features and exploitation of the Doppler shift in radar fields. The challenges for progress include measuring small and fast processes, capturing the vertical variation, and overcoming sensor limitations near coasts. Here, we detail the challenges as well as upcoming missions and advancements in satellite oceanography that will change our understanding of surface currents in the next 10 years.


Dohan, K., and N. Maximenko. 2010. Monitoring ocean currents with satellite sensors. Oceanography 23(4):94–103, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2010.08.


Boccaletti, G., R. Ferrari, A. Adcroft, D. Ferreira, and J. Marshall. 2005. The vertical structure of ocean heat transport. Geophysical Research Letters 32, L10603. [CrossRef]

Bonjean, F., and G. Lagerloef. 2002. Diagnostic model and analysis of the surface currents in the tropical Pacific Ocean. Journal of Physical Oceanography 32:2,938–2,954.

Bourassa, M.A., S.T. Gille, D.L. Jackson, J.B. Roberts, and G.A. Wick. 2010. Ocean winds and turbulent air-sea fluxes inferred from remote sensing. Oceanography 23(4):36–51. [CrossRef]

Chapron, B., F. Collard, and F. Ardhuin. 2005. Direct measurements of ocean surface velocity from space: Interpretation and validation. Journal of Geophysical Research 110, C07008. [CrossRef]

Deng, X., and W.E. Featherstone. 2006. A coastal retracking system for satellite radar altimeter waveforms: Application to ERS-2 around Australia. Journal of Geophysical Research 111, C06012. [CrossRef]

Dohan, K., and R.E. Davis. In press. Mixing in the transition layer during two storm events. Journal of Physical Oceanography.

d’Ovidio, F., J. Isern-Fontanet, C. Lopez, E. Garcia-Ladona, and E. Hernandez-Garcia. 2009. Comparison between Eulerian diagnostics and the finite-sized Lyapunov exponent computed from altimetry in the Algerian Basin. Deep Sea Research Part I 56(1):15–31. [CrossRef]

Ekman, V.W. 1905. On the influence of the Earth’s rotation on ocean currents. Archives of Mathematics, Astronomy, and Physics 2(11):1–52.

Emery, W.J., D. Baldwin, and D. Matthews. 2003. Maximum cross correlation automatic satellite image navigation and attitude corrections for open-ocean image navigation. IEEE Transactions on Geoscience and Remote Sensing 41(1):33–42. [CrossRef]

Fu, L.-L. 2006. Pathways of eddies in the South Atlantic Ocean revealed from satellite altimeter observations. Geophysical Research Letters 33, L14610. [CrossRef]

Fu, L.-L., and R. Ferrari. 2008. Observing oceanic submesoscale processes from space. Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union 89:488. [CrossRef]

Fu, L.-L., D.B. Chelton, P.-Y. Le Traon, and R. Morrow. 2010. Eddy dynamics from satellite altimetry. Oceanography 23(4):14–25. [CrossRef]

Gargett, A.E. 1989. Ocean turbulence. Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics 21:419–451. [CrossRef]

Held, I., R.T. Pierrehumbert, S.T. Garner, and K.L. Swanson. 1995. Surface quasi-geostrophic dynamics. Journal of Fluid Mechanics 282:1–20. [CrossRef]

Isern-Fontanet, J., G. Lapeyre, P. Klein, B. Chapron, and M.W. Hecht. 2008. Three-dimensional reconstruction of oceanic mesoscale currents from surface information. Journal of Geophysical Research Oceans 113:153–169, C09005.

Karsten, R.H., H. Jones, and J. Marshall. 2002. The role of eddy transfer in setting the stratification and transport of a circumpolar current. Journal of Physical Oceanography 32:39–54. [CrossRef]

Klein, P., and G. Lapeyre. 2009. The oceanic vertical pump induced by mesoscale and submesoscale turbulence. Annual Review of Marine Science 1:351–375. [CrossRef]

Lagerloef, G., R. Schmitt, J. Schanze, and H.-Y. Kao. 2010. The ocean and the global water cycle. Oceanography 23(4):82–93. [CrossRef]

Large, W.G., and G.B. Crawford. 1995. Observations and simulations of upper ocean response to wind events during the ocean storms experiment. Journal of Physical Oceanography 25:2,832–2,852.

Larnicol, G., S. Guinehut, M.-H. Rio, M. Drevillon, Y. Faugere, and G. Nicolas. 2006. The global observed ocean products of the French Mercator project. Proceedings of the Symposium on 15 Years of Progress in Radar Altimetry. Venice, Italy, March 13–18, 2006, European Space Agency Special Publication SP-614.

Lee, T., S. Hakkinen, K. Kelly, B. Qiu, H. Bonekamp, and E.J. Lindstrom. 2010. Satellite observations of ocean circulation changes with climate variability. Oceanography 23(4):70–81. [CrossRef]

Liu, A.K., and M.K. Hsu. 2009. Deriving ocean surface drift using multiple SAR sensors. Remote Sensing 1(3):266–277.

Madsen, K.S., J.L. Hoyer, and C.C. Tscherning. 2007. Near-coastal satellite altimetry: Sea surface height variability in the North Sea-Baltic Sea area. Geophysical Research Letters 34, L14601. [CrossRef]

Mahadevan, A., and A. Tandon. 2006. An analysis of mechanisms for submesoscale vertical motion at ocean fronts. Ocean Modelling 14:241–256. [CrossRef]

Maximenko, N., and J. Hafner. 2010. SCUD: Surface Currents from Diagnostic Model. IPRC Technical Note 5. 17 pp. Available online at: http://apdrc.soest.hawaii.edu/projects/SCUD/SCUD_manual_02_17.pdf (accessed November 2, 2010).

Maximenko, N., P. Niiler, L. Centurioni, M.-H. Rio, O. Melnichenko, D. Chambers, V. Zlotnicki, and B. Galperin. 2009. Mean dynamic topography of the ocean derived from satellite and drifting buoy data using three different techniques. Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology 26(9):1,910–1,919.

McGillicuddy, D.J., L.A. Anderson, S.C. Doney, and M.E. Maltrud. 2003. Eddy-driven sources and sinks of nutrients in the upper ocean: Results from a 0.1 degree resolution model of the North Atlantic. Global Biogeochemical Cycles 17(2), 1035. [CrossRef]

Philander, S.G.H. 1990. El Niño, La Niña and the Southern Oscillation. Academic Press, San Diego, CA, 289 pp.

Rio, M.-H., and F. Hernandes. 2004. A mean dynamic topography computed over the world ocean from altimetry, in situ measurements, and a geiod model. Journal of Geophysical Research 109, C12032. [CrossRef]

Saraceno, M., P.T. Strub, and P.M. Kosro. 2008. Estimates of sea surface height and near-surface alongshore coastal currents from combinations of altimeters and tide gauges. Journal of Geophysical Research 113, C11013. [CrossRef]

Stommel, H. 1948. The westward intensification of wind-driven ocean currents. Transactions, American Geophysical Union 29:202–206.

Sudre, J., and R. Morrow. 2008. Global surface currents: A new product for investigating ocean dynamics. Ocean Dynamics 58(2):101–118. [CrossRef]

Sverdrup, H.U. 1947. Wind-driven currents in a baroclinic ocean: With application to the equatorial currents of the eastern Pacific. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 33(11):318–326. [CrossRef]

Volkov, D.L., G. Larnicol, and J. Dorandeu. 2007. Improving the quality of satellite altimetry data over continental shelves. Journal of Geophysical Research 112, C06020. [CrossRef]

Williams, R.G., C. Wilson, and C.W. Hughes. 2007. Ocean and atmosphere storm tracks: The role of eddy vorticity forcing. Journal of Physical Oceanography 37:2,267–2,289.

Wunsch, C., and R. Ferrari. 2004. Vertical mixing, energy, and the general circulation of the oceans. Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics 36:281–314. [CrossRef]

Yoder, J.A., S.C. Doney, D.A. Siegel, and C. Wilson. 2010. Study of marine ecosystems and biogeochemistry now and in the future: Examples of the unique contributions from space. Oceanography 23(4):104–117. [CrossRef]