A practical, hybrid model for predicting the trajectories of near-surface ocean drifters

Nathan Paldor, Yona Dvorkin, Arthur J. Mariano, Tamay Özgökmen, Edward H. Ryan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


A hybrid Lagrangian-Eulerian model for calculating the trajectories of near-surface drifters in the ocean is developed in this study. The model employs climatological, near-surface currents computed from a spline fit of all available drifter velocities observed in the Pacific Ocean between 1988 and 1996. It also incorporates contemporaneous wind fields calculated by either the U.S. Navy [the Navy Operational Global Atmospheric Prediction System (NOGAPS)] or the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF). The model was applied to 30 drifters launched in the tropical Pacific Ocean in three clusters during 1990, 1993, and 1994. For 10-day-long trajectories the forecasts computed by the hybrid model are up to 164% closer to the observed trajectories compared to the trajectories obtained by advecting the drifters with the climatological currents only. The best-fitting trajectories are computed with ECMWF fields that have a temporal resolution of 6 h. The average improvement over all 30 drifters of the hybrid model trajectories relative to advection by the climatological currents is 21%, but in the open-ocean clusters (1990 and 1993) the improvement is 42% with ECMWF winds (34% with NOGAPS winds). This difference between the open-ocean and coastal clusters is due to the fact that the model does not presently include the effect of horizontal boundaries (coastlines). For zero initial velocities the trajectories generated by the hybrid model are significantly more accurate than advection by the mean currents on time scales of 5-15 days. For 3-day-long trajectories significant improvement is achieved if the drifter's initial velocity is known, in which case the model-generated trajectories are about 2 times closer to observations than persistence. The model's success in providing more accurate trajectories indicates that drifters' motion can deviate significantly from the climatological current and that the instantaneous winds are more relevant to their trajectories than the mean surface currents. It also demonstrates the importance of an accurate initial velocity, especially for short trajectories on the order of 1-3 days. A possible interpretation of these results is that winds affect drifter motion more than the water velocity since drifters do not obey continuity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1246-1258
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2004

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ocean Engineering
  • Atmospheric Science


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