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Drifting buoys

Learn about drifting buoys, the Global Telecommunication System, Kiel deep drifters and other drifter programs.

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A map of different drifting buoy locations.

A map of different drifting buoy locations.

About drifting buoys

The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission's Global Ocean Observing System has an array of drifting buoys (drifters). These devices report their positions while measuring:

  • air temperature
  • near-surface wind
  • sea surface salinity
  • surface air pressure
  • sea surface temperature

Using multiple reports from different positions lets us estimate near-surface ocean currents.

Drifters are constructed with a device called a drougue, which provides water resistance, slowing them down and allowing them to drift in the water. The drogue is connected to the buoy with a long line, and trails behind it.

There are many types of drifters, including:

  • the Surface Velocity Program (SVP) buoy, which:
    • has 2 sizes: 35 centimetres and 40 centimetres
    • carries a subsurface drogue centred or tethered at 15 metres depth
  • CODE/Davis, which are small and x-shaped with sails
  • deep-drogued drifters, which drift around 100 metres deep
  • ice-drift and ice mass balance buoys, which are typically deployed on sea ice

There are several international programs that deploy drifting buoys. The largest program is the Global Drifter Program (GDP), which deploys only SVP drifters.

Global Telecommunication System

The most comprehensive source for drifting buoy data is the Global Telecommunication System (GTS) of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

You can access GTS data through the:

Codes and historical information

From 1978 to 1993, the GTS data were encoded in FM-14 DRIBU Traditional Alphanumeric Code (TAC) form.

In 1993, some buoys started transmitting their data in FM-18 BUOY TAC form. This became the official form after an overlapping period with DRIBU, and until the end of 2016.

Starting in 2003, messages in the BUOY code were progressively duplicated with messages in the Binary Universal Form for the Representation (FM-94 BUFR) of WMO.

As of August 2016, the BUOY code form was still the official form for drifting buoy data on the GTS. However, some buoys started transmitting only in BUFR from 2015 onward due to:

  • routing circuit configurations
  • transfer failures at encoding centres
  • allocation of 7-digit WMO numbers to some new drifters

The scheduled date for ending buoy messages in TAC form was November 2016. Only BUFR messages are found after this date.

The NOAA Data Catalog contains the GTS data in DRIBU and BUOY code forms, which Fisheries and Oceans Canada assembled. We packaged the data in monthly global files and submitted them to the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) Ocean Data Archive.

Kiel deep drifters

Kiel deep drifters data was collected by the Institut für Meereskunde, and then at the University of Kiel (Germany), from 1980 to 1996. The drifters have deep drogues, and some of the records have sea surface temperatures and computed velocities.

The data are mostly from the Atlantic Ocean, but some extend into the Arctic Ocean and into the Indian Ocean in later years. The data are interpolated to positions every 3 hours.

Check out more information on the slippage of deep-drogued drifters. You may also access Kiel deep drifter data.

Other programs

The Data Buoy Cooperation Panel (DBCP) is an international program. It coordinates the use of autonomous data buoys (including drifting buoys) to observe atmospheric and oceanographic conditions over ocean areas where few other measurements are taken. The website provides access to links, such as DBCP platforms, network status and maps.

You can also find a product-oriented version of DBCP.

The International Comprehensive Ocean-Atmosphere Data Set (ICOADS) combines surface marine data from many sources to generate monthly summary data.

The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECWMF) reports on the progress of TAC to BUFR migration for surface marine observations (including by buoys). We contribute to GTS data flow comparisons with Météo-France, who are a mirror to our global data acquisition centre for drifting buoys.

Raw WMO GTS FM 18 BUOY data is from the Russia National Oceanographic Data Center. The data is from the GTS available on the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) International Oceanographic Data and Information Exchange (IODE) Ocean Data Portal. The report is for the last 7 days.

The CORIOLIS archive assembles drifter data received from the GTS at Météo-France. It allows users to select data by region and time period. The interface returns TAR-GZIP CSV files. This archive goes back to 2002.

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