Average surface current patterns around Palau (arrows indicate current speed and direction) from an ocean model run for 37 years using long term data sets. Major currents: NEC = North Equatorial Current (flows to the west), NECC = North Equatorial Counter Current (flows to the east), KC = Kuroshio Current (to Japan), MC = Mindanao Current (along the Philippines). Minor currents: ME = Mindanao Eddy and HE = Halmahera Eddy (both circular ocean currents). Shading reflects average sea surface height: RED = higher sea surface height relative to BLUE = lower sea surface height. From Gopalakrishnan and Cornuelle, 2019, https://doi.org/10.5670/ oceanog.2019.418. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode, graphic simplified.

A special issue of the scientific journal “Oceanography” has been published detailing a wealth of new research on ocean science within Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), coastal waters and reefs. Seventeen articles authored by over 35 scientists describe results of the five-year, multi-million-dollar science initiative sponsored by the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR).  Named “FLEAT” (Flow Encountering Abrupt Topography), the program involved scientists from 19 institutions working in collaboration with the Coral Reef Research Foundation (CRRF) on Malakal, that has been engaged in ocean research in Palau since 1995. Dr. Patrick Colin, Director of CRRF, indicated “the FLEAT initiative and related programs represent a quantum leap in understanding ocean dynamics around Palau and will inform ocean conservation activities for decades to come.”

The program objectives were to improve the prediction of ocean conditions to promote a better understanding of both long term climate change and shorter term changes that may impact eg. search and rescue, oil spill response, or fisheries management.  This was done through a science plan which focused on refining the knowledge of ocean dynamics in complex island chain regions of the Pacific.   Palau and its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) were the perfect locations for the research due to its steep-sloped islands and reefs surrounded by deep ocean that contain well defined current systems, including the North Equatorial Current (NEC) flowing westward and the North Equatorial Counter Current (NECC) flowing eastward.  The currents contacting the islands result in a wide variety of interactions.

Palau has quickly become one of the most studied island groups in the Pacific as the scientists deployed and maintained arrays of oceanographic instruments for several years and carried out six research cruises by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography research vessel the R/V Roger Revelle. The ship also used a state-of-art multi-beam sonar to map the sea floor around all the islands and reefs of Palau, focusing on the deep ocean ( 200-8,000 m depth) and completed a survey of the entire Palau trench to the east.  The R/V Revelle cruises also deployed a wide variety of sophisticated equipment to measure parameters such as current speed and direction, temperature, salinity and oxygen, etc. from Ngeruangel (Velasco Reef) down to Helen Reef and Tobi.

Overall the project had broad multidisciplinary impact, with relevance to weather, fisheries and climate change. One particularly critical article titled “The End of an El Niño: A View from Palau” describes in oceanographic terms how the strong El Niño of late 2015/early 2016 transitioned to a La Niña, before the ocean shifted back to neutral conditions.  This dramatic transition resulted in a rapid sea level rise, increase in ocean temperature, and change in current direction and speed around Palau’s islands. Understanding such rapid shifts in ocean conditions and the factors driving them is crucial to understanding climate change and the resulting impacts.  “Our partnership with the people of Palau allowed us to support Palau’s ocean management needs through conducting fundamental research that generated new scientific knowledge and insights.  We are excited to now have the opportunity to share this information with the public ,” indicated Dr. Eric Terrill, an oceanographer from Scripps with extensive experience in Palau,  and one of the FLEAT Chief Scientists.

While in port, the R/V Revelle hosted a large number of students, government agency personnel and interested parties for tours of the prestigious vessel. The journal “Oceanography” is published quarterly by The Oceanography Society, that coincidentally has a Palau connection through their Executive Director, Ms. Jennifer Ramarui (https://tos.org/oceanography/). The 17 articles contain numerous photos and graphs of both known and obscure currents, some familiar to many Palauans.  The Palau Volume is open access at https://tos.org/oceanography/issue/volume-32-issue-04  and a pdf of any article can be downloaded.  Limited printed copies will be distributed to libraries and government agencies.  For more information please call Coral Reef Research Foundation on Malakal at 488-5255.