Exploring the Ocean Surface with Data from the Global Drifter Program

Access Buoy Data from the Global Drifter Program
This webpage was prepared for SERC by Heather Rissler
Author Profile

The Dataset

Buoy Data from the Global Drifter Program provide real-time and historical data for over 1000 global drifter buoys. Data monitored include buoy position and sea surface temperature (SST).

Use and Relevance

Scientists use buoys to track ocean currents and measure properties such as sea surface temperature, salinity, wind speed, and atmospheric pressure. Understanding ocean current patterns provides information that can be used to address diverse problems, such as predicting weather phenomena or tracking oil spills. Drifter data are also used by scientists at NOAA in numerical weather prediction models.

Use in Teaching

This dataset can be used to teach the following topics and skills in atmospheric sciences and physical oceanography:


  • Meteorology
  • Ocean surface currents
  • Hurricanes


  • Using buoy data to map ocean currents
  • Understanding the methods used to measure ocean currents
  • Examining major ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream
  • Understanding how ocean currents influence meteorological phenomena such as El Niño
  • Applying knowledge of ocean currents to diverse applications, including transportation and monitoring oil spills

Exploring the Data

Data Type and Presentation

Historical and real-time data are available for over 1000 global drifter buoys. Data includes buoy location and measurements of SST. Raw data (in tabular format) and processed data (images and graphs) are provided.

Accessing the Data

Data can be accessed from the GDP through several databases:
  • Interpolated Database
  • GTS database
  • Alitimeter and GTS Near Real-Time

Manipulating Data and Creating Visualizations

One way that students can process data is to create graphs from raw data using a spreadsheet application such as Excel. Students can also generate images using the GDP databases, which allow for temporal and geographical refinement of data presentation.

Tools for Data Manipulation

Raw data can be downloaded and imported into a spreadsheet application such as Excel for further processing. The Starting Point site provides a tutorial for using Excel. Graphs and images can also be generated through search interfaces in the GDP databases.

About the Data

Collection Methods

Buoy data are collected via the Argos satellite tracking system. Buoys can be equipped with instrumentation to measure SST, wind direction and velocity, salinity, and ocean color. The GDP provides detailed information on collection methods and quality control measures.

Limitations and Sources of Error

Buoy data quality can be impacted by physical factors that affect function of the buoy or transmission of the data. Data from the GDP buoys are assembled at the Drifter Data Assembly Center and assessed for quality assurance.

References and Resources

Scientific References that Use this Dataset

  • The Drifter Data Assembly Center maintains a bibliography of scientific papers that use GDP data.

Other Related Scientific References

Other related Education Resources

Related Links

  • Tropical Atmosphere Ocean project: Access to data from buoys in the Tropical Pacific Ocean used for monitoring the El Niño Southern Oscillation
  • NOAA's El Niño Theme Page contains background information and essays related to El Niño and links to a variety of data sources that are used to study El Niño.