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Trevor W. Harrison
Nate Clemett
Brian Polagye
, and
Jim Thomson


Tidal currents, particularly in narrow channels, can be challenging to characterize due to high current speeds (>1 m s−1), strong spatial gradients, and relatively short synoptic windows. To assess tidal currents in Agate Pass, Washington, we cross evaluated data products from an array of acoustically tracked underwater floats and from acoustic Doppler current profilers (ADCPs) in both station-keeping and drifting modes. While increasingly used in basin-scale science, underwater floats have seen limited use in coastal environments. This study presents the first application of a float array toward small-scale (<1 km), high-resolution (<5 m) measurements of mean currents in energetic tidal channel and utilizes a new prototype float, the μFloat, designed specifically for sampling in dynamic coastal waters. We show that a float array (20 floats) can provide data with similar quality to ADCPs, with measurements of horizontal velocity differing by less than 10% of nominal velocity, except during periods of low flow (0.1 m s−1). Additionally, floats provided measurements of the three-dimensional temperature field, demonstrating their unique ability to simultaneously resolve in situ properties that cannot be remotely observed.

Significance Statement

The purpose of this research was to validate measurements of tidal currents in a fast-flowing tidal channel using a prototype technology composed of 20 drifting underwater sensors called μFloats (“microFloats”) and five surface buoys against standard devices (acoustic Doppler current profilers). Float measurements matched those from the standard devices within 10% of the mean water speed and simultaneously provided three-dimensional mapping of temperature in the test region. Results demonstrate how moderate numbers of simultaneously deployed μFloats can provide high-resolution sensing capacity that will improve our understanding of physical, chemical, and biological processes in coastal waters.

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