March 12, 2010

Funding loss may halve network's weather buoys

JOHN RICHARDSON

— By

click image to enlarge

University of Maine oceanographer Neal Pettigrew, second from right, with a team of scientists and crew members aboard the R/V Cape Hatteras, launches a research buoy off the coast of Maine in 2001 as part of the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System. The network of 11 buoys is now down to eight, with two others in jeopardy, because of funding cuts. Photo by Megan Schiff of the University of Maine

click image to enlarge

A research buoy gathers weather and ocean conditions as it floats at its anchorage off Schoodic Point in Maine in this summer, 2001 photo. Photo by Neal Pettigrew, University of Maine

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Nearly half of the buoys in a scientific network that provides key data about ocean conditions could be pulled out of the Gulf of Maine by summer because the Portland-based operator no longer has money to maintain them.

The Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System, or GoMOOS, launched its initial fleet of buoys in 2001, in hopes that the floating weather and research stations would become part of a global ocean monitoring network.

The information on wind, waves, currents and other conditions is posted on the Internet, and quickly became popular with Maine scientists studying ocean trends, as well as with boaters and commercial fishermen who simply want to know if it's safe to leave the dock.

Now, faced with a third year of reduced federal funding, three of its 11 buoys have been brought ashore or have stopped sending any more data and won't be fixed. Two more are considered to be in jeopardy, and one of those, the buoy off Portland Harbor, is scheduled to be hauled out in the next two to three weeks.

''We stopped servicing the buoys, and we now only have funds to recover the buoys when they stop sending data,'' said Philip Bogden, chief executive officer of GoMOOS.

Similar funding shortfalls have also forced observing networks around the country to pull buoys out of the ocean, said Josie Quintrell, executive director of a Harpswell-based group that represents regional ocean observing networks. Overall, U.S. ocean observing systems are getting about half of the $50 million in federal funding they seek each year, she said.

''We are looking hard to diversify funds. It's a really tough economy, and it costs a lot to maintain and operate these systems,'' Quintrell said. ''On the other hand, the paybacks are huge.''

The buoys have improved the safety of mariners, and helped scientists understand fisheries, toxic algal blooms and other ocean systems, she said. ''This is all critical data.''

GoMOOS was one of the nation's first observing networks, and some of the buoys being removed have collected more than seven years' worth of data. That disruption of such a long data stream makes the cuts more painful here, Quintrell said.

GoMOOS expects its current share of federal funding -- $700,000 for its core program -- to continue at least until October, and likely beyond, officials said.

But the program needs at least $1.2 million a year to keep its entire buoy network in the water, according to Tom Shyka, the organization's chief operating officer. It has been struggling to keep operating since 2006, when the federal funding was reduced from $1.9 million to $500,000.

GoMOOS now plans to use its remaining resources to keep in place a smaller network of six buoys, mostly located offshore. It also is hoping to generate other revenue, such as private donations, which have helped keep buoys in the water until now off Casco Bay and in Penobscot Bay.

The remaining network will still provide data for scientists. But there will be gaps in the measurements, especially in near-shore waters, as well as an interruption in data that have been tracked for more than seven years, said Neal Pettigrew, a University of Maine oceano-grapher and chief scientist for GoMOOS.

''It's terribly frustrating,'' he said. ''The good news is we've learned more about the Gulf of Maine in this period, since 2001, than we've probably learned in the past 50 years. As soon as we put a buoy out there in the Northeast, we started to see things that had never been seen before.''

Pettigrew said the data sent back from the buoys, including currents, salinity and temperatures at varying depths, are used by countless scientists and have changed the way he and others understand the flow of water in and out of the Gulf of Maine.

There are other buoys in the Gulf of Maine, including federally operated weather buoys that transmit basic wind, wave and surface temperature data. Those buoys, such as one outside Casco Bay, can provide much of the information sought by recreational mariners in those areas.

But those who rely on the accurate, detailed reports say the GoMOOS buoys provide a big safety advantage. Even though there is a weather buoy off Portland, for example, local ship pilots have been among the strongest supporters of keeping the local GoMOOS buoy and have donated money to help keep it working.

The GoMOOS buoy provides more information, and sometimes transmits when the weather buoy does not, said Sandy Dunbar, a retired harbor pilot who guided large ships in and out of Casco Bay for 38 years. Dunbar said he would routinely check the buoy's data on his computer or his cell phone.

''I look at it four or five times a day, whether I'm going out or not,'' he said. ''We live by weather.''

Meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Gray also constantly monitor the GoMOOS buoys, which have improved marine forecasts and helped them better understand fog and sea smoke, said John Cannon, senior meteorologist at the station. ''We've never had visibility measures over the ocean waters before, ever,'' Cannon said.

Cannon and others used the GoMOOS buoys to create a new system for predicting coastal storm surges. Starting with the Patriots Day storm in 2007, buoy wind and wave measurements have helped them issue more precise and accurate warnings about coastal erosion and damage, he said.

Bogden, the GoMOOS CEO, said scientists continue to find new uses for the buoys.

''There is a transformation taking place in the way we view the earth and the way we share information,'' Bogden said. ''The problem is we're pulling buoys at the same time the capabilities are improving.''

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

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