Thursday, September 11, 2008

Fewer buoys means less storm-tracking data

As Tropical Storm Hanna menaces the Southeast, federal funding cuts mean fewer buoys and other instrument platforms are in place to track the storm’s strength and local impacts as it moves closer to shore.

Ground-zero for the reduction in marine observing assets is the nearly 250 miles of shoreline stretching from Sunset Beach to Hilton Head, S.C., – close to Hanna’s projected path, according to forecast late Wednesday from the National Hurricane Center.

Three of the program’s five buoys and all three water-level/weather stations operated by the Carolinas Coastal Ocean Observing and Prediction System (Caro-COOPS) were pulled or decommissioned earlier this year because of “reductions in funding,” according to program’s Web site.

That list includes two buoys off Sunset Beach and a weather station at the end of the town’s pier.

The gap won’t keep forecasters from predicting the track and overall intensity of storms such as Hanna. But more precise information such as the magnitude of any storm surge and the heights of waves generated as it approaches or passes will be more difficult to come by.

“We get calls about it every day,” pier manager Marty Allen said of the now-departed weather station. “People want to know what happened to it or if it’s broken because they can’t find the readings.

“We even get calls from people who come down for the same week every year because they’re looking for it, wanting to known what conditions are like here before they set off from home.”

“An erosion of our funding”

So far near-shore monitoring systems in the Cape Fear Region have escaped the financial hatchet. But the disappearance of stations and buoys that monitored the near-shore ocean environment is rippling up and down the Southeast, including off the Outer Banks.

The decision to mothball some instruments and scrap others is largely due to a shift in how federal funding for the regional ocean-observation programs is doled out.

Gone are the earmarks by friendly politicians that funded most of the projects earlier this decades, replaced by a competitive grant program run by a new office in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Federal officials defend the move as a better, more focused way of spending limited financial resources to meet regional and national priorities.

Suzanne Skelley, chief of staff for the Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS), said centralizing the funding efforts also allows standardization of formats to make the enormous amounts of data generated by the different programs more accessible to researchers and the public.

But the result also has been a substantial cut in overall funding for the nation’s offshore observation programs.

“As this transition has occurred, the amount of money made available at this base-budget approach is not even close to keeping equal to what was provided by the earmarks,” said Rick DeVoe, director of S.C. Sea Grant and chairman of the board that represents programs stretching from Virginia through Florida. “So we have seen an erosion of our funding support during this transition period.”

According to NOAA officials, funding for the nation’s observation programs dropped from $26.3 million in 2006 – when the reduction in political earmarks was already under way – to $20.4 million this federal fiscal year.

For the 2009 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, The House has proposed $19.5 million for the IOOS program and the Senate $30 million.

The final amount will be split among 11 regional groups that monitor the waters around all U.S. states and territories ranging from Alaska and America’s Pacific Islands to the Florida Keys and New England.

The Coastal Ocean Research and Monitoring Program (CORMP) manages a series of buoys and pier stations in Southeastern North Carolina.

Based at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, CORMP received nearly $2.4 million in federal funding in 2004-05 as it expanded its programs and installed new buoys.

But this year ocean-observing programs from Virginia to Florida received a total of $3.25 million in competitive grant awards.

“We achieved pretty good coverage for a period of years, and now it looks like all of that is going to be lost,” said Harvey Seim, a marine scientist with the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Lynn Leonard, a UNCW geologist, is director of CORMP. She said the program, one of the few to win federal funding this year, hasn’t had to decommission assets like many of its sister programs.

But unless something dramatic happens on the financial front, she’ll have to look at pulling some buoys or decommissioning pier stations next year.

“This year we’re treading water,” Leonard said. “But next year we’ll have to start cutting back. I don’t see any way to avoid that.”

Used by forecasters and fishermen

The buoys do more than help gauge storm impacts. The National Weather Service have found the proliferation of ocean-observing platforms useful in helping fine tune its maritime forecasts. The buoys fit in nicely between NOAA’s deep-sea buoys and shore-based monitoring stations and have helped improve rip-tide forecasting, storm tracking and storm surge modeling.

“As sparse as our marine observation platforms were, it was a big plus to have them out there,” said Steve Pfaff, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington, ticking off their numerous uses, including validating and improving forecast model performance.

Surfers and fishermen also are regular users of the ocean-observing programs, many of which offer real-time weather conditions like CORMP’s buoys off Wrightsville Beach and Camp Lejeune.

“I check it all the time,” Bart Bradshaw said Tuesday on Wrightsville Beach as he prepared to head back into the surf churned up by Hanna. “It’s my marine ‘Weather Channel.’ ”

So far this year through July, the CORMP Web site had recorded nearly 2.5 million page views.

Officials locally and in Washington stressed that other agencies have monitoring instruments along the Carolina coast. Even so, they admitted, the removal of the marine platforms leaves a hole in the region’s observation coverage.

Finding ways to fill gap

Some states have stepped up to keep their observation programs going. Florida last fiscal year contributed $1.25 million to keep some systems operating.

But that was a one-time financial injection, something the cash-strapped state is unlikely to repeat.

“It’s a shame because we’re not holding the line,” said Jyotika Virmani, executive director of the Florida Coastal Ocean Observing Systems consortium. “We’re going backwards.”

Like most Southern states, North Carolina historically hasn’t provided funding for ocean research or monitoring projects. A new multi-state initiative called the South Atlantic Alliance, however, could change that.

“These are shared problems and we really should look at developing shared solutions,” said Jim Leutze, former UNCW chancellor and a proponent of the new initiative.

But whether the alliance will produce any additional state dollars for ocean monitoring is still to be determined.

In the meantime, the region’s ocean-observing programs are treading water, looking at developing new partnerships and merging with each other to keep assets afloat.

“We’ll do our best,” said CORMP’s Leonard. “But it’s getting harder and harder.”



When tornado sirens begin to sound, most people seek shelter or go to a basement. But not Paul Sirvatka - he heads straight to the storm.

“I know this tornado really well because we drove through it,” Sirvatka said while pointing at a picture of a tornado. He gave a lecture entitled “Tornadogenesis and the Nature of Tornadoes”
Friday at Davis Hall.

Besides being a professor of meteorology at College of DuPage, Sirvatka is a storm chaser. When conditions are right for a tornado, he is off on the road finding out how tornadoes come to

Among his conquests is the 1990 Plainfield tornado, the only F5 tornado to ever hit the Chicago area. The storm killed 29, injured 350 and caused $165 million in damage along a 16 mile path through Plainfield, Crest Hill and Joliet, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).

“It was intense,” Sirvatka said. “It was intense to be in.”

He remembered 80 to 90 mph winds at the Aurora airport and driving through DeKalb, which was battered by hail as kids ran for shelter, to I-88, where he was forced to blow the toll.

“They didn’t have I-Pass then,” he joked.

One quote summed up a major theme of the lecture.

“I don’t know why there was a tornado in the first place,” he said of the Plainfield tornado.

The theme: There are still many unknowns surrounding tornadoes. To make this point, Sirvatka began his lecture with a famous quote from Donald Rumsfeld, former secretary of defense:

“[T]here are known knowns ... there are known unknowns ... there are also unknown unknowns,” Rumsfeld said at the time.

“Can we know the unknowable unknowns?” Sirvatka asked the group of about 45, consisting mainly of graduate students majoring in geography.

While pointing out that most tornado outbreaks are well-forecasted, Sirvatka criticized the “groupthink” used at many organizations, including the NWS.

“We need to be cynical about tornado reports,” he warned, which freshman meteorology major Robert Niesen heard loud and clear.

“I learned that you can’t always rely on the radar,” Niesen said, who is studying to be a weather forecaster at NWS.

Graduate biogeography major Matt Kwit was required to attend the lecture but enjoys the diversity in topics of these graduate lectures, which take place weekly, he said.

Storm chasing has really taken off in the 20 years since he started, Sirvatka said, but there is one thing he has that many of the newbies don’t: experience.

“I’ve done it so often, I can look at a storm and say, ‘This is what’s going to happen,’” he said.

NWS Media and Emerg Mgmt Workshops

Every fall the Seattle Office of the National Weather Service hosts briefings for the local news media and emergency managers.

This year's invitation provides the details and how to register. Please note that these are not open to the general public, but only professionals from the media and all levels of emergency management. I'm sure they would like to have private sector business continuity professionals also attend if you are interested.

I've attended in other years and it provides an opportunity to see what their projections are for the "wet season" here in the NW (it never ended this year in the NW), plus better understand their weather products.


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