Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tsunami Detecting Buoys Program May See Budget Cuts

Do we really want to cut the funding of our own tsunami warning system? The GOP's proposed spending bill threatens to do just that, slashing the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by as much as $450 million. And that will effect the work of the National Data Buoy Center at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where tsunami-detecting and weather buoys are assembled and tested. The buoys are part of the DART (Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis) system, which monitors buoys deployed around the world, sounding the alarm if America's West Coast is threatened.

There are those who are critical of the DART system. I spoke to officials at NDBC about a report recently published by MIT questioning DART's reliability . Is it true that only 60 per cent of the buoys are operational at any given time? I was told that those number were taken from a report made a year ago based on data from a year before that. Since that time, improvements have been made. As of March 14th, when I sat in on a morning briefing, 90 per cent of the buoys are reporting back.

The buoys have to stand up to extreme currents and weather conditions. But they are more likely to be damaged by humans or sharks than the elements. Their solar panels have been stolen. Large fish congregate near their nylon ropes, which fisherman have been known to cut. Fish gnaw on the ropes, eating barnacles that attach themselves to it. Drug dealers have used them to stash drugs and those lost at sea, for refuge. On-site inspection, repair or replacement, to say nothing of the shipping costs, don't come cheap, but do we want to do without a tsunami early warning system?

Someone mans the National Data Buoy Center 24/7. On March 11, shortly after the earthquake struck Japan, DART analyst Tracy Bourdreaux woke up and checked the out the data right away. Life at the Center has been busy ever since, with the aftershocks continually setting off the tsunami buoys.

Images: Top: Tsunami detecting buoys being fabricated at the National Data Buoy Center / Helmut Portmann, director of the National Data Buoy Center, with a tsunami detecting buoy Bottem: Tsunami buoys being fabricated at the National Data Buoy Center /Satellites that receive information from tsunamis buoys at The National Data Buoy Center / Message shown at the end of a National Date Buoy Center morning briefing. In the bAckground, a buoy in the Pacific Ocean /DART analyst Tracy Bourdreaux's chart of the 39 tsunami buoys / Tracy Bourdreaux , a DART (Deep-Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis) analyst looking at data from the tsunami buoys in the Pacific Ocean/ A weather detecting buoy made in the 1960's at the National Data Buoy Center, much larger then the current models/ Nylon rope used in the fabrication of tsunami detecting buoys/ Broken tsunami buoys awaiting repair / Nylon rope to be used with the tsunami buoys . The thicker pink rope is fish-bite resistant and used at the top of the buoy/ Computer electronics that make up the "brains" of the tsunami buoys


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