Maine weather buoys in rough federal budget seas

Posted Jan. 09, 2009, at 7:20 p.m.

A system of offshore weather buoys that mariners often consult to check on ocean conditions seems to be having trouble staying afloat because of a steep reduction in federal funding.

Officials with Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System, known as GoMOOS, said Friday that annual federal funding for the program has been reduced from more than $1 million to about $500,000.

If the monitoring system is not exactly sinking, it certainly is shrinking, officials said. The buoy network, which provides live information about weather conditions in the gulf, has only eight functioning buoy sites, down from 11 roughly six months ago.

Only five of the 11 buoy sites has been funded this year by the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, according to Dr. Neal Pettigrew, a University of Maine oceanography professor and the project’s chief scientist. Two liquefied natural gas import firms are funding one site in Massachusetts Bay. The non-profit GoMOOS organization, with some help from Maine Sea Grant, is trying to extend the life of two other damaged buoys as long as possible, he said.

According to Pettigrew, it has cost GoMOOS $6,000 a day to charter a boat to make buoy replacement runs out to sea. It typically takes an entire day to replace one buoy, he said, but replacing the buoy at the most remote site, in the Northeast Channel between Georges and Brown banks, is a three-day trip.

Pettigrew said that, though each buoy varies in cost, the approximate annual price tag to keep each buoy functioning is $100,000.

“About six months ago, we had them all in the water and working,” Pettigrew said. “The amount of funding has dwindled drastically.”

One of the 11 buoys has already been taken out of the water and two are floating in the gulf but are no longer transmitting data.

Tom Shyka, chief operating officer of GoMOOS, said the nonprofit entity that operates the system is trying to raise money to keep the other buoys going.

Portland Pilots, an organization that offers pilot services to vessels using Portland’s harbor, and Portland Pipe Line, which operates a crude oil pipeline and terminals in the same harbor, have contributed money to keep the system’s Casco Bay buoy functioning, he said. Maine Sea Grant has contributed funding to help keep an-other in Penobscot Bay, he said, but neither has enough funding for more than several months.

“We’re trying to diversify where our funding comes from,” Shyka said. “We still need to raise more money.”

According to Pettigrew, the buoy system records data including wave height, water temperature and salinity, direction and speed of current and wind, and surface visibility. The information is interpreted by technicians and posted for public use on the Internet as it comes in. The data have been crucial to many scientific research projects, he said, but have been valuable for a variety of people on the water.

Fishermen frequently check buoy readings online before going out to sea, he said. Other users of GoMOOS data include shipping companies, the Coast Guard, National Weather Service, recreational boaters and even surfers who want to see how big the waves are before they drive to the beach.

Private-sector users, rather than researchers or government agencies, make up the largest component of people who use GoMOOS data, according to Pettigrew.

“These buoys make operation at sea much safer,” he said.

Losing the buoy system entirely, he added, “would be akin to not having any [land-based] weather reports available.”

Shyka said the 11-buoy system started with a UMaine buoy in Penobscot Bay roughly a decade ago, he said, but it has been funded entirely by NOAA since early this decade.

The buoys function at sea for only about six months before each has to be switched with another buoy and brought in for maintenance, he said. The network has been using 22 buoys, only half of which are collecting data at any given time.

Shyka said the GoMOOS Web site, www.gomoos.org, where the buoy data are posted, gets about 1.5 million page views annually. He said the organization figures that translates to about 100,000 visits each year to the Web site.

“GoMOOS has been about providing real value to a whole lot of stakeholders, both for safety and economics,” Shyka said. “[The loss of funding] really does present a safety concern.”

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