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Cutbacks in Japan Mean Fewer El Nino-Watching Buoys in Pacific

  • About half the buoys Japan maintained have been shut down
  • More cuts are planned for 2017, as world waits for La Nina

The lens the world uses to watch for El Ninos has become a bit fuzzier after Japan cut by about half the number of buoys in the western Pacific that monitor changes in the ocean. It will take another four to five offline next year.

The buoys, which are anchored in place, measure wind, air and water temperatures, as well as the salinity of the ocean and currents. They transmit data to satellites in near real time and can look down about 2,500 feet into the Pacific, according to the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology.

The cuts by Japan are “a major issue,” said Kevin Trenberth, a distinguished senior scientist at the National Center of Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. “There is a task group that has been meeting and planning for how to proceed to monitor the tropical Pacific Ocean.”

The equatorial region is covered with buoys arranged in rows and stretching from the coast of South America to the waters north of New Guinea. The array, commonly called TAO-Triton, was born in the wake of the strong El Nino of 1982-83 that caught forecasters off guard and triggered floods, droughts and other damage around the world.

Since the 2000, the array has been made up of about 70 moorings maintained by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the marine earth-science agency. The task group, which monitors changes in the Pacific that can affect global weather, is part of the Tropical Pacific Observing System. It has representatives from seven nations around the basin, including the U.S. and Japan.

Maintenance Costs

The U.S. maintains most of the buoys at a cost of about $10 million a year, not counting the cost of sending a ship out to visit each one. Japan handled the remaining 15 in the far western Pacific until the cutbacks that now leave eight operating. Japan spends about $200,000 per buoy, not counting shipping, said Ken Ando, a researcher at the marine-earth science agency. By 2017, the agency plans to maintain only three or four of the buoys.

“The biggest impact would be the lack of surface wind data,” Ando said.

Winds are an important indicator an El Nino is forming. The phenomenon, for reasons not entirely understood, gets going when the trade winds that push sun-warmed waters of the equatorial Pacific into a mound start to weaken. The warm water in the west comes east and an El Nino is born.

La Nina

A strong El Nino is holding sway across the Pacific, bringing drought to Asia and Africa, more typhoons than usual to the Pacific, fewer hurricanes to the Atlantic and a boost in rain to California, though not enough to end the drought there.

In addition to providing valuable data about the Pacific, the buoys help keep satellites calibrated as they watch the world’s weather, said Michael McPhaden, a senior scientist at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. Forecast models used to predict El Nino or La Nina, when the Pacific cools, can be graded with the data, he said.

“This has been a spectacularly successful ocean observing system,” McPhaden said. 

Other tools to measure the ocean, such as devices that dive more than a mile before returning to the surface to transmit their data to satellites, “can compensate somewhat,” for the loss of buoys, Trenberth said. 

But they’ll be hard pressed to take the place of the buoys, especially with the chances rising a La Nina could replace El Nino later this year.

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