Aging El Nino Buoys Get Fixed as Weather Forecasts at Risk
The Tropical Atmospheric Ocean Array, deployed after a 1982-83 ocean warming caught governments by surprise and caused at least $8.1 billion in damage worldwide, is designed to help predict developments that can alter global weather. The system has degraded to about 40 percent effectiveness, a victim of age, vandalism and neglect, according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.
“Having this array in place may give us a few more months extra lead time that otherwise would not occur,” said Kevin Trenberth, distinguished senior scientist in the climate analysis section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. “It makes a difference as to what strategy many farmers have in terms of what crops they grow, what water irrigation strategies they use, what fertilizer.”
While maintaining and upgrading the buoys costs about $10 million annually, less than 1 percent of NOAA’s budget, government spending constraints in recent years have limited repairs, said Craig McLean, a deputy assistant administrator for programs and administration at the agency’s office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. The weather service’s 2014 budget “offers relief,” and maintenance will begin within the next two weeks, Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the service, said in an e-mailed response to questions yesterday.
“We are hopeful that we will be able to restore the TAO array to near 80 percent by the end of this year,” she said.
From corn farmers in Iowa to oil-rig operators in the Gulf of Mexico to rubber growers in Indonesia, businesses depend on forecasts generated by data from the equipment. Without that information, there might be less time to prepare for droughts, wildfires, floods and storms, leading to more volatility in commodity prices and the potential for a greater loss of life.
“The impact here is global,” McLean said in an interview from Silver Spring, Maryland. “The value to society has thus proved unquantifiable because it is so great.”
NOAA, whose $4.9 billion budget for fiscal 2012 was cut to $4.75 billion in 2013, includes the National Ocean Service, the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service and the National Weather Service, which in turn oversees the National Hurricane Center, Storm Prediction Center and Climate Prediction Center. The divisions generated more than 300 billion forecasts in 2009, manage fish stocks within 200 miles of the U.S. coast, monitor tsunamis and operate planes, ships and satellites.
A difference of a few degrees in the Pacific Ocean’s temperature can alter the mechanics of the atmosphere above it, setting off chain reactions that cause droughts and floods.
Each El Nino warming or La Nina cooling tends to last nine to 12 months or longer and occurs every three to five years. The pattern was named by fishermen off South America who noticed temperature changes some years near Christmas. They called it El Nino, after the Christ Child, according to NOAA.
The last El Nino in 2009-10 was followed by La Ninas in 2010-11 and late 2011 into 2012. Since then, the sea has been in a neutral phase, according to NOAA’s National Ocean Service.
The 1982-83 El Nino was blamed for flooding in South America, Cuba and on the U.S. Gulf Coast, for damaging hurricanes in Hawaii and Tahiti, and for droughts or fires in nations including Mexico and Australia, according to NOAA. Almost 2,000 people died. A warming in 1997-98 cut natural gas and oil use by $2.2 billion, according to a 1999 NOAA report. Another in 2009 created so much wind shear across the Atlantic Ocean that the hurricane season was the calmest in a decade.
The degradation of the buoy array “is depressing,” said Teri Viswanath, the director of commodities strategy at BNP Paribas SA in New York.
The development of the pattern “is perhaps the single most important input to seasonal forecasts,” she said. “And as the trend in U.S. natural gas and power prices is generally set by the weather, any shortcomings in the tools we use to predict the weather will introduce unnecessary volatility to these markets.”
Natural gas futures jumped to a five-year high last month as forecasters warned of more freezing weather after the coldest January since 2011. Prices today slid 0.9 percent to close at $4.618 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The buoys consist of three-legged towers 16 feet (4.9 meters) tall mounted on red and white rings that look like life preservers. Each is anchored in place with a 4,500-pound weight at the end of a wire rope and nylon line stretching 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) to 3.7 miles to the sea floor, according to NOAA.
Laid out in vertical lines across the equator, the buoys measure an area of the Pacific about 10 degrees either side of the equator, stretching from the coast of South America to Indonesia, according to NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab in Seattle. They monitor wind speed and direction as well as changes in water temperature, which may indicate shifts in the El Nino/La Nina cycle known to meteorologists as ENSO, or El Nino Southern Oscillation.
While satellites can report ocean surface temperatures, they don’t see deep beneath the waves, said Todd Crawford, principal scientist at Weather Services International in Andover, Massachusetts. Those data are critical to long-range outlooks, said Phil Klotzbach, lead author of Colorado State University’s seasonal Atlantic hurricane forecast.
ENSO “plays a huge role in the global climate,” according to Klotzbach.
“It’s the most important global driver for everything from hurricane season in the Atlantic and Pacific to even global temperatures,” he said. “When you have an El Nino, the world is warmer, and when you have a La Nina, the globe tends to be cooler.”
The Climate Prediction Center yesterday issued an El Nino watch, saying the pattern might develop later this year. That may mean a truncated Atlantic hurricane season, a warmer winter for the northern U.S. and a drier winter in Australia.
The decision to issue the watch was based on a pool of warm water moving under the surface of the Pacific, said Michelle L’Heureux, a climate scientist at the center. Satellites and floating instruments can still measure the sea surface temperature, which is an indicator of an El Nino.
Many of the damaged buoys are in the eastern Pacific, according to the National Data Buoy Center in Stennis Space Center, Mississippi. In the far western Pacific, Japan operates a set of buoys that complement the U.S. array.
Atlas buoys, the type most commonly used in the system, have a lifespan of a year, said Monica Allen, a spokeswoman for NOAA. Over the course of the project, hundreds have been deployed, with the help of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and France.
The devices are often vandalized by people stealing the components, said Richard Bouchard, a physical scientist at NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
Fishing boats will sometimes tow the buoys out of place to get at catches below, then cut them loose, Bouchard said during a presentation at the American Meteorological Society convention in Atlanta on Feb. 5. The anchor lines act like elastic, snapping the devices back and sometimes damaging them.
In older buoys, that can be devastating to data cards containing a year’s worth of information on ocean conditions. Newer ones can transmit data by satellite, Bouchard said.
Two years ago, Congress cut about 20 percent from NOAA’s climate research branch, including the ocean observation unit that oversees the devices, said Trenberth, who has advised NOAA and shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize that went to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for work he did with the organization.
Responsibility for operating the array was transferred in 2006 from the agency’s research branch to the weather service, according to Trenberth.
“In the National Weather Service, their priorities are always on the short-term weather, and the climate aspects and the inter-annual variability aspects just have been lost in the priority system, so that has been part of it,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Brian K. Sullivan in Boston at firstname.lastname@example.org