After unusual May storm, problems with weather buoys come to light



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Posted on May 20, 2010 at 6:11 PM

SEATTLE - The forecast issued by the National Weather Service (NWS) for Wednesday's unusual May storm that created winds along the Washington coast of up to 70 miles per hour turned out to be accurate.

Brad Colman, the meteorologist in charge of the Seattle forecasting office, says the tightly wound storm was accurately predicted by computer modeling programs days before.

The NWS predicted the storm, despite the fact that some of its tools were unavailable. For hours Wednesday, a cut telephone cable took the weather service's main Western Washington Doppler radar located on Camano Island off-line. The radar continued to have some software related problems Thursday that are now fixed. But while the loss of the weather radar was brief, the weather service has lost another set of eyes for months, and in one case for well over a year.

These are weather buoys that float hundreds of miles off shore that provide real time data about the punch storms are packing before they make landfall.

There are six of these off-shore weather data buoys operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) off the northwest coast. These six are relied upon to confirm models of a storm's intensity as it travels across the water. They answer questions such as what are the winds, what are the atmospheric pressures, how high are the waves? But right now, four of those buoys are off line.

Winter storms in the Pacific can be severe. Buoys break free of their moorings and begin to drift, sometimes continuing to send data. Others simply have their high-tech electronics blown apart. In some cases, ships hit them.

Some examples: Buoy 46005, 300 miles off Grays Harbor, went adrift in December 2008, and was picked up by a ship in March 2009. It's been unavailable for almost a year and a half. Buoy 46002 normally resides 275 miles west of Coos Bay, Oregon and broke free of its mooring in September 2009. It was picked up in February of this year, and has been of little use for eight months.

Replacing the buoys with repaired models is expensive. The U.S. Coast Guard does most of the work. Replacing a buoy can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars just getting it there, and maintenance cycles usually take routes to try and fit in as many buoys as practical in a single trip, which is one reason why the National Data Buoy Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi couldn't fit in 46005 last summer.

Stephen Cucullu, manager of NOAAs Weather buoy program told me there's "significant competition for resources." In other words, it's about the budget.

For Congressman Jay Inslee, a Washington State Democrat who believes global warming will create more frequent and severe storms, getting the buoys back and staying on-line is critical.

"We're going to take a look at the budget for NOAA. NOAA has increasing demands because we have increasing severe weather events," said Inslee.

The Congressman has been a supporter of NOAA's technology initiatives in the past.

The four buoys in question are scheduled to be replaced by new ones next month. But there are 18 NOAA weather buoys in the Pacific that aren't working. For some, they're just not showing the wind speed. Most of them simply don't provide any data at all. Many are off the Alaskan coast.

Cucullu says his agency is working on new designs, redundant electronics and anchoring systems called hardening, all designed to keep the buoys on-line.