Efforts are underway to replace a valuable nautical marker and data collecting buoy in Onslow Bay.
Most people just think they mark channels, but buoys are more than navigation aids. They collect data on wind and wave measurements and wirelessly transmit the information back to shore. Buoys are even used to study whether areas off the coast of North Carolina can support offshore wind energy development. One buoy in particular has proven valuable to the coastal North Carolina community, buoy 41036. Last summer, the information it collected was used by lifeguards, management officials were able to plan for emergencies and anglers were able to determine if conditions were good for fishing. Buoy 41036 was pulled from the water earlier this year and now, efforts are underway to replace it.
The $193,000 buoy was deployed in July 2006 in conjunction with the National Atmospheric Administration’s National Data Buoy Center. The 13 foot tall yellow buoy was equipped with solar panels and high-tech meteorological instruments to collect data on air and water temperature, barometric pressure, surface currents, and wind speed and direction. It was anchored to the sea floor about 40 miles south of Beaufort Inlet and 40 miles east of Wilmington. It floated there for eight and a half years until the Coast Guard hauled it away.
The acquisition of the buoy and its subsequent maintenance costs were the responsibility of the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Coastal Ocean Research and Monitoring Program, commonly referred to as CORMP. Program Coordinator Jennifer Dorton says CORMP paid about $40,000 annually to operate and maintain the buoy.
“But what happened is through the years, NOAA funding, federal funding had decreased. So through our current award, we really couldn’t afford to continue paying for that mooring. And I should also mention that the cost for that mooring, the National Data Buoy Center increased the cost of that mooring to $60,000 instead of $40,000. So when they tacked that additional $20,000 on, it really got to be outside of what our budget could handle.”
The university stopped funding the maintenance of the buoy two years ago. As a result, it was at risk of breaking free from its mooring and becoming a navigation hazard. On January 7th, 2015 the Coast Guard removed it from Onslow Bay and returned it to the National Data Buoy Center in Mississippi.
It’s been more than three months since buoy 41036 was taken and many folks who relied on its data are missing it. Captain and owner of Teezher Charters in Emerald Isle Bobby Bourquin used the buoy to monitor weather conditions offshore to make sure it was safe to take anglers to the prime saltwater fishing spot off our coast, the Gulf Stream. He says he’s had to rely on data collected from other buoys that are much farther away, because the closer the buoy, the more accurate the forecast.
“It’s been difficult for us to gather correct information. It just doesn’t allow me to get those accurate sea surface temperatures and mainly the swell size and wind speeds out there.”
While some felt the effect of the missing buoy right away, it may take the summer season to fully realize the impact. Shore Protection Manager with the Carteret County Shore Protection Office Greg Rudolph says his office used information from buoy 41036 to monitor sea conditions during an approaching storm or hurricane.
“That buoy is sort of our canary in the coal mine. We can see when the wave heights pick up, when the wave periods pick up and what direction the waves are coming from.”
As Hurricane Irene pounded eastern North Carolina in 2011, buoy 41036 measured changes in wave heights, starting at 5 feet and swelling to almost 30. The Shore Protection Office also used data from the buoy in post-storm analysis and coastal modeling.
“There’s really not a close buoy out there to Bogue Banks. So the next time a storm comes, we’re going to be looking at a buoy a lot further south of us or even a buoy that’s even north of Cape Lookout. And then you get worried that you’re comparing apples and oranges. It’s probably not giving you the most reliable information.”
The good news for Rudolph and everyone that depended on buoy 41036 is that a replacement is in the works. Program Coordinator for the Coastal Ocean Research and Monitoring Program Jennifer Dorton.
“We did talk to the National Data Buoy Center and when they were picking that buoy up, we asked them if they would leave the mooring for us, the anchor basically. And they did. So we can basically go in and tie directly into their anchor block.”
Dorton says plans are for a smaller, more cost effective 10 foot buoy to be installed this summer. But it will have some limitations.
“We can get all of the wind data that the other buoy provided, so that’s wind speed, gusts, direction, air temperature, barometric pressure and humidity. All of that is going to be exactly the same. It will also be able to collect sea surface temperature and salinity data. That’s the same. What we are not able to collect is surface current and wave data.”
Dorton says they hope to eventually equip the buoy with wave data collecting instruments. Before the buoy can be assembled, delivered to the mooring site and begin transmitting, $16,000 had to be raised through crowd funding. CORMP partnered with the Southeast Coast Ocean Observing Regional Association for the grassroots effort. Executive Director for SECOORA Debra Hernandez says they reached their goal last week, with major funding provided by the William Donner Foundation.
“There’s no way that a buoy could go back out for $16,000 if UNCW didn’t have the technicians on staff, didn’t have Jennifer’s expertise to be able to put together something that could go back out and serve the community.”
The donated funds will be used to purchase buoy supplies, pay for the ship time to deploy the buoy, and pay for the annual satellite communications costs.
CORMP operates five buoys off the Carolinas, most concentrated in the southeast region of North Carolina. There’s one five miles off Wrightsville Beach, another 27 miles off Wrightsville Beach and another one off Sunset Beach. Dorton says the new buoy will give a more accurate picture of marine conditions in Onslow Bay, from off Carteret County down to Frying Pan Shoals in Brunswick County.
“Folks really are missing what’s happening from Cape Lookout down to Jacksonville, NC. So putting that buoy back out there will really help fill in that gap.”
Early June is the projected date to have a replacement for buoy 41036 back in service.
To learn more about the Coastal Ocean Research and Monitoring Program at UNCW, go to http://www.cormp.org/
For more information on the grassroots effort to fund the replacement buoy, go to http://secoora.org/buoy