Newswise — The Gulf of Mexico is America’s Sea. • It is the nation’s gas station, producing 44% of the nation’s crude oil, 43% of the dry natural gas and more than 50% of the liquid natural gas; • The Gulf’s commercial fishery accounts for $24 billion in sales; • It holds 11 of the nation’s top 20 U.S. ports (by tonnage);• And it provides a $234 billion annual benefit to the U.S. economy.
But, as the nation saw in the aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (DWH), the Gulf, its industries and its 14 million residents are vulnerable to contaminant spills, strong currents, hurricanes and flooding of nationally significant infrastructure — ports, refineries and petroleum reserve facilities — that puts our national security and economy at risk.
Ocean observing tools play a key role in helping to lessen the impacts from these risks, according to a Congressional briefing provided by representatives of private foundations, the scientific community, industry and academia that was focused on sustained observations for the Gulf of Mexico and the role that the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) and the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System (GCOOS) play in supporting the economy, public health and safety in the Gulf.
The Tuesday, March 7 informational briefing for Congressional representatives and their staff members was sponsored by Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), and Roger Wicker, (R-Miss.). The IOOS Association and GCOOS hosted the event. The IOOS Association is a nonprofit organization that supports the U.S. IOOS and is the umbrella organization for the nation’s 11 regional associations, including GCOOS — the regional system for the Gulf of Mexico.
GCOOS is the heart of data collection for the ocean and coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico — collecting thousands of data points from sensors and ensuring data are reliable, timely and accurate before disseminating it to all who need the information (gcoos.org/products). These data support the tools and technology that help protect public health, ensure safe and efficient navigation and jobs tied to the blue economy.
While GCOOS and its sister organizations nationwide have established infrastructures, additional tools could help to improve public health and safety and decrease economic losses — especially in the Gulf.
“The U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System supports a wide range of missions, such as weather forecasting, energy siting and production, and marine navigation safety,” said Sen. Wicker. “The economy of Mississippi particularly benefits from the network’s important collection of data for public safety, hurricane forecasts and marine commerce. It is vital that our university research teams are equipped with the tools and data they need to continue conducting critical scientific studies."
Sen. Cassidy, who represents Louisiana — a state that plays a critical role in supporting the nation’s energy production and infrastructure and which is losing the equivalent of a football field of coastal wetlands every hour — said his state and the nation depend on ocean observing tools. “The energy and economic security of our nation depends on the Louisiana coastline. The rapid erosion of this coastline must change. I will continue to support the efforts of IOOS and GCOOS to restore and preserve the economics and ecosystem of this vital region.”
Vice Admiral Paul Gaffney, U.S. Navy (Ret.), a member of the National Academies of Sciences: Gulf Research Program Advisory Board, and other speakers pointed out how the national ocean observing system and the tools its members and partners employ can help fill critical information gaps in the Gulf. Two examples are high-frequency radar (HFR) and autonomous underwater vehicles, also known as AUVs or gliders,
HFR is a system of transmitters and radio antenna receivers along coastlines or on oil platforms that relay radio signals to receivers after bouncing off the ocean’s surface. These signals indicate where currents are moving and, sometimes, wave heights, leading to improved forecast models, better data products and more timely information critical to search and rescue operations conducted by the Coast Guard.
Gliders are underwater robots that use buoyancy to move up and down in the water column that are equipped with radio and satellite transmitters. They send data on water temperature, salinity, water currents and other conditions back to forecasters in near-real time. They can also be outfitted with instruments that test water quality, detect toxic algae, oil spills or other contaminants and send that information, too.
“This is not research, though it can aid in research,” Gaffney said. “It’s not climate. It has an operational investment. It’s all about putting America first. It is taking care of understanding that part of the water that runs right up against the United States of America and (taking care of) the businesses and jobs that depend on that information… There are customers that want this data and there are gaps in the information now, especially gaps in high frequency radar coverage and in operations of gliders.”
Dr. Christopher D’Elia, dean of the LSU College of the Coast & Environment discussed the economic importance of the Gulf, which provides diverse resources and opportunities with its natural ecosystem that supports maritime commerce and the nation’s energy infrastructure. He spoke on the benefits of ocean observing — physical, geological, chemical and biological observations — which help measure changes over time and changes relative to specific events, such as oil spills. “Ocean observing can help make predictions that inform decision makers about commerce, environmental management and public health,” D’Elia said. “High frequency radars, in particular, provide decision makers with valuable observations in the Gulf. It’s imperative that we continue to support and expand their operation.”
Not only do these tools help predict and forecast ocean conditions, they also help with an overall understanding of the Gulf system, said Dr. Monty Graham, of the University of Southern Mississippi. “You want to be able to do two things: predict and forecast but also understand a system in a way that you can dissect it so that when a disturbance occurs you can find the mechanisms causing it or, in the case of hurricanes, understand how the system responds following a disturbance.”
Gliders and HF radars are the most efficient and economical ways to gather ocean data that offer this high return on investment, he said, but the Gulf is at a disadvantage with the least coverage of gliders and HFR in the nation. “In the Gulf, we’re at about 25 percent coverage of HFR compared to nearly 90 percent on the west coast and about 60 percent on the east coast. This is the big gap. This is the hole we need to fill. To me, it’s striking that we can predict tornado outbreaks two weeks in advance but we’re not able to predict how ocean conditions will be three or four days from now.”
Dr. Larry McKinney, Director of the Harte Research Institute in Texas, said more investment in the Gulf observing system will help the Gulf states and nation respond to large-scale man-made or natural disasters. “We have not invested adequately in ocean observing in the Gulf of Mexico and those that are trying to maintain the observing system as it is now are trying to hold it together with bubble gum and wire to keep us where we are. That should alarm just about anyone.”
Dr. Russell Callender, NOAA Assistant Administrator for the National Ocean Service, and Dr. Ruth Perry, Marine Science and Regulatory Policy Specialist and Oceanographer for Shell Exploration and Production Company and member of the GCOOS Board of Directors, also spoke during the briefing.