Tsunami buoys under repair


POSTED: Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Pacific Tsunami Warning System has been operating with 10 defunct ocean buoys that are supposed to be supplying information from the Northwest Pacific, but a ship is now repairing or replacing them, officials say.

A group called the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility called attention to “;large dead zones”; in the system of 39 Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis buoys.

The group's executive director, Jeff Ruch, said in a news release, “;Our scientists worry that this system is like a fire alarm that cannot ring.”;

Charles “;Chip”; McCreery, geophysicist-in-charge of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, said, “;We have been challenged by the failure of some of the buoys that have been put out.”; But he said it doesn't mean the center isn't able to do its job.

“;There are enough instruments so if we lose one or two here and there we're not in too bad of shape. We can get the data we need out of adjacent buoys.”;

“;We know about them as soon as they go out and start working on a plan to go fix them,”; said Jeff LaDouce, Pacific region director with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service. But ships can't operate in winter seas in the Northwest Pacific, so repairs are scheduled in spring and summer, he said.

One buoy already has been repaired in the Gulf of Alaska and a NOAA ship is heading west to replace five nonworking buoys from the Aleutians to Hokkaido, he said. Other buoys needing repairs are off the northeast coast of the United States, off Southern Mexico in the Pacific and in the Philippine Sea, he said.

NOAA began installing the DART network in 2001 for improved early detection and real-time reporting of tsunamis in the open ocean. There are 32 buoys in the Pacific and seven in the Caribbean or Atlantic.

The system includes an anchored seafloor-bottom pressure recorder and a moored surface buoy.

LaDouce said NOAA received $23.2 million per fiscal year, last year and this year, to operate the overall tsunami program. About $12 million of that amount goes for DART operation and maintenance, a $1.7 million increase over previous years, he said.

McCreery said ocean engineers have many challenges because of the difficulties of placing an instrument in the open ocean and having it operate remotely over a long period of time.

The first buoys were placed in the Aleutians because of the short gap, 4 to 4 1/2 hours, from the time of an earthquake there to arrival of a tsunami here, McCreery said. Civil Defense wants a call three hours before a wave arrival and the center had only 1 to 1 1/2 hours to evaluate and make a call for an event in the Aleutians, he said.

LaDouce said buoys in the Aleutians were doubled knowing some would be lost. They are expected to break, he said, “;but oftentimes they're set adrift by acts of fishermen.”;

The fishing boats don't usually do it intentionally but they snap the line “;slingshotting,”; he said, explaining they throw a line over a buoy, it catches at the mooring point and they pull the line up with all the fish attracted to the line and buoy.

“;When they're ready for the slingshot procedure, they release the line and when the buoy goes back to its original position, it goes quickly and the line released can cut across the line anchoring the buoy.”;

Three of seven weather buoys around the Hawaiian Islands are adrift now, he said. “;It is a serious problem but hard to enforce and correct. We have to educate them (fishermen).”;