High-Frequency Radar Stations Could Save Lives, Track Spills in Gulf and Atlantic

Nonprofit groups call for network of high frequency radar monitoring stations along the U.S. Gulf and Southeastern Atlantic coasts

Two coastal ocean observing organizations are calling for a major expansion of the high frequency radar (HFR) system in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Southeastern Atlantic coast as a cost-effective way to gain near real-time information about surface currents, wave heights and winds. The consortiums - which comprise of scientists, private enterprise, governmental and non-governmental organizations - say the information to be gained by the expansion of the HFR system is vital to protecting public health and safety, protecting coastlines and developing restoration programs.
 
The groups collaborating to develop the plan to fund and implement the expansion are the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System Regional Association (GCOOS-RA) and the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association (SECOORA), which are coordinating with the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System Program office (IOOS). IOOS is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-led program responsible for managing the U.S. IOOS at the national level.
 
The GCOOS-RA and SECOORA are responsible for developing a network of business leaders, marine scientists, resource managers, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholder groups. Combined, their data provide timely information about our oceans  - similar to the information gathered by the National Weather Service to develop weather forecasts.
 
Information gained by HFR is vital to protecting coastlines from man-made disasters such as oil spills, forecasting and mitigating natural disasters, such as harmful algal blooms and hurricanes. and providing information needed to develop and monitor restoration projects; it can also provide timely information for boater navigation and help improve weather forecasts.
 
While systems are in place that provide some of this information, HFR could greatly enhance our capabilities - for instance, HFR could help narrow the search area for missing vessels and lost boaters by a staggering 66 percent.

Existing HFR stations with coverage areas and proposed (black square) HFR stations for the U.S. Gulf and Southeast (Credit: GCOOS and SECOORA and University of Miami for the figure.)

 

What is HFR?
HFR is a system of transmitters and radio antenna receivers along coastlines or on oil platforms; they transmit radio signals that are relayed to the receivers after bouncing off the ocean's surface. These signals indicate where currents are moving and sometimes, wave heights. This information leads to better data products in near-real time and improved forecast models.  Faster predictions can be vital when coastlines are at risk from hurricanes and oil spills such as the one that occurred after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion.
 
Nineteen HFR stations are currently along the Gulf and Southeastern Atlantic coast - with no HFR coverage at all in Louisiana and Texas.
 
A new plan developed by GCOOS-RA and SECOORA calls for 105 stations along coastlines and in major ports. The cost to expand the system is estimated at $19.9 million, with an annual maintenance cost of about $1 million for the coastal HFR stations and $11.8 million to outfit the ports.
 
HFR is a cost-effective system that would help to mitigate disasters like Hurricane Katrina, which resulted in $41 billion in costs - not to mention the tragic loss of life during both events.
 
"Our coasts are vulnerable to many different risks," said Dr. Barbara Kirkpatrick, Executive Director of the GCOOS-RA. "Yet we lack the instruments in place that could mean the difference between finding someone lost at sea or telling us where oil or other chemicals from a spill is likely to wash up so we can be ready for it. That's a very large knowledge and information gap. Imagine if we didn't have the tools to tell us where a hurricane was likely to make landfall - this is the situation we are in now with our oceans. This needs to change. And the time to make the change is now."
 
In March 2014, an oil spill in Galveston Bay, Texas, shut the Port of Houston down for four days, costing $1.2 billion in lost commerce and closing the Bay's multi-billion dollar fishing industry. An HFR system strategically sited in the Bay and port could have helped more efficiently direct state and federal emergency response resources, experts say.
 
That matters because the Gulf of Mexico and Southeastern Atlantic have the United State's highest density of energy activities and are home to 13 of the nation's top 20 U.S. ports by tonnage. With an estimated 50 percent of transported goods being hazardous materials, ports are vulnerable to contaminant spills.
 
And it's not just a local issue: Ocean currents move throughout the Gulf, around the southern tip of Florida and into the Gulf Stream up the Atlantic coast, with the potential to move contaminants to each of the coastlines along their route, no matter where a spill occurred.
 
"There are a few HFR stations in the Gulf and Southeastern Atlantic, but there are significant gaps in coverage," said Debra Hernandez, Executive Director, SECOORA. "For instance, there are no HFR stations in Texas or Louisiana and only a handful in the other Gulf of Mexico and Southeastern Atlantic states. Imagine how much better we can protect our coastlines and ports with more knowledge about where oil or other contaminants are moving."

The plan being developed by GCOOS-RA and SECOORA identifies ideal locations for new HFR stations that will fill gaps in coverage and identifies potential funding sources to maintain the current HFR system and add the stations.

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Re-posted from GCOOS Press Release - Click for original post