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Vandalism on the high seas leaves gaps in key climate data

Every month, Anthony Barnston, a climate forecaster at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, gathers thousands of pieces of data from across the Pacific Ocean. Those, along with inputs from models and other regional information, help Barnston create a forecast for what's happening with the weather phenomenon known as El Niño.

But sometimes -- fairly often, in fact -- there's a big gap in some of the data he presents and uses to make his forecasts.

"So when I am giving the briefing, I often show maps that show this hole" in the eastern Pacific, Barnston said.

The data Barnston relies on come from a series of buoys carefully placed about 10 to 15 degrees longitude apart in the tropical Pacific. The Tropical Atmospheric/Ocean (TAO) array, as it's called, collects real-time information on water and air temperatures, wind speed, solar radiation, rainfall, and other variables.

But those buoys, particularly the ones in the eastern Pacific near South America, have long been targeted by vandals. They get damaged, shot up, stolen and destroyed -- sometimes almost as soon as the National Data Buoy Center, a division of the National Weather Service that services the Pacific buoys, gets out to fix them.

This sometimes leaves scientists like Barnston in the dark. They have to decide whether the planet is entering or exiting a La Niña or El Niño phase, sea-based conditions that can determine weather events and shed more light on global climate change patterns.

"Because of that, I sometimes have to say that we don't really know what the climate is doing in this area," explained Barnston, who has been forecasting climate for 30 years.

The eastern Pacific can be quite important to El Niño forecasting. Researchers want to know whether an El Niño is limited to the central part of the Pacific or whether it extends all the way toward the South American side, which means it's a larger El Niño, with more of an impact.

A fishy business that can be expensive

Yan Xue, a scientist who works at the Climate Prediction Center at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, said without the data from the eastern TAO buoys, she often has only one or two data sets to work with instead of the 30 she would have if the buoys weren't damaged.

The exact effect the data holes have on accuracy is hard to pinpoint, but less data likely leads to less accurate forecasts, she said. "If our El Niño forecast is wrong, it is going to influence or impact our seasonal forecast."

The accuracy or inaccuracy of El Niño forecasts can have a financial and material impact, because water managers, farmers and fishery managers will all make decisions based on what's called for in a long-term forecast.

And TAO buoys are not the only ones being vandalized. Other stationary buoys, including those providing key information for tsunami forecasts, also get mangled.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 10 percent of buoy data worldwide are lost to vandalism. The head of the National Data Buoy Center, Helmut Portmann, estimates the vandalized buoys cost several million dollars yearly in repairs and replacement.

Michael McPhaden is a NOAA senior scientist who directs the tropical buoy monitoring program. He's watched his buoys get vandalized and repaired and, over the years, discovered more about how and why this happens.

Because the buoys are anchored to the ocean floor to collect data in one place, it makes them a target. "Anything that is stationary is a problem," McPhaden said.

That's because as objects floating in the water, they act as fish aggregation devices. Fish such as tuna will school around them. And where there are fish, there are fishermen.

"Fishermen like [the buoys] because it concentrates the fish and makes them easier to catch," McPhaden said.

Fishermen may not always be trying to ruin the buoys, but often their nets will get caught in them, or they may tie up to the buoy, because there are fish around it, and in the process damage the instruments on it.

'Wild West' on the high seas

Other times, the buoys are clearly targets. "We find our equipment with bullet holes in it," McPhaden said. "We have moorings that disappear, and they disappear in suspicious ways."

Sometimes fishermen will tie onto the buoy, detach it from its anchor on the bottom and drag the buoy behind them, attracting fish all the while. And McPhaden and others who work with the buoys suspect that once they fish out an area, fishermen will damage the buoys in order to keep others from using them.

"On the high seas, the economic incentive is to catch as much as you can and outcompete other fishing boats," said McPhaden. "It's the Wild West."

Linda Stratton, a University of Washington scientist who works for NOAA on the tropical buoy system, said they have tried for years to discourage vandalism on the buoys.

"Our engineering department tried to make it so you need a special tool to take the mooring off," but that did not seem to work, plus it made the buoys more difficult to service, she said.

Stratton and McPhaden have also tried educating the fishing community about the buoys' importance, especially because many of the buoys that get damaged serve as early warnings for tsunamis, Stratton said. The fishermen often come from places like Japan that are vulnerable to tsunamis.

They printed up brochures in different languages and distributed them around the world at fishing conventions. Those efforts have not seemed to be effective.

"We have been struggling with how to deal with fishing vandalism for more than 20 years. Nothing we have tried has produced a major breakthrough in deterrence or prevention," McPhaden said.

But in 2009, when Portmann came to the National Data Buoy Center as its new director, he decided to take a new approach to combating buoy vandalism.

The former Navy man is rolling out a new countervandalism plan that is part spy movie, part common sense. It combines live buoy cameras, ship tracking, decoy buoys and government pressure to stop the vandalism.

Mess with a buoy, get a lecture

"The cameras are actually being put on as we speak," Portmann explained in a recent interview. Because the buoys are monitored in real time in a control center in Mississippi, whenever a controller sees a buoy get tugged or senses a disturbance, he or she can see what the camera shows.

Portmann is also using the Automatic Identification System, which all ships over a certain size are supposed to have and use to broadcast who they are and their location. That helps him determine what ships are in the area when a buoy is being disturbed.

At one buoy that has particularly persistent vandalism problems, Portmann said they plan to leave it out there, damaged, and put its replacement 10 to 15 miles away, over the horizon.

"I'm trying to see if we spoofed [the vandals] into thinking we have abandoned the buoy and we haven't replaced it."

Portmann is also working through traditional government channels to stop vandalism.

In October, for example, the mission control center saw a tug on one of the buoys, and the mooring was later broken. They located the ship in the vicinity at the time, an Ecuadoran fishing vessel.

Now, the Ecuadorean government is giving the fishing company a talking to, Portmann said.

The buoy center director's next step follows the playbook of others who have used consumer pressure to change company practices. One of the major tuna packing companies whose fishing vessels he suspects cause a lot of damage sells most of its tuna to Hawaii for sushi.

Portmann is working to make a case to the governor of Hawaii to pressure companies selling sushi tuna to declare they don't buy tuna from boats that damage buoys.

If all that fails, he's got one more trick up his sleeve. "We're working to put loudspeakers on our buoys so when our people see someone near our buoys, we'll talk to them."

He said: "Can you imagine if someone is touching one of our buoys and someone starts talking to them? I think it will freak them out."