Gulf Coast oceanographers have been forced to operate in dim conditions.
Five years ago, before the money dried up, oceanographer Robert Weisberg had 14 buoys bobbing up and down off the West Florida coast. The buoys were vital scientific instruments, recording salinity, temperature and current speed. They granted real-time insight into the unruly stew of the Gulf of Mexico's shifting flows. Ocean models were tested, and improved.
Those good times are over. Today, Weisberg has only four floats deployed, and earlier this year, he had to pull several buoys out of the water -- tools that would have been a boon in tracking the Gulf's unfolding oil disaster. But the money ran out, and the collective blind spot of the region's scientists grew, just as their insight became invaluable.
"We're trying to make as many measurements as we can with an ever decreasing base of support," said Weisberg, who, from his perch running the Ocean Circulation Group at the University of South Florida, has been an influential authority on the Gulf spill's spread.
The few buoys Weisberg has left have begun to fail. They are growing senile, blinking in and out of operation. There's no money available for their repair, let alone replacement. The dearth of funds is a problem scientists are having all across the Gulf, he said.
"We're all struggling," he said. "We're now all in the same leaky boat."
For more than a decade, scientists have called for federal funding of a network of radar, buoys and other sensors that would provide the equivalent of a weather forecast system for the Gulf of Mexico. Yet despite what seemed like promising support in Washington, funding for these programs has dropped by half or more in recent years, leaving oceanographers to use satellite snapshots and imperfect models to guess where the oil will travel, dragged by unwatched currents.
"No one knows where all the oil is going to go," said Nick Shay, a physical oceanographer at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. "This is where a robust observing system would really come in handy."
Gradually, the government's highest levels are becoming acquainted with the limits of observation in the Gulf, Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told reporters yesterday.
"The ocean observing system is nowhere as comprehensive as would be [preferred]," she said. "And it would be extraordinarily valuable in this instance to be able to understand in a more dynamic sense, for example, what the Loop Current is doing beneath the surface and what the flows are at different depths. We have a general understanding, but nowhere near what would be useful."
Without a proper forecast system, oil responders have faced great uncertainty.
When the oil neared the Loop Current, the destabilizing flow that runs past the Florida Keys, no scientists could predict how the current would shift on a daily basis, as their observations were drawn largely from intermittent satellites. Tides of oil continue to surprise crews along Louisiana shores, caught in invisible currents. And there are no dedicated sensors tracking what could be plumes of dispersed oil floating in deep waters.
Had those buoys been in place, scientists wouldn't have been "caught in a situation of ignorance," said Frank Muller-Karger, a biological oceanographer at the University of South Florida. "There would be a lot more information about how the oil would disperse below the surface," he said.
Partly due to limited funding, one vital system on the Gulf's northern shore -- the sole array of high-frequency radar -- was offline when the Deepwater Horizon erupted. The radar took more than a week to get running and since then has provided essential real-time data for NOAA slick projections. Even now, however, the system cannot reach Louisiana's southern shore, where oil has been lapping into intricate marshland.
With even a modest amount of money -- modest by Washington standards -- it is not hard to see how much more effective the spill response could have been, said Debra Hernandez, executive director of the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association, or SECOORA, a federally instituted program that coordinates ocean observing in the Southeast.
"Imagine if we'd had a complete HF [high-frequency] radar system in place," she said. "We would know what the surface currents are in the near shore. If we had more buoys and sensors mapping the 3-D current patterns under the surface of the water, we would certainly be in a much better position right now to describe what's probably happening below the surface."
"It's a cliche," she added, "but we know less about the ocean than the moon."
While the Gulf is home to the one of the world's most active offshore drilling regimes, other regions -- like California and the Mediterranean -- have instead led in developing observation systems that can be used for oil spill response. Had a system been in place, it would have already paid for itself, said Villy Kourafalou, an oceanographer at the University of Miami.
"If a few tens of millions had been spent to create and operate such a system before the Deepwater Horizon incident, my rough estimate is that hundreds of millions would have been potentially saved," she said.
"Having everyone scratching their heads [and] putting forward whatever they can do on short notice is not the best way forward," she added. "We need sustainable scientific development with an operational focus."
Yet, because of quirks in Washington spending, investment has gone in the opposite direction. Over the past two years, NOAA has proposed steep cuts to the budgets of regional associations like SECOORA, only to be rebuffed by Congress. Hernandez has only enough funds for a skeleton staff, she said.
"We're actually getting less money than when the program was in its infancy," she said.
'Pretty huge gaps'
The most pressing monitoring demand for the Gulf is also one of the most affordable, scientists say.
For more than a decade, researchers have been supplementing expensive buoys with high-frequency radar, broadcasting towers that, from a perch on the coast, bounce radio waves off ocean waves. The reflected waves allow scientists to determine the speed and direction of currents over vast areas of up to 6,000 square miles.
At first, in the 1990s, HF radar was an experimental tool, but it is now a proven technology. NOAA's planning documents actually call for a massive HF radar deployment, citing the need to improve the limited sampling the country takes of its coastal currents -- only 200 observations an hour, largely from buoys. Radar could increase that rate to 60,000 an hour.
Such a large sampling rate is essential for the National Weather Service, the NOAA agency that has, for more than a century, provided free snapshots and forecasts of the U.S. atmosphere. Given constant federal support, wind measurements outnumber ocean current readings by a more than 1,000-to-1 ratio, allowing relatively accurate weather predictions and quick takes on wind conditions.
Several years ago, Gulf oceanographers thought they were well on their way to a similar system after NOAA asked Miami's Shay and others how much it would cost to fill the radar gaps on the Gulf's coastline. The total was modest, $2 million a year for five years. But then the recession hit, and "the whole process is basically shelved for now, simply because of lack of funding," Shay said.
"We're not anywhere closer to starting to put together a complete national network," he added.
The few HF radar operating in the northern Gulf have been kept alive by Stephan Howden, an oceanographer at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Howden last received federal funding for the project in 2006 -- it was a three-year grant -- and has radar in the Florida Panhandle, Alabama and Mississippi. The radar has proved difficult to keep running with limited reserves, he said. Hurricane Ida displaced the first two sites last year, and the Mississippi site lacked dedicated space at its Gulfport pier.
"The last straw was when a very large, old, broken-down crane was parked [nearby]," Howden said.
Howden was working to get his system back online when the BP spill began. He then scrambled, and was feeding radar data to NOAA by May 1. Meanwhile, researchers found, similar systems in Texas were already out of money and could not reactivate. It's a fate that Howden's radar -- cited daily in NOAA oil predictions -- could soon face. He has money to operate until the end of this month, and afterward, he plans to use Hurricane Katrina payments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to keep the radar operational.
The limits of the radar chafe Howden, who can only monitor west to the Mississippi River's Bird's Foot Delta, while much of the oil is washing ashore farther west. "Ideally," he said, "in this situation we would have had coverage all along Louisiana."
There is precedent for an extended network. California is nearly done erecting HF radar along its entire coast. The system's 60 radar cost $21 million, covered by state bonds without federal support. (The Gulf's shared coast has seen little state investment in radar.) At first, the radar helped develop highly grained predictions for where stormwater runoff would cause beach closures, said Eric Terrill, an oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Then the radar got its time to shine during an earlier oil spill, when the container ship Cosco Busan rammed into San Francisco's Bay Bridge in late 2007, splashing 53,000 gallons of fuel into sensitive waters. The bay was cloaked in dense fog, which baffled aerial observation efforts.
The radar, however, pierced through the fog and tracked the oil's path, allowing scientists "to outline where most of the expected wash-ups on the shoreline," Terrill said.
Similar radar-assisted predictions are impossible for most of the Gulf Coast.
"We have pretty huge gaps," SECOORA's Hernandez said. "If you look at the maps, it's obvious."
'No. 2 priority'
The funding problems that have plagued Gulf scientists like Howden and Weisberg have their origins in what should have been a victory.
Last year, Congress passed the Integrated Coastal and Ocean Observation System Act, a little-noticed provision tucked into the omnibus public lands law.
The provision recognized regional observation associations like SECOORA and tasked them to lead efforts to develop monitoring and modeling systems, bringing together federal, state and private assets and sending equipment where needed. Previously, these associations, which are mostly based in local universities, were funded through congressional earmarks.
Yet once the program, known as the Integrated Ocean Observation System (IOOS), was made legitimate under NOAA, spending immediately fell by half, causing researchers from Maine to Texas to shutter equipment and pull buoys out of the water, said Josie Quintrell, the director of the National Federation of Regional Associations for Coastal and Ocean Observing, or NFRA, which represents the regional observation networks.
For the past two years, NOAA has sought $14.5 million for the regional associations, which would have cut their collective budgets by $5.5 million last year and $12.5 million this year, according to agency proposals. Congress denied the cuts last year, sending $27 million to the program, and in April, the Senate's Oceans Subcommittee called for NOAA to increase its spending to $33 million.
It remains to be seen whether the oil spill will change the agency's spending priorities, said Ben Sherman, a spokesman for NOAA's National Ocean Service. "Obviously, NOAA across the board is learning a lot of lessons from the oil spill," he said.
Even this increased spending, which is split in competitive bidding among 11 coastal regions, is barely enough to keep the lights on at regional associations, Howden said. "Congress never really funded [us] at any kind of level that would build the system we really need," he said.
It is a tough truth that oceans, at least until recently, did not have much pull in Washington. Lawmakers have always given the impression that "we're their No. 2 priority," Quintrell said, and NOAA has been reluctant to send sustained revenue outside the agency at the price of internal cuts.
"Everybody recognizes the need for quality, science-based information, but I don't know if we've been on the highest radar screen," she said.
The public is equally culpable in its neglect, added Muller-Karger, the biological oceanographer.
"People expect fish to be on the table, and people expect clean waters when they go to the beach," he said. "If it's out of sight, out of mind."
$300M price tag
Building out a dramatically improved U.S. ocean observation system will cost $300 million over five years, Quintrell said.
That spending would allow each region to operate HF radar, buoys, underwater gliders and other components, all integrated into a national data-sharing program. And while it's expensive, it is well below the $1.8 billion estimate given for a similar system by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, an expert panel convened earlier this decade.
Eventually, investment could expand beyond physical monitoring and begin rigging buoys with advanced biological and chemical sensors that can detect phytoplankton, chlorophyll and nutrient pollution, said Muller-Karger, who served on the ocean commission. The panel's recommendations "are just as valid today as they were five years ago," he added.
NFRA's proposals would still fall short of building a truly predictive, full system, said Weisberg, the Florida oceanographer. The operating budget of the National Weather Service, some $700 million, could be a comparable place to start, though the number Weisberg likes to throw out is $1 billion in annual funding.
Most important to building out an observation system is to improve the relationship between university scientists and NOAA. Researchers have fed their Gulf models to NOAA -- data sharing that has already paid for itself in the Gulf, Scripps' Terrill said -- but the flow hasn't been reciprocal, Weisberg said.
"In my opinion, there really needs to be a serious discussion amongst the agencies and the academics just how we're going to do this," he said. "It requires embracing academics as a true partner. ... We know so little about the functionality of our own ocean. There's no reason not to embrace such a partnership."