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Volume 3, Number 1
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Predicting Underwater Weather

By Michael W. Fincham

There's a weather under the Bay, complete with high-pressure systems, low-pressure systems, several kinds of fronts and two kinds of slow-moving jet streams. Think of physical oceanographers as meteorologists of this underwater world. As they figure out the physics that controls the system, they should be able to predict the underwater weather more accurately - and take a lot of guesswork out of the forecasting game that so many people have to play.

Those were the selling points when Chesapeake Bay Observing System (CBOS) began - better physics and better forecasting. Over the last 15 years, Bill Boicourt has kept the system running despite hurricanes, lightning strikes, icy winters, vandalism and up-and-down funding cycles. Funding so far has come from more than three dozen sources. That's a lot of grant writing, but it has allowed Boicourt to keep buying new buoys, rebuilding old ones and restocking them with the latest in advanced sensing gear. In years of good funding he's had seven buoys taking data simultaneously.

Physics and forecasting, according to Boicourt, are still the selling points for CBOS-like systems expanded to cover the entire Bay and the Mid-Atlantic coastal waters. CBOS may soon morph into a newer, larger network of buoys and land-relay towers, capable of relaying even more real-time data about the weather above and below the Bay. The results could boost Chesapeake Bay science and help protect the Maryland economy.

If the future arrives according to Boicourt's forecast, CBOS could evolve into a cooperative regional system with more stable funding and more partners from academe, state and federal government, and private corporations. Players could include the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), Old Dominion University, the Environmental Protection Agency, NOAA's National Ocean Service, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Alliance for Coastal Technologies, and state agencies in Maryland and Virginia. The result would be a cooperative system, perhaps with a new name, that would provide real-time weather and water data from the head of the Bay all the way out onto the Continental Shelf.

There are even larger plans afloat. Congress is now considering a proposal for funding and expanding systems like CBOS and linking them together into a larger coastal network. That could mean more money and more acronyms. CBOS might be renamed and linked into something called IOOS (Integrated Ocean Observing System) or C-GOOS (Coastal Global Ocean Observing Systems), both of which would be part of an overall system called GOOS. Those plans drew a major endorsement last week in the Preliminary Report of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.

The science prize is long-term data that oceanographers can use for figuring out the physics of the Bay and other coastal systems in greater detail. Better forecasts are also in those details, especially details about water temperatures, winds on the Bay, waves and currents that result from those winds.

The practical prizes are real-time products forecasting what the system is doing today and tomorrow. That's important for big commercial shippers who need to know water levels up in Baltimore Harbor and small recreational boaters who want to know wave conditions out on the mainstem. Real-time models of current flows would help with search-and-rescue missions and with emergency responses to natural disasters like storm surges and human accidents like oil spills and chemical leaks. CBOS can even help with Homeland Security with high-frequency radar that helps track large and small ships as they move about the Bay.

basemap showing locations CBOS bouys around the Chesapeake Bay

Like a band of robots, CBOS buoys stand watch over the Bay. Some stay on station year after year, like the one off the Choptank River. Others come and go, moved to monitor a particular area, or pulled for fear of ice. Shown on the map are a string of buoys, some on station and some still proposed, waiting for the region's next investment in remote sensing.

Artwork by Bill Boicourt.

schematic of how the CBOS bouy receives data from sensors and sends the data to a land based computer

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