COLLEGE STATION – If there is an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – and history shows that is certainly possible – one of the first responders is in fact a responder itself in the form of a buoy, and in recent years Texas A&M University has become a critical player in the wave-to-shore information process.
Using its TABS (Texas Automated Buoy System) line of defense, Texas A&M and its oceanographers and marine scientists are able to supply key state officials with vital information such as current speed and direction, wind speed and direction, wave climate and water temperature at the scene. These data are fed into oil spill trajectory models which predict how the oil is likely to move and where to send ships and equipment to intercept it. It’s the only buoy system of its kind designed to protect coastal areas in the gulf, and the data it collects can literally be a lifesaver for the hosts of marine organisms that live in this region.
“It is the only coastal ocean observing system in the United States designed specifically for oil spill trajectory modeling as well as for science,” explains John Walpert, senior marine instrumentation specialist for Texas A&M’s Geochemical and Environmental Research Group, known as GERG. “The buoys relay information that is needed not only by spill response managers but also by search and rescue managers, oil companies, sport and commercial fishermen or recreational divers in the area. It is no exaggeration to say that sometime this information is just about priceless.”
The TABS system is distributed along the Texas coast from Sabine Pass near the Louisiana border down to Port Isabel, with most of the nine buoys located within about 12 miles of the coastline. The exception are two buoys placed near the Flower Garden Banks, located about 100 miles south of the Texas-Louisiana border, and the buoys there provide key information for the pristine marine sanctuary, one of 14 federally protected underwater areas and the only such site in the Gulf of Mexico.
The TABS project is supported by the Texas General Land Office, which funds the seven core buoy locations, while a consortium of oil companies operating in the gulf fund an additional two buoys at the Flower Garden Banks.
Walpert says the buoys range in size from 12-foot long buoys to seven-foot diameter discus buoys, each floating on the water’s surface. Prices range from $30,000 to $200,000 each depending on several factors, among them the sensors used on them.
“TABS buoys have made innovative contributions to oceanographic buoy technology,” says Norman Guinasso, leader of the TABS project. TABS led the way with early use of advanced acoustic wind sensors that allowed the collection and transmittal of valuable data when mechanical sensors failed during Hurricanes Katrina and Ike.
Each buoy transmits its information to GERG headquarters in College Station via satellite, where the data is downloaded every 30 minutes and posted online where it is available to researchers and the public at large.
“The buoys can be extremely important during a hurricane and the information they relay is vital,” Walpert explains, adding that such groups as the National Weather Service and NOAA use the information supplied by the buoys.
“When Hurricane Ike was in the Gulf in 2008, it passed right over one of the buoys near the Flower Garden Banks – the eye itself went directly over the buoy. We were able to get a complete data set that day showing the winds, waves, barometric pressure and currents, something that does not happen very often.
“If there is an oil spill, such as the Deepwater Horizon spill that occurred last year, we are mandated by the Texas General Land Office to supply them with as much information as possible so they can make informed decisions regarding the spill.”
Walpert says each buoy has been updated in recent years with more advanced technology and equipment.
“The TABS system is unique because it has been operating since 1995 and it is the only state-sponsored ocean observing system in the U.S.,” Walpert adds.
“It’s also the only system designed specifically to protect coastal areas.”
For more information about the TABS project, go to http://tabs.gerg.tamu.edu/Tglo/