Essential Oceanographic Buoy Damaged in 2017 Hurricanes
Oceanographic buoys are an important resource for fishermen, ship captains, and researchers
In August 2017, a team of scientists from The Center of Marine & Environmental Studies (CMES) at The University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) relocated what is known as “The St. Thomas buoy” to the north side of the island from its location in Crown Bay. This decision was made for a number of reasons, including the fact that community surveys showed a desire for more oceanographic information out of the north side. Additionally, a St. John buoy, positioned at nearly the same latitude as the St. Thomas one was, provided similar information.
The St. Thomas buoy and its instrumentation were purchased by VI-EPSCoR in 2013. Buoy calibration and maintenance, performed with the help of Doug Wilson of Caribbean Wind, LLC, are managed by CariCOOS, (Caribbean Coastal Ocean Observing System). This buoy is home to specialized instruments used to gather valuable oceanographic data. The instruments record and transmit data in real time on wind speed and air temperature, wave height and direction, as well as water temperature, salinity, turbidity, and chlorophyll content. The buoy is also outfitted with an acoustic Doppler current profiler (ADCP) that measures ocean currents. Information gathered by the ADCP is especially robust and helps researchers understand the general patterns of the ocean’s currents.
Together with the St. John buoy (owned by CariCOOS) these buoys provide a tremendous amount of data which is available on CariCOOS’ website and is intended for public use. Fishermen, scientists, cruise ship captains, surfers, and others rely on the buoy’s data for navigation, research, real-time wave currents and more. Fisherman in particular like this data because it provides a vertical, layered snapshot of where a current is coming from and how fast it’s moving, which may help them pinpoint the location and depth of fish.
The Port Authority, Cruise Ships and Crown Bay Marina relied on the St. Thomas buoy when it was placed on the south side of the island for real-time ocean and weather information, as well as navigation. It is no small feat navigating large cruise ships into St. Thomas Harbor or Crown Bay Marina where at times there is only 2”-3” clearance. UVI is working closely with the Port Authority to address these needs and hopes to add an additional buoy in the near future.
To fill in the gaps of data, models are being used to create virtual buoys able to predict wave action. With this technology, right now you can go online and get a 4-day forecast of the predicted surf action in selected bays. Furthermore, these very useful tools for predicting wind speed and wave height are getting more accurate every year. This virtual data, combined with an ADCP being put in place in Crown Bay, will help with that data gap.
2017 Hurricane Damage
It is not surprising that during the Hurricanes Irma & Maria, most weather stations around St. Thomas and St. John were damaged. The St. Thomas Buoy stopped recording data during Hurricane Irma after wind speeds climbed to around 70 - 72 mph. The final wave that it measured was forty feet. Researchers at UVI had hoped the buoy would continue to gather data throughout the storm, but the instruments are sensitive and the internal electronic components, including a cell phone modem used to transmit real-time data to CariCOOS were not sufficiently sealed to withstand the battering wind and waves of the storm. We know that the St. Thomas Buoy was fully submerged repeatedly throughout the storms, and as a result, internal damage is extensive.
On April 16, 2018, with the assistance of the research vessel Walton Smith, visiting from the University of Miami, Dr. Paul Jobsis, Director of the Center for Marine & Environmental Studies, and Vanessa McKague, Oceanography Field and Lab Technician at UVI, recovered the St. Thomas Buoy and brought in for service. An initial examination estimates repairs will cost about $35K or more. Recovering a major piece of equipment like this is an enormous undertaking and it would normally cost up to $10K just for the recovery and return to shore. It is also an extremely dangerous project requiring highly skilled divers and experienced boat crew to perform a safe extraction. With the generous support and partnership of the University of Miami, the Walton Smith provided their services at no cost.
Repairs & Restoration
In her role as Oceanography Field and Lab Technician, Vanessa oversees the oceanographic data collected by researchers and students at CMES. She also manages the oceanographic instruments, which must be cleaned, calibrated and maintained before and after each deployment to ensure quality control and proper functioning. Vanessa is working on the buoy repair project with the ambitious goal of having it ready to deploy in November 2018 when the Walton Smith returns to the Territory.
Meet The Scientist
Vanessa McKague has worked with UVI since 2010. She works closely with researchers and students to manage the huge volume of oceanographic data that is gathered and stored each year. She maintains the sensitive instrumentation used to collect data by performing calibrations and does quality control on measurement outputs. This data helps form a baseline of information for the Territory that informs current and future research.
As much as she thrives on this work, her passion is research. Vanessa has been in the past, and is currently, on assignment with a contingent from UVI aboard the NOAA R/V Nancy Foster for its annual research cruise through the Territory. We anticipate talking with Vanessa again after the cruise and learning more about her time onboard.