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June 15, 2015
New Tools Aid Storm Prediction and Increase Ship Navigational Safety in the Gulf

Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida may be more prepared than ever, thanks to some new tools that are enhancing the capabilities that provide the foundation of the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System (GCOOS).

These tools — GPS Continually Operating Reference Systems (CORS) and Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System (PORTS®) — are being put into place through local, state and federal partnerships and are providing better and more accurate information about the Gulf that will help with storm prediction and aid in ship navigation.

“The Gulf of Mexico is a proverbial economic and ecological gold mine to the nation,” said U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Louisiana. “The fisheries, energy and port activity result in millions of jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars in economic activity. The observation system, together with other assets, will help us to manage and protect this critical resource and our coastal communities that rely upon it.”

The new CORS stations are being funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Geodetic Survey and put into place through the newly formed Gulf Coast Spatial Reference Consortium, a partnership among the Conrad Blucher Institute for Surveying and Science at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, Louisiana State University’s Center for Geoinformatics, the University of Southern Mississippi’s Mississippi Spatial Reference Center and the Alabama Department of Transportation. The consortium provides Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) data consisting of carrier phase and code range measurements in support of three dimensional positioning, meteorology, space weather and geophysical applications along the Gulf of Mexico.

CORS, which are being added at or near NOAA tide gauges in each Gulf state, provide location data at centimeter-level accuracy. Improved accuracy is necessary for coastal mapping, surveying and restoration, for flood protection and to aid the development of better coastal models for hurricanes and flooding. The tools can also help resource managers better identify long-term trends in sea level rise and the sinking of coastal lands (called coastal subsidence).

“We are excited to be part of this project to provide the latest geospatial data with information from tide gauges, sea level observations, land elevation reference points and 3D positioning,” said Dr. Gary Jeffress, Director of CBI. “This system will help local and regional leaders plan for improved resilience to any impacts of sea level rise or subsidence and coastal storm surge flooding. The project will assist development of long-term strategies to address coastal change impacts along the northern Gulf of Mexico.”

When the upgrades are fully implemented, CORS stations will cover some 16,000 miles of shorelines, bays and estuaries. So far, four stations in Florida and five in Texas have been installed; six additional CORS stations will be installed in Florida, Alabama and Louisiana this year, with remaining stations installed in 2016. Several of these stations are being added near busy U.S. ports and population centers in the Gulf of Mexico.

NOAA also recently installed PORTS® in two locations in Louisiana. PORTS® is an integrated system of oceanographic and meteorological sensors that provides mariners with accurate and reliable real-time information about environmental conditions in seaports, including water levels, currents, water density and meteorology. The installation of two new PORTS® systems in Louisiana brings the total PORTS® operating in the Gulf to nine.

The new Louisiana PORTS® were installed by NOAA at Port Fourchon, which services 90 percent of the Gulf’s deepwater oil and gas industry and provides more than 20 percent of the U.S.’ daily energy supply, and Morgan City/Atchafalaya Bay, a newly established foreign trade port.

“Real-time knowledge of the currents, water levels, winds and density of the water can increase the amount of cargo moved through a port and harbor and enable mariners to safely use available channel depths,” said Rich Edwing, NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS) director. “Even one additional foot of draft can substantially increase the profit of a shipment.”

Information from these and other sensing instruments in the Gulf of Mexico are provided in real time and near-real time through the GCOOS Regional Association’s free and publicly accessible data portal, online athttp://data.gcoos.org/.

“As a region with rapidly growing communities along low-lying coastal areas and an infrastructure that is critical to our nation’s energy security, improving and enhancing our coastal observing systems are vital to our nation’s interests,” said Dr. Barbara Kirkpatrick, Executive Director of the GCOOS-RA. “More than 14 million people call the Gulf Coast home. The Gulf is also a vital economic driver for the regional and the U.S. economies, providing jobs for 20 million people and generating $234 billion annually.

“Better predictive capabilities for storms and flooding is of utmost importance to protecting lives, commerce and our nation’s energy supply.”

Enhancing navigation is also important, Kirkpatrick said, when you stop to consider that the Gulf has 14 of the top 20 U.S. ports by tonnage and that in 2012, when Hurricane Isaac forced the closure of a single port, the Port of New Orleans, for four days, it resulted in the estimated loss of more than $400 million and had a ripple effect on the global supply chain.

GCOOS is a nonprofit organization that has a federal charter to develop a network of business leaders, marine scientists, resource managers, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholder groups that combine their data to provide timely information about our oceans — similar to the information gathered by the National Weather Service to develop weather forecasts. It is one of 11 regional networks collecting data transmitted from satellites, ships, buoys, underwater gliders and other technologies that monitor the earth’s oceans and atmospheric conditions.

In the coming months, legislation will be introduced in Congress that re-authorizes the Integrated Coastal Ocean Observation System (ICOOS) Act, the umbrella legislation for the nation’s regional associations, including GCOOS.

“The safety and security of our coastal regions is a non-partisan issue and we urge all Gulf Coast residents to tell your legislators how important having a strong coastal observing system is to you and ask that they vote in favor of reauthorization of the ICOOS Act. The time to reauthorize is now, not when a hurricane is threatening the safety of our families and communities,” Kirkpatrick said.

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