ORONO — The University of Maine’s network of data-gathering buoys in the Gulf of Maine isn’t what it used to be, according to the man in charge.
Neal Pettigrew, professor of oceanography, heads the Physical Oceanography Group in the School of Marine Sciences, which designed and built the buoys and deployed them in 2001.
At one point, buoys were deployed in 12 locations in the Gulf of Maine. That number is now down to seven. And since the Eastern Maine Shelf buoy that’s about six miles north of Mount Desert Rock sustained significant storm damage a couple of weeks ago, only six buoys are now fully operational.
“At that time, they were state-of-the-art, the best ocean observing buoys anywhere in the world,” he said.
“They are often still considered the best, but we don’t think they’re that good anymore. The technology has improved tremendously. And we’re struggling all the time with used parts and taking parts from one buoy and putting them on another.”
The problem, of course, is money. Funding is getting harder and harder to come by, Pettigrew said.
Sensors attached to each of the buoys collect data about ocean temperatures, currents and salinity levels, as well as air temperature, wind speed and direction, and the height and frequency of waves. These data, which are continuously being transmitted and posted online, are used by fishermen and others who make their living on the water.
“Lobstermen tell us the first thing they do every morning is get online and see what the conditions are out there, and then they decide whether or not it’s worth going out,” Pettigrew said. “They tell us they believe it saves lives.”
He said Whale Watch companies also use the data from the buoys, primarily to find out if a particular location is fogged in.
Information provided by the buoys also is valuable to research oceanographers and meteorologists.
“There have been many hundreds of papers published in the last 15 years that used data from those buoys,” Pettigrew said.
The Office of Naval Research (ONR) provided initial funding for the buoy network, about $2 million a year for the first two years. Since then, funding has come from a division of the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA).
“NOAA didn’t have the same level of funding [for ocean observing] that ONR had, so our funding dropped, and we’ve been sort of struggling ever since,” Pettigrew said. “That’s why we’ve had to remove almost half of our buoys.
“At one point, I had almost a dozen people working on this. Now, I’m down to five. And, of course, as time goes on, everything gets more expensive.”
Pettigrew said his group currently receives between $600,000 and $700,000 a year for the ocean-observing buoy program.
“We could do a better job with another $200,000,” he said. “That would cover replacing some of the sensors, but it wouldn’t cover rebuilding the buoys, which we should be doing.”
It costs about $100,000 each to build a new buoy and to buy and attach all of the sensors and data recording and transmitting equipment.
Pettigrew said he continues to seek other sources of funding, but still has to rely mostly on funds from NOAA.
The University of Maine group maintains a spare buoy for each of the seven active locations in the Gulf of Maine, but most of them have cannibalized parts.
“In the old days, we would go out every six months and recover a buoy and deploy the other one so we could take the recovered one back to the lab and work on it to get it ready to go again,” Pettigrew said. “But that became too expensive with the funding we had, so now we just do it once a year.”
Another challenge is getting out on the water to repair or replace buoys. Pettigrew’s group books time on the University of Connecticut’s research vessel, which is much in demand and not always available.
They planned to use the vessel this week to retrieve and replace the Eastern Maine Shelf buoy. Its tower, on which atmospheric sensors and a transmitting antenna are mounted, was badly damaged and partially submerged two weeks ago by a likely combination of ice, wind and waves.
“The sensors on the tower aren’t working at all,” Pettigrew said. “All of the sensors in the water are probably still working fine and recording data, but we’re not getting anything from the buoy in real time.”