The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says it will restore a network of moored buoys in the equatorial Pacific Ocean that serves as an early warning system for periodic and disruptive warming events known as El Niños.
Nearly half of the 57 buoys in the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean (TAO) array have failed since 2012, when NOAA, under budgetary pressure, retired a maintenance ship. Scientists are now receiving just 40% of the data that would be collected if all of the buoys were functioning properly, compared to the long-term goal of 80%. This has affected researchers’ ability to monitor for major El Niño events in the eastern Pacific, which have been known to alter weather patterns and inflict massive damage across the globe. The loss of data may also be impacting seasonal weather forecasts.
Craig McLean, who oversees NOAA’s research programmes, says that the agency expects to restore the array to its previous capacity this year, thanks to extra funds in the fiscal 2014 budget approved last month. “We think it’s an achievable goal.”
The ship previously dedicated to maintaining the TAO array cost US$6 million annually, whereas NOAA spent $2 million to $3 million on charter services in fiscal 2013. McLean says he expects the agency will be able to boost that figure to $4 million this year. That should allow for an expansion of charter operations for now, he says, and then the agency will seek international collaboration on a long-term solution, which may involve the deployment of a more robust monitoring system that requires less maintenance.
“If we can find alternative technologies that can complement and if appropriate replace the devices we have deployed, we will achieve the same scientific results at a lower price,” McLean says. “That technology may exist today, or it may need to be developed.”