NOAA maintenance on TAO buoy

Forecast warms for El Niño monitoring system

After reports surfaced that El Niño forecasts were losing accuracy  due to lack of buoy data, the National Weather Service announced plans this month to repair 70 towering buoys used to track El Niño and La Niña patterns.

The news, reported by Bloomberg, came on the heels of reports that bureaucratic barriers and budget cuts are causing the collapse of the Tropical Atmospheric Ocean Array (TAO) system, which is responsible for tracking global weather phenomena, most particularly El Niño and La Niña. The system was first deployed in 1982-1983 after a particularly bad El Niño storm caused at least $8.1 billion in worldwide damages.

“We are hopeful that we will be able to restore the TAO array to near 80 percent by the end of this year,” said Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the service, told Bloomberg.

TAO is an integral part of an early warning system for weather in the tropical Pacific. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it consists of approximately 70 moorings in the Tropical Pacific Ocean, which send oceanographic and meteorological data to shore in real time via the Argos satellite system. In addition to buoys, sea surface temperature is collected via satellite and ocean temperature is measured by a global network of free-floating buoys, which dive and report data every 10  days. TAO’s buoy system provides real-time wind speed and direction measurements at specific locations as well as water temperature.

The array is a major component of the El Niño/Southern Oscillation Observing System, the Global Climate Observing System and the Global Ocean Observing System.  Its data is also used in studies of the  effects of global warming and in long range weather forecasts and seasonal weather models released by the United States and other governments. Businesses also depend on the forecasts to prepare for droughts, wildfires and floods and storms. Without these predictions there is the even potential for greater financial market volatility and loss of life.

Due to age, neglect and vandalism, nearly half the moored buoys have failed in the past two years, with the system now only operating at about 40 percent effectiveness, according to a January report in Nature.

In fact, on its homepage TAO advises users that “data dropouts since June 2012 have compromised the quality of gridded fields displayed graphically on these web pages.”

El Niño is “the most important climate phenomenon on the planet, and we have blinded ourselves to it by not maintaining this array,” said Michael McPhaden, a senior scientist at NOAA, told Nature. McPhaden headed the TAO project before it was transferred to NWS.

In 2012, maintaining and upgrading the buoys cost about $10 million annually. In 2013, the budget number dropped to $2 to $3 million, not enough to keep the system going, McPhaden said. 

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.

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