Texas’ eyes and ears in the Gulf of Mexico: state-funded buoy system streamed real-time Harvey data to shore

Sep 8, 2017

When a hurricane is rolling towards land, accurate real-time data can be a matter of life and death.

Water temperature, water density, wave height — such data helps validate forecast models and inform governmental agencies’ work notifying communities and protecting residents. 

Thanks to the Texas General Land Office (GLO) and Texas A&M University, a system of eight enormous buoys in the Gulf of Mexico was providing that essential, real-time, in-the-water data to decision-makers before and after Hurricane Harvey made land-fall. 

The Texas Automated Buoy System (TABS) is funded and supported by GLO, which is led by Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush.

Although its primary purpose is to collect measurements and data for oil-spill trajectory modelling off the Texas coast, the buoy system is also an invaluable source of information when a tropical storm is barreling through the Gulf. Not only does data from the TABS network flow into NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center and into National Weather Service forecast models, it’s also used by GLO to keep Texas residents and responders safe.

“In the fulfillment of our mission to protect the Texas coast, we rely on the TABS network as our first line of defense, as it utilizes remote sensing equipment and gives us real-time data on currents and other metrological conditions,” said Steve Buschang, GLO director of research and development and scientific support coordinator.

The buoy network is built, maintained and operated by the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group (GERG), in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M.

“The TABS buoy system is really the eyes and ears for Texas in the Gulf,” said Dr. Steve DiMarco, GERG team leader for ocean observing and professor in the Texas A&M Department of Oceanography. “TABS has been protecting Texans and the Texas coast 24/7 since 1995.”

When responding to disasters such as hurricanes, GLO provides personnel teams, equipment, and transport for livestock and wildlife, Buschang said. The TABS data helps GLO first get those assets and teams out of harm’s way, and then helps inform their response and relief actions after the storm. 

“In situations such as the passage of hurricanes, the hydrodynamic models I normally use to track and anticipate where oil, debris and other contaminates may be going are of limited use,” he said. “It is imperative to have these robust in-situ remote sensors giving us real-time, accurate accounting of what is happening.” 

The buoys send in ocean current and wave height data that is not obtainable otherwise.

“Oil spill trajectory models, hurricane trajectory models, all models need verification, and the bathymetry of the Gulf of Mexico can sometimes confound computer models,” said Dr. Anthony Knap, GERG director and professor of oceanography.

Ocean currents off the Texas coast can be highly variable, he said.

“You can view a very nice satellite image showing exactly what a hurricane looks like, and the eye location, everything, but what we want to know is, what are the ocean currents doing?” DiMarco said. “And without the TABS buoys, we wouldn’t know.”

During Hurricane Harvey, one of buoys reported 25-foot waves. The GERG team was especially interested in that buoy’s dataset because a GERG maintenance team unexpectedly had to ride out the storm in their ship near that buoy. “We knew our crew had weathered 25-foot seas, because they were sitting right by Buoy B, and the buoy was registering 25-foot waves,” DiMarco said.

“The buoys responded just incredibly; you could instantaneously tell where the hurricane and the high-intensity winds were, by looking at the data,” Knap added. “Long-term funding commitments for these types of monitoring systems are not common, so the state of Texas is very fortunate that GLO sees the value of it and supports it.”

By Leslie Lee