When Cap’n Jim Willis flew over the Cape Lookout shoals in 1993, he noticed that the northeast ocean swells from Raleigh Bay spread out like spokes on a wagon wheel.

“As the waves come around from the northeast, they wrap around the tip of the shoals,” says Willis, a longtime Bogue Banks resident and a self-described “banksologist.”

However, the weather data from instruments in the area didn’t give wave direction, height and length, or time of day and date, according to Willis.

But that changed in June when a new weather buoy was deployed off Cape Lookout shoals.

The buoy monitors a variety of ocean conditions, including waves, currents, water temperature and salinity. It also records wind speed and direction, and other weather data.

Willis says the buoy is in the center of the wagon wheel — where it provides useful oceanographic data. “It will provide valuable information for researchers, surfers, boaters and fishermen,” he adds.

The new buoy relays data from its sensors to shore every hour. Once checked for quality control, the data eventually will be posted online at the Southeast Atlantic Coastal Ocean Observing System (SEACOOS) Web site, as well as through the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service (NWS) and the National Data Buoy Center.


The buoy is part of SEACOOS, a regional research group created to better understand what’s happening in coastal ocean waters stretching from North Carolina to Florida. Researchers are using buoys and radar near or on the ocean to develop detailed maps and data sets.

SEACOOS, which knits together small monitoring programs already operating along the coast, is a collaborative effort among the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), North Carolina Sea Grant, the University of North Carolina system and numerous other partners in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The SEACOOS Web site provides an update on North Carolina observing systems, as well as other systems around the region.

“We are trying to integrate many different elements and form a merged information system that will address scientific and societal issues,” says Harvey Seim, SEACOOS project coordinator and UNC-CH physical oceanographer. “We see a tremendous benefit in marrying satellite remote sensing and ship-based observation with offshore measures at Chapel Hill so that you can get all the information in one place in a consistent fashion.”

Funded by the Office of Naval Research, SEACOOS also is a pilot component of the Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOSS) that will become a network of “eyes” on buoys, ships, satellites, underwater vehicles and other platforms that supply data and information for ocean predictions in U.S. waters. The national IOOS program is part of the federal Ocean.US program that was created by the National Oceanographic Partnership Program.

“The eventual goal for IOOS is to save the United States close to $1 billion a year through enhanced weather forecasting resources and more efficient marine transportation,” says Seim.

Because there is little data on weather conditions in the ocean between Cape Hatteras and Cape Fear, the new Cape Lookout buoy will provide much-needed data in this large section of North Carolina’s coastal waters, according to Rick Luettich, director of the UNC-CH Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City.

“This data should greatly improve the quality of the marine forecast provided by NWS, as well as provide information to the public bn current conditions in this region,” says Luettich, the buoy coordinator.

‘This information will be of great value to anyone who is fishing, boating or involved in recreation along the central North Carolina coast,” he adds. The buoy also will provide important data that will help ocean scientists and NWS weather forecasters improve their ability to predict the behavior of the coastal ocean.”

Thomas Kriehn of the NWS in Newport agrees.

“The buoy is in the boating superhighway between Beaufort Inlet and the Big Rock that is a popular spot for offshore fishermen,” adds Kriehn, meterologist in charge of the NWS Newport office.


Another SEACOOS observation system began operating this summer at Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head, the Outer Banks’ oldest fishing pier. Researchers installed a near-shore ocean observation system that gathers real-time data about weather and water conditions in the area.

Visitors can use a screen kiosk and learn about pier instruments: a weather station measuring wind speed and direction, air temperature, humidity, barometric pressure and rainfall. A “surf cam” also serves up views of the ocean near the pier.

The project is a partnership of SEACOOS, North Carolina Sea Grant, the North Carolina Aquarium Society, the UNC Coastal Studies Institute, Surfchex and the Outer Banks Boarding Company. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Field Research Facility in Duck is providing technical support.

“The education kiosk will spread the word about weather and water conditions to new audiences, including pier and surf fishermen,” says North Carolina Sea Grant fisheries specialist Sara Mirabilio, who is based in Manteo. “Displayed surface current information also will help make it easier for fishermen to find safe boating spots.”

The kiosk also will provide Coastal Ocean Dynamics Applications Radar (CODAR) surface current observations from SEACOOS radar stations at the Duck research pier and the former U.S. Coast Guard station in Buxton. Researchers and anglers can use the CODAR data to unravel the complexities of currents in the Gulf Stream that flows around Florida and passes east of North Carolina.

These currents affect people and natural ecosystems both on land and at sea. The data could benefit shipping, improve preparedness for hurricanes and other storm effects, reduce public health risks, and protect and restore marine systems.

“CODAR shows both the convergent and divergent currents on the surface of the ocean,” says Mike Muglia, UNC Coastal Studies Institute field research coordinator. “This information may be useful in helping to find good fishing areas.”

The system also has huge benefits for search and rescue efforts.

“If an aircraft goes down in the water, CODAR could be used to track drifting crew members,” says North Carolina Sea Grant Extension Director Jack Thigpen. “It also could be used to monitor the movement of an outbreak of harmful algae blooms that can contaminate shellfish beds.”

In the near future, water temperature sensors will be mounted on pilings at Jennette’s Pier. Also, an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler that measures the current speed and direction of the water column above it — as well as the wave height, period and direction — will be installed.


Other ocean observing systems are found in North Carolina and across the country. For example, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington manages the Coastal Ocean Research and Monitoring Program (CORMP) that includes two real-time buoys in Onslow Bay and one offshore from New River Inlet. The system also includes a station at Johnny Mercer Pier at Wrightsville Beach that provides current and real-time wave data.

Jeff Marshall, CORMP outreach and education coordinator, says the data from the pier provides a valuable tool for the NWS in making rip current forecasts.

Another buoy will be deployed off the New River Inlet this year. The U.S. Marine staff at the Marine Corps Base at Camp LeJeune will use the real-time data when planning military training.

Other states also have ocean observing systems. In Florida’s Tampa Bay, the Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System was installed in 1992. The system integrates real-time current, water level, temperature, wave, visibility and wind measurements collected every six minutes at multiple locations in the bay.

The technology, which provides information about the marine environment to ships entering and leaving the bay, is helping to improve safety in the massive shipping industry.

After five years, the number of ship groundings dropped 60 percent. A single grounding can cost shipping operators hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue, ship operations costs, tugboat fees, hull damage and environmental damage — even more if the hull is breached and hazardous cargo is spilled.

In the Northeast, one product of the developing Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System is a Web site that provides real-time data for seafarers, including anglers, marine pilots, the U.S. Coast Guard and recreational boaters.

“Red sky at morning, sailors take warning doesn’t cut it anymore,” says Jeff Cockburn of the Penobscot Bay River Pilots Association. “We need quality, timely data to ensure the safety of our operations.”

In Texas, emergency responders use measurements of surface currents to mitigate oil spills. The Texas General Land Office (TGLO) funds a network of surface current-measuring buoys known as the Texas Automated Buoy System (TABS). Since 1994 the network has reported the buoys’ observations offshore in Texas and Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico in real time to validate a computer model that estimates and forecasts surface currents over the Louisiana shelf.

Real-time data also played a crucial role in a spill response in 1996 when a barge spilled 5,000 barrels of fuel oil at the entrance of Galveston Bay. Working together, the NOAA/ National Ocean Service’s Hazardous Materials Response Division modeling team and the TGLO trajectory modeling team used TABS data and computer simulations to forecast the oil’s movement with an unprecedented level of accuracy.

The modelers knew the current’s direction within minutes of the spill, which was continuously tracked for the next 24 hours.

Formed in 2003, SEACOOS is one of the newer regional ocean observation systems that bring together a number of independent efforts under one umbrella.

When Seim began overseeing the SEACOOS project, he drew upon his experience with a similar endeavor. While working at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, he helped launch a monitoring project in 1998 off the Georgia coast. That observational gear was attached to huge offshore towers installed by the U.S. Navy to track pilots learning to fly in squadrons.

As F-15s and F-18s sped overhead, Seim and other scientists collected information from the air and water below. Instruments tracked the shift in currents and temperature or picked up traces of pollution carried by rain and rivers.

Researchers also documented bursts of powerful winds up to 100 mph.

The NWS regional office used the data in forecasting.

Now, the South Atlantic Bight Synoptic Offshore Observational Network operates eight large offshore platforms that provide a range of oceanographic and meteorological observations on a continual, real-time basis.

Researchers are using underwater cameras to capture the movement and behavior of sea life off the Georgia coast — from Atlantic spadefish and black sea bass to sharks and stingrays.

Seim estimates the SEACOOS system will initially cost $20 million to $30 million to build over five years. The Office of Naval Research funded the initial project, which will be completed in 2007. Funding is expected for future projects.

Since the inception of SEACOOS, the amount of observational data from the coastal ocean has doubled, according to Seim. “All of that impacts the quality of weather forecasts,” he adds.

Kriehn says that SEACOOS data is extremely important to NWS.

“The SEACOOS data is from the marine environment, and marine observations are relatively sparse compared to the amount of data the service has from over land,” he adds. “Every little bit of data will help our forecasters, especially if it is data from the marine environment.”

Besides tracking data through observation systems, SEACOOS provides computer modeling that simulates and predicts natural phenomena, such as temperature changes in the ocean.

For example, scientists can use the observed characteristics of a hurricane combined with models to predict how the storm might grow or shrink, and where it might travel.

“The modeling capabilities should improve the quality of forecasts for areas where there is a potential for flooding and other problems,” says Seim.


The network also offers a new frontier of knowledge for educators.

“Integrating real-time or near real-time data into lessons is a novel experience for students and teachers,” says Lundie Spence, director of the Center for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence (COSEE) SouthEast, one of seven regional educational centers across the country.

With the type of data and models on the SEACOOS Web site, precollege and undergraduate students can learn about geographically relevant information in earth science, marine science and other courses, adds Spence.

For example, the SEACOOS Web site contains the Virtual Waves Classroom, which includes a poster, classroom activities, real-time wave information, wave vocabulary and other resources. The online project is a partnership of COSEE SouthEast, COSEE Florida and COSEE Gulf of Mexico.

“We are pushing the envelope in bringing teachers and students up to date on oceanographic observation data,” says Spence.

Another educational component is an underwater video camera on the ocean bottom in the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary about 17.5 nautical miles off Sapelo Island, Ga. The camera records creatures moving through the artificial reef structure.

In North Carolina, Sea Grant marine education specialist Terri Kirby Hathaway is using coastal ocean observing data to extend classroom lessons.

Through the American Meteorological Society’s Maury Project, a comprehensive national program of teacher enhancement based on the physical foundations of oceanography, Hathaway is bringing new lessons on a variety of oceans topics to educators for use in K-12 classrooms, as well as in aquariums and museums.

“The outreach and education group plays a major role in increasing public awareness of SEACOOS and in dealing with the needs and concerns of users,” says Hathaway.

Along with Hathaway and two college professors from the U.S Naval Academy and Alvenia College in Pennsylvania, five middle and high school science teachers are extending Maury activity modules on shallow-water ocean waves and wind-driven ocean circulation by using data on the SEACOOS Web site.

“I find it valuable to access real-time data — the same data that scientists are using,” says East Carteret High School teacher Barbara Waters. “I think that students also find it so valuable to use this data and regard it as a valid exercise. To fuel an interest in science, you need real science.”

When the SEACOOS network is complete, marine scientists, anglers, boaters and others from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida will be able to tap into a database of regional meteorological and oceanographic information gathered 24 hours a day.

The regional observing system not only will greatly improve the decision-making process for coastal managers, weather response teams and others, but also will enhance the quality of life in the coastal zone.

“We want to provide the same predictions for the ocean here in the southeast as the National Weather Service does for the land,” says Thigpen.

This article was published in the Autumn 2005 issue of Coastwatch.

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