"We saw during Deepwater Horizon that HFR and AUVs were a cost-effective way to help pinpoint where oil was likely to be found in near real-time. These tools provide information about surface currents, wave heights and winds and a better picture of what's happening beneath the surface of the Gulf," said SECOORA's Executive Director Debra Hernandez. "Right now, there are significant gaps in our coverage both by HFR and in the number of AUVs in place that we can use in disaster response. That leaves our coastlines and coastal communities vulnerable when another spill occurs. We would be in a much better position to protect our economy, our habitats and our population if we had these tools in place. We also need an adequate network of offshore buoys to complement the information that AUVs and HFR provide. Understanding what is happening throughout the water column is the only way to adequately respond to spills."
There are 937 active and producing oil and gas leases on more than 4.6 million acres in the Gulf region and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is expected to open up new lease areas in the coming years. The Mexican government is also implementing new rules that will allow for oil and gas exploration in their waters.
If they were their own country, the five U.S. Gulf states would rank seventh in global Gross Domestic Product. In fact, the Gulf of Mexico and Southeastern Atlantic have the United States' highest density of energy activities and are home to 11 of the nation's top 20 U.S. ports by tonnage. With an estimated 50 percent of transported goods being hazardous materials, ports are vulnerable to contaminant spills.
"The Gulf of Mexico is a treasure to our nation with cherished marine habitats and species," Kirkpatrick said. "It is also a national asset for its energy production and maritime operations. If another spill occurs, we will need to answer the same questions: Where is the oil? Where is it going? We have an opportunity now to develop a comprehensive observing system in the Gulf so that we are fully prepared to answer those questions and can quickly respond to protect our resources."
What is HFR?
HFR is a system of transmitters and radio antenna receivers along coastlines or on oil platforms; they transmit radio signals that are relayed to the receivers after bouncing off the ocean's surface. The signals received are related to the speed and direction the currents are moving and by wave heights. Because the information comes in near-real time, it is vital for developing accurate, timely forecast models that are especially crucial during response efforts when lives, habitat and property are at risk from hurricanes and oil spills.
There are 19 HFR stations in the Gulf and Southeastern Atlantic coast -- with no HFR coverage at all in Louisiana and Texas.
A new plan developed by the GCOOS-RA and SECOORA calls for 105 stations along coastlines and in major ports. The cost to expand the system is estimated at $19.9 million, with an annual maintenance cost of about $1 million for the coastal HFR stations and $11.8 million to outfit the ports.
What are AUVs?
Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are also known as gliders. They are torpedo shaped, untethered instruments that use buoyancy to move up and down in the water column in a zig-zag pattern, taking in water to move down and expelling water to move up.
They are equipped with radio and satellite transmitters that transmit data gathered on things like water temperature, salinity, water currents and other conditions that can reveal water quality and the effects of storms back to researchers in a laboratory.
Gliders can be outfitted with various types of instruments to detect things like harmful algal blooms and oil or other contaminants. Sensors on these platforms were tremendously valuable in locating oil below the surface during the DWH spill and in subsequent tracking of its movement following the explosion.