GoMOOS—Smart Buoys Make Ocean Observation as Easy as A-B-Sea


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For most Americans, knowledge of nautical weather patterns is cursory or anecdotal at best, but for those whose livelihoods and lives depend on understanding the ocean's every move, technological advances have made the waters of the Gulf of Maine safer and more predictable than ever.

The Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System (GoMOOS) collects and tracks data on wind conditions, fog, air and water temperature at various depths, visibility, waves, salinity, chlorophyll concentration, and other environmental factors from ten buoy locations throughout the Gulf. Every hour, conditions are updated wirelessly, although certain weather or atmospheric conditions can cause occasional delays. The information is then made available to the general public, and primarily used by fishermen, scientists, meteorologists, and others who benefit from hour-to-hour and day-to-day updates. Public health officials have also taken to using GoMOOS as a way to monitor the safety of seafood.

"As you might expect, the buoys provide valuable information for mariners that go out to sea on a day-to-day basis—these users care mostly about sea-state and weather conditions," says Philip Bogden, CEO of GoMOOS. "But the unexpected benefits come from the information below the ocean's surface, which has been largely a black box until now. The several-year-long records from the buoys have revealed that the deep ocean feels the effects of global climate change in ways that few people knew about before we put the buoys in the water," he continues. "These sub-surface effects have profound implications for ecosystem health and fisheries management."

GoMOOS runs primarily on the FreeBSD operating system and operates using an open-source model, both because the software was ideal for the needs of the project and because it invokes the spirit of collaboration and support on which GoMOOS was founded. "Collectively, we're trying to create an interoperable system that provides a public service for the common good. We feel that the best way to do this is to encourage open sharing of information and experience and to promote regional partnerships," explains Bogden. "That's the essence of what we call our ‘Open Source' attitude. We use best of breed technologies; and, from a software perspective, we feel that many open source software tools just happen to be best of breed."

Anyone interested in GoMOOS data can visit www.gomoos.org, or use the Dial-A-Buoy service that operates in conjunction with the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) National Data Buoy Center's (NDBC) Dial-A-Buoy service. Calling from a touch tone or cell phone offers access to hourly updates from the ten GoMOOS buoys located throughout the Gulf of Maine, as well as five smart buoys operated by NOAA. Callers enter a station identifier for any one of the buoys to receive all of the information available online, read by a computer-generated voice.

Before the use of GoMOOS buoys, there was no effective means of determining oceanic conditions, save for heading out to sea to collect measurements manually. Since conditions change rapidly, GoMOOS offers potentially lifesaving information that is available 24 hours a day and guaranteed to be relatively current. GoMOOS and other similar systems have been heralded as the oceanic equivalent to land-based weather forecasts. "We're trying to assist in the building of a national coastal ocean observing system," says Bogden, "in many ways, similar to an underwater version of the National Weather Service—by creating a federation of linked regional systems."

Bogden cites cooperation with other agencies and projects as vital to most effectively using data collected through GoMOOS. "Turning data into useful information is not easy, and data is most useful when put in context with other sources of information," he says. "We're working with entities in the region that collect other kinds of data, such as the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U. S. Geological Survey, and more. It continues to be a challenge to combine data from such disparate groups, but we're making progress."

Operating as a non-profit, GoMOOS receives federal financial assistance as well as support from departments such as the Office of Naval Research, which promotes ocean observations in part because of its relevance for national security issues. Other applications include search-and-rescue missions, the prediction of major weather patterns such as El Niño, accident prevention, oil spill cleanup, and management of fisheries.

Ultimately, scientists hope to implement similar systems around the country and around the world. Projects are under way in other parts of the country, using GoMOOS as a working model. As for the future of GoMOOS, "We're hoping to add new buoys and instrumentation in critical locations in the Gulf of Maine," Bogden says. "On a national level, interoperability is the key word, which means that we're working to create seamless connections with our fellow ocean observing systems and with state and federal agencies that monitor the ocean."
(www.gomoos.org)