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February 1, 2007

Atlantic Warming - Part One

Tom McLaughlin

Buoy 44009 bobs 129 miles from the Ocean City Inlet along an imaginary eastward extension of the Delaware state line. A metal chain secures the 3,740 pound, three foot structure to an 8,500 pound concrete sinker. A tripod under the buoy connects the chain and within this tripod sensors measuring water conditions are attached.

Using a radio beacon, weather data is sent to a geo-stationary satellite every hour; and then it is radioed down to Wallops Island, VA. The data travels to France, the U.S. National Weather Service and then the Internet.

But 44009, a fickle buoy and not a 007 James Bond type, sometimes does not work for a couple of hours, weeks or months. During one year, 8,600 data points that include barometric pressure, wind direction, wave heights, wave periods, air temperature, and sea temperature are stored in the computers at the National Data Buoy Center in Mississippi.

For this essay, seawater temperature was chosen because it is least affected by air temperatures aberrations, i.e., a freak warm or cold snap. The 1984-1989 data set was riddled with omissions, gone with the wind, so to speak.

One year was missing the entire winter and the data averaged to show an abnormally warm year. Another set omitted January while an additional one lacked August, again giving false averages. Stephen Cucullu, an engineer at the National Data Buoy Center, stated that “power system problems were the most prevalent problems in the early years.”

Despite 44009 reporting problems, there is absolutely no doubt the Atlantic off Ocean City is warming. But the data suggests (see graph below) that this is not a gradual increase but moves in fits and starts. Some years, the average seawater temperature is colder while others are warmer. However, the number of warmer years has gradually increased over the 1990-2005-study period.

As predicted by everyone else, the warmer the Atlantic, the more named tropical storms. Given the average temperature of 57.3 F, more hurricanes occurred above this temperature than below. The 2005 season saw 28 named storms at an average temperature of 57.92 F. However, this method cannot be a predictor because in 1995 there were 19 named storms but the average temperature was only 56.58 F.

Ocean City is very lucky because of the Hatteras effect. Most hurricanes bounce up the coast and graze or come ashore at that huge North Carolina sand dune. Diverted, they are sent sprawling out to sea towards Long Island, Cape Cod and Nova Scotia before churning into the North Atlantic towards England and Europe.

Some move up the Appalachian chain, others enter the mouth of the Chesapeake and spread into Pennsylvania; but none has had a direct hit on the resort since records have been kept.

Hurricane Doria made a beeline but veered off at the last minute and did a loop-de-loop before heading out to sea. Gloria grazed the beaches causing minimal, but much ballyhooed damage. Others roared by, miles offshore. The escalation of water temperature off our coast will increase the chances of a storm striking Ocean City. But nobody seems to know what those chances are.

Seawater temperature affects the island’s air temperatures. Snow may fall in West Ocean City but not on 3rd Street. The summer temperatures on the beach are not the same as the recording station located at the airport. Plants are still flourishing in early January on the deck of an ocean front townhouse; but frosts have already killed the vegetation on the island between the two Route 90 bridges.

Buoy 44009 is a three-meter discus buoy. Air temperature is recorded four meters above sea level while seawater temperature raises or lowers the mercury 0.6 meters below the surface. The wind speed and direction indicator (anemometer) whirls five meters up, a meter above the thermometer.

The National Buoy Data Service owns 44009 with headquarters in Mississippi and the usual bureaucratic entanglements. The U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for the maintenance of the buoy. It is replaced on a three-year cycle; and every 18-24 months the mooring is inspected. It has been struck twice by ocean going vessels, in 2002 and again in 2004.

Boaters often cause damages to the buoy. A marine craft tied off can permanently alter and damage wave measurements. The mooring was not created to handle additional loads, and in other cases, have caused them to break free. Lines have become entangled with the chains and the sub surface instruments have been damaged as fishermen try to free them.

This buoy is part of the 60-unit weather reporting systems located in lighthouses, capes, beaches and moored at sea. Our buoy is made of aluminum and painted yellow. The code 44 means buoys north of North Carolina.

Buoy 44009 and its scientific instruments prove beyond any doubt the ocean off our coast is warming. The effects on human populations cannot yet be measured but wildlife has already reacted to these events in Northern Worcester County.

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