Oceanography Professor in Spotlight
October 5, 2004 6:37 PM
A coalition of scientists, researchers, and educators—including a professor at SF State—are taking part in an ambitious project to help learn more about, and understand better, the ocean current systems off of the California coastline.
The Coastal Ocean Current Monitoring Program (COCMP) aims to study, track and predict the movement of water atop the surface of the ocean that flows near the shoreline, and has a direct impact on the coastal environment.
While the primary goal of the project is provide real time monitoring and reporting of ocean surface currents, according to SF State professor Toby Garfield, it will also improve surf and wave forecasting along the coast, expand the collection of meteorological data, improve wind models, and improve models of coastal ocean circulation.
Garfield, in addition to teaching oceanography courses at SF State and working at the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies, is the lead principal investigator for the Northern California portion of the COCMP.
“We’ll provide hourly estimates of the surface circulation, and within a very short amount of time, we’ll have them available on the web,” Garfield said.
Real world applications for the information that the project will gather, in addition to the basic scientific knowledge that will be gained, include providing information that the Coast Guard can use for search and rescue operations, and agencies responding to oil spills or sewage leaks can use to help them plan better for containment strategies.
Jeff Paduan of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, and co-lead investigator for the Northern California portion of COCMP, envisions a time when real-time data can be combined with archived information to create models and a basis for better predictions for all kinds of possible situations.
“Generally there are these two categories [of uses]—one is immediately responding, having the best sort of weather forecast for what’s happening out there, so you know which direction to sort of head things off, and the other is in the statistical sense, what are the strengths of the currents and the directions and how are they changing,” Paduan said.
“If you can get within an hour or two a map of what the currents are doing, one thing we hope to do is to add a simple 24-hour projection capability as well onto this real time data—so that you get today’s currents and then a map that changes sort of into a forecast, and that’s the kind of thing that spill responders and search and rescue we hope will begin to rely on more.”
The actual monitoring itself will mainly be done using a technology called High Frequency Radar—a low wattage radio signal projected onto the oceans’ waves from strategically placed antennas long the coastline.
“[The antennas] send out a certain wavelength, and through the physics of what’s going on, that energy gets reflected off the surface of the ocean back to those antennas,” said Garfield.
“The best analogy is the Doppler Effect of a train—you know when a train is coming towards you, the whistle pitch is fairly high, and as it goes away the pitch goes down—it’s basically using a combination of the Doppler Effect and what we call Bragg Scatter, which is how sonar works, and how radar works. The principals are pretty similar, but this is using radio waves instead.”
A few other isolated water-based instruments will be used for the project as well, to compliment the HF Radar data in the creation of models for the surface currents, and by way of inference, deduce what is happening in the deeper part of the water column.
Measurements will also be taken to study the area closest to the shoreline (also known as the surf zone) and how currents affect it, by analyzing wave direction data taken from off shore buoys, according to Ed Thornton, a COCMP participant also from the Naval Postgraduate School.
“The current and sediment transport calculations will give information on dispersion of contaminants, run-off and discharge from land, and information on erosion processes,” said Thornton.
Initial funding for the project, which amounts to $21 million, is coming from the California Clean Water, Clean Air, Safe Neighborhood Parks, and Coastal Protection Act of 2002, and the Water Security, Clean Drinking Water, Coastal and Beach Protection Act of 2002—two propositions (40 and 50) passed by California voters in 2002.
The project participants are finalizing their work statement with the Coastal Conservancy, the state agency that is managing the COCMP.
The next step for Garfield and his co-workers will be to start the process of picking antenna sites and acquiring the necessary permits to begin the actual building of the infrastructure, which he hopes will be up and running in four years.
“There is a lot of effort at the national level on ocean observing going on,” Garfield said. “A congressionally mandated report called the ‘Oceans Report’ is coming out, and the Pew Oceans Commission, [along with] the National Academy of Sciences all published reports recently saying ‘Hey, we’ve got to start focusing on the ocean.’ So the fact that the state is taking this initiative is really exciting, and puts us in a great spot nationally.”
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