Weather Buoys: Are they keeping you safe?

Myrtle Beach, SC - MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - The Atlantic Ocean is the driving force of the Grand Strand economy. People want to live by it and visitors from all over come to play on our beaches and fish the waters. These people rely on coastal forecasts to plan vacations, fishing trips and protect their homes from flooding, but how reliable are these forecasts and what is being done to make them better?

About three miles off the coast of Myrtle Beach, local boat captains gave us an exclusive look at some special weather buoys that serve as a first warning for dangerous weather and waters. They're great for vacationers hoping to spend time at the beach, but vital to mariners who need to know wind and wave conditions to keep them safe.

"NOAA will tell you all of the ocean forecasting for the Grand Strand area is strictly and educated guess," said Capt. Eric Heiden, a charter fisherman. "They have no clue as to what the ocean conditions are."

Heiden says the waters off the Grand Strand have been a blind spot for meteorologists. With one glance at the location of the buoys off the coast, it's easy to see why: there are only two off-shore buoys, both of which are more than 60 miles from Myrtle Beach.

However, in March 2009, Santee Cooper started a wind energy research project and put six buoys - on loan from NC State University - off of the coastline. The buoys measure wind, water, and air temperatures, along with wave data.

"The project was geared toward looking at renewable wind energy and that's what we have been focused on," said Dr. Paul Gayes, professor at Coastal Carolina University, who leads the research efforts sponsored by Santee Cooper.

The buoys have done more than compile data for Santee Cooper's research. They have also allowed boaters and forecasters the ability to see what is going on in the previous "blind" waters closer to the coast.

But it's also called more attention to the fact that we need more buoys to collect more data for current and future conditions for beach goers and boaters.

"Those buoys have helped fill in the gaps that we have and it is just again, another piece of the puzzle," said Steve Pfaff, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Wilmington.

The problem is the "piece to the puzzle" is about to disappear. Next month, the project will be over, and unless Gayes and researchers at CCU can secure additional money, the buoys will be taken out of the water and moved to another funded research project.

"Buoys have applications that are far reaching from rip current predictions to coastal flooding assistance with hurricane forecasting and just our day to day forecasting," Pfaff said.

Believe it or not, despite the fact of the huge gap in coverage for observations, the day-to-day forecasts really aren't that bad. According to Pfaff, the NWS verifies each forecast. The wind forecasts are accurate within five knots 77 percent of the time, while the wave forecasts are correct 88 percent of the time.

"I suspect most people, even the casual observers would say that the forecasting that you would experience on land has gotten very, very good," Gayes said. "I think the mariners way off the coast would say it's very good. It's the coastal zone that's tough because it's the transition zone."

This transition zone is where we have no buoys, which means no observations and this is where people swim and this is where people fish.

"Why have we not had weather buoys here? The government has not been able to tell me, other than they have no money," Heiden said. "I don't buy that."

The up front cost for a buoy is about $250,000, while it is about $70,000 a year to maintain each buoy. So is it worth the money? According to Heiden, the Senate says no. He says the last time funding for weather buoys off our coast was on the senate floor, the Grand Strand was overlooked.

Despite the uncertainty of it all, there's no arguing the more buoys, the better. Real-time weather data means more informed boaters, better rip current forecasts and forecast models and a more complete database for meteorologists to use when studying past events like hurricanes. So will these buoys stay out there? It all comes down to money.

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