The Texas General Land Office and Texas A&M University will loan the Navy two state-of-the art buoys to monitor ocean currents and temperatures, allowing directors of the operation to make decisions on how work should progress based on real-time conditions in the Pacific Ocean off Hawaii.
"We're honored to cooperate with the Navy on this sensitive mission and grateful we could help," said Texas Land Commissioner David Dewhurst.
The buoys that were sent to Hawaii (June 27) are part of the Texas Automated Buoy System (TABS), a high-tech system designed to protect sensitive Texas coastal areas and the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, the Gulf of Mexico's only coral reef.
"The Navy came to us because TABS represents the best technology available in the country," said Norman Guinasso, deputy director of the College of Geosciences' Geochemical and Environmental Research Group (GERG) at Texas A&M, which coordinates the TABS program. "In fact, Texas A&M was the only group that had this level of technology up and ready to go. We're happy to be able to loan the buoys to the Navy free of charge."
TABS buoys contain sensitive electronics to monitor gulf currents and can relay warnings via cell phone or satellite should oil spills or other disasters threaten the reef's delicate ecosystem.
"Data from TABS allows us to predict oil spill movement," Guinasso said. "The network of buoys allows agencies to make appropriate operational decisions should there be a pollution event by accurately predicting the event's impact and acting quickly to mitigate the problem. In the Ehime Maru recovery operation, the TABS buoys will allow the Navy to keep track of currents and water temperatures that might impact fuel leaks or diver safety and to monitor the ship during the tow into the waters near Pearl Harbor.
"The TABS project was funded largely by the state of Texas, with additional funding from the oil industry to protect the Flower Garden Banks" he continued. "TABS is a long-term operational system that the GLO considers absolutely critical to the state's ability to predict where spilled oil will go in Texas waters.
"However, the buoys being sent to Hawaii represent two spares, so our Gulf of Mexico early warning system will in no way be impacted by their use by the Navy."
The buoys left Texas A&M packed in a 20-foot-long ocean shipping container to be trucked to California. Once in California, they will be placed aboard a ship for Honolulu, where they're scheduled to arrive on July 12. The Navy plans to have the buoys in the water at the initial recovery site by July 16.
Once they're in the water, the TABS buoys will begin relaying current and temperature data via cell phone back to computers in College Station, Texas.
"We'll post the data to a Web page we've designed for the Navy," Guinasso said. "At first, we'll post data several times a day, but as the operation progresses, we're prepared to provide readings on an hourly or even shorter basis."
The entire recovery operation is expected to take two months. Texas A&M technician John Walpert and marine instrumentation specialist Paul Clark will be in Hawaii to advise the Navy on the buoys' installation.
The newest buoys in the TABS fleet use acoustic Doppler current profilers (ADCP) to measure water speeds. The ADCP's send sound waves between two prongs; a change in pitch in the sound signal returned from organisms in the water allows scientists to calculate the current flow. The apparatus is based on the same principle that makes a train whistle sound higher in pitch when the train is approaching and lower when it is receding.
The buoys average the current speed vectors every five minutes and the water temperature at two meters below the surface every 30 minutes. The same type of acoustic sensors record wind speeds above the water. Under normal conditions, all data is then relayed four times a day via either cell or satellite phone to a shore-based GERG computer, but during spills, GERG can signal the buoys to switch to a more frequent data reporting schedule.
The Ehime Maru sank in February after an American submarine surfaced beneath it and now lies submerged in 2,000 feet of water. The Navy operation, scheduled to begin in mid-July, aims to recover the bodies of nine persons that went down with the fishing trawler. Plans call for the Dutch company Smit Tak to lift the trawler 100 feet off the sea bottom, drag it approximately 14 miles and set it down again in about 115-foot-deep water about a mile off the coast of Hawaii.
Once the Ehime Maru reaches that point, a group of 60 Japanese and U.S. divers will begin searching for the bodies left on board. After the recovery has been completed, the vessel will be returned to deep water about 12 miles offshore.
According to written statements, the Navy considers the recovery operation "risky" because it has never tried to raise so large a vessel from such depths. The 750-ton Ehime Maru carried 45,000 gallons of diesel fuel when it went down, so planning for the operation must include safeguards against possible fuel leaks.