As the Gulf of Mexico enters its 2015 hurricane season, two federal-state/local partnerships have installed new, and enhanced existing, monitoring stations that provide real-time environmental intelligence with highly accurate water level and meteorological data. These stations were installed to help protect communities in the Gulf of Mexico region, as well as support nationally significant shipping and energy industries.The stations are part of the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System (GCOOS).

“The Gulf of Mexico is a proverbial economic and ecological gold mine to the nation,” said U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Louisiana. “The fisheries, energy and port activity result in millions of jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars in economic activity. The observation system, together with other assets, will help us to manage and protect this critical resource and our coastal communities that rely upon it.”

The first partnership is one that includes the Gulf Coast Spatial Reference Consortium of the Conrad Blucher Institute (CBI) for Surveying and Science at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi; Louisiana State University’s Center for Geoinformatics; the University of Southern Mississippi’s Mississippi Spatial Reference Center; and the Alabama Department of Transportation. The consortium was awarded a five-year contract by the NOAA National Ocean Service’s National Geodetic Survey to install Continuously Operating Reference Stations (CORS) to enhance the accuracy of information on northern Gulf coast water levels, topography, coastal land loss, and sea level rise. The partnership of all five U.S. Gulf States and several public universities with NOAA is a ground breaking cooperative effort to extend and improve monitoring stations from Texas to the Florida Keys to provide additional measurements, including more accurate data regarding elevations, 3D positioning, subsidence rates and sea level observations, that will establish ongoing monitoring of the relative sea-level change along the northern Gulf of Mexico in the coming decades.

As a region with rapidly growing communities along low-lying coast and the infrastructure critical to our nation’s shipping commerce and energy security, the northern Gulf is particularly vulnerable to long-term coastal land subsidence and climate changes, as well as floods, hurricanes and tropical storms. The Gulf Coast is particularly at risk to service disruptions due to a transportation network relies on minor roads and other low-lying port infrastructure. The Gulf Coast is home to ten of the twenty largest commercial ports (by tonnage) in the country, many of which are at risk to coastal land loss and inundation (American Association of Port Authorities, 2013) (Figure 1.).

Figure 1. Historical and projected coastal Louisiana land loss changes near the Port of South Louisiana and the Port of New Orleans, two of the nation’s top five ports by tonnage (American Association of Port Authorities, 2013) and near the Nation’s energy port, Port Fourchon. (Image Credit: Barras et al., 2004).

Figure 1. Historical and projected coastal Louisiana land loss changes near the Port of South Louisiana and the Port of New Orleans, two of the nation’s top five ports by tonnage (American Association of Port Authorities, 2013) and near the Nation’s energy port, Port Fourchon. (Image Credit: Barras et al., 2004).

A 2010 study by Entergy et al. also estimated that by 2030, $2 trillion in energy assets along the Gulf coast, producing 30% of U.S. GDP, will be inundated (Figure 2). Accurate and timely information is essential to effective storm forecasting at critical times, as well as long-term models of coastal and climate changes, that affect all this fundamental infrastructure and coastal communities.

Figure 2. View of modeled Gulf Coast energy assets at risk to inundation in 2030 (Entergy and America’s Wetland Foundation. 2010. Effectively Addressing Climate Risk Through Adaptation for the Energy Gulf Coast).

Figure 2. View of modeled Gulf Coast energy assets at risk to inundation in 2030 (Entergy and America’s Wetland Foundation. 2010. Effectively Addressing Climate Risk Through Adaptation for the Energy Gulf Coast).

To meet these needs for understanding and forecasting storms and long-term coastal inundation, the Gulf Coast Spatial Reference Consortium partners are adding CORS near NOAA tide gauges along the northern Gulf coasts of all five U.S. Gulf States, creating a network of more accurate water level information for storm forecasts and storm and inundation models.

The GPS CORS NOAA tide gauge and meteorological monitoring stations work as a network, providing real-time improved position accuracy to monitoring data. This accurate coastal data is critically important for coastal mapping and surveying, coastal restoration, flood protection, and the improvement of coastal flood models for hurricanes and storms. It provides critical information for resiliency efforts by monitoring coastal land elevations, se level rise trends, and water and storm surge levels that impact coastal communities and infrastructure. Expanding the number of CORS stations on tide gauges also assists in accurate 3D positioning and enhances subsidence rate monitoring, along with accurate sea level observations.

National Energy Infrastructure at Risk:

  • 30,000 offshore personnel
  • 3000+ fixed oil and gas platforms in the Gulf, with 300+ mobile units
  • Thousands of miles of pipeline, through which over 2.6 million barrels of crude oil traverse the Gulf Coast each day, with over 1.5 million barrels going through a single point, Port Fourchon, LA each day
  • 4 US Strategic Petroleum Reserve underground storage facilities, each holding over 300 million barrels of crude oil
  • More than 40 refineries and 84 natural gas processing plants
  • Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, the only port in the U.S capable of off-loading deep-draft tankers

“We are excited to be part of this project to provide the latest geospatial data with information from tide gauges, sea level observations, land elevation reference points, and 3D positioning,” said Dr. Gary Jeffress, Director of CBI. “This system will help local and regional leaders plan for improved resilience to any impacts of sea level rise or subsidence and coastal storm surge flooding. The project will develop long-term strategies to address coastal change impacts along the northern Gulf of Mexico.”

To date, CBI and consortium partners have installed four CORS in Florida and five in Texas, including locations near Tampa/St. Pete (Figure 3) and the Houston Ship Channel. Year Two is in progress with the installation of six additional CORS (one in FL, one in AL and one in LA, including one at Port Fourchon). Years Three through Five will include additional installations throughout the Gulf. Along with installing the new high-accuracy stations, the consortium supports education, technology transfer, and capacity building in the Gulf engineering and restoration workforce through workshops and meetings. Professional development units and/or continuing education credits are awarded to event participants.

Losses Due to Hurricanes and Floods:

  • The Gulf Coast has been devastated by several massive and expensive hurricanes in the recent past, including Katrina and Rita (2005), the one-two punch of Gustav and Ike (2008), and Isaac (2012).
  • Hurricane Katrina, the costliest storm in U.S. history at $48.83 billion in insured losses (in 2014 dollars), resulted in tragic losses of lives and disruptions to U.S. economic activity in shipping and oil and gas (Insurance Information Institute, 2014). (In 2013 numbers, the Gulf provides 17% of U.S. crude oil production, 45% of total U.S. petroleum refining capacity, and 51% of U.S. natural gas processing capacity.)
  • Additionally the Gulf has 14 of the top 20 U.S. Ports by tonnage, carrying goods to and from the Gulf and Mississippi River, the nation’s riverine highway for domestic and international shipping. In 2012, Hurricane Isaac forced the Port of New Orleans to shut down for four days in 2012, costing the U.S. more than $400 million dollars and causing ripple effects throughout the global supply chain (WWLTV, 2012).
  • Average yearly flood damages in the U.S. are estimated at $7.95 billion (adjusted to 2014 inflation with 85 average annual deaths (NOAA National Weather Service, 2014).
Figure 3. CORS tide gauge station at Tampa/St. Petersburg, FL (Credit: NOAA).

Figure 3. CORS tide gauge station at Tampa/St. Petersburg, FL (Credit: NOAA).

The second, complementary program is the NOAA-local port partnership, Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System (PORTS®). PORTS® operates nine sites within the Gulf, providing real-time environmental intelligence on water levels, currents, water density, and meteorology aimed at safe and efficient navigation. PORTS® has recently added two new Gulf sites in LA: Port Fourchon, servicing 90% of the Gulf’s deepwater oil and gas industry and providing 20% of the U.S. energy supply daily, and Morgan City/Atchafalaya Bay, a newly-established foreign trade port and an area of the Louisiana coast showing relative stability through land accretion. The PORTS® data will not only help enhance safe and efficient navigation, they will also help inform coastal restoration and resilience activities and assist in storm forecasting. In 2014, NOAA National Ocean Service estimated as much as a $300 million annual benefit in improved maritime safety and efficiency from an expanded PORTS® system serving all 175 major U.S. seaports. Currently, PORTS® serves about one-third of these major seaports.

“Real-time knowledge of the currents, water levels, winds and density of the water can increase the amount of cargo moved through a port and harbor and enable mariners to safely use available channel depths,” said Rich Edwing, NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS) director. “Even one additional foot of draft can substantially increase the profit of a shipment.”

Both these partnerships are components of the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System Regional Association (GCOOS-RA), a regional system of partners providing near-real time environmental intelligence through a free data portal. The GCOOS-RA brings many different data providers together and offers an integrated, comprehensive view of the Gulf for stakeholders through the GCOOS Portal and Products pages (Figure 4). The GCOOS Data Portal provides near real-time access to all the CORS-enabled tide gauge and PORTS® data.

Figure 4. GCOOS-RA Data Portal image of timely data from the new PORTS system at the Port of Morgan City.

Figure 4. GCOOS-RA Data Portal image of timely data from the new PORTS system at the Port of Morgan City.

In addition to the data portal, the GCOOS Regional Association of partners has developed a long-term plan for the development of a comprehensive, Gulf-wide ocean observing system to provide environmental intelligence for many societal benefits, including improved resilience and enhanced navigation.

Data from the new CORS and PORTS® technologies, combined with the data from other GCOOS-RA partners, will help protect the U.S. “As a region with rapidly growing communities along low-lying coastal areas and an infrastructure that is critical to our nation’s energy security, improving and enhancing our coastal observing systems are vital to our nation’s interests,” said Dr. Barbara Kirkpatrick, Executive Director of the GCOOS-RA. “More than 14 million people call the Gulf Coast home. The Gulf is also a vital economic driver for the regional and the U.S. economies, providing jobs for 20 million people and generating $234 billion annually. Better predictive capabilities for storms and inundation are of utmost importance to protecting lives, commerce and our nation’s energy supply.”

References:

American Association of Port Authorities. 2013. U.S. Port Ranking by Cargo Tonnage, http://www.aapa-ports.org/Industry/content.cfm?ItemNumber=900&navItemNumber=551

Barras, J., Beville, S., Britsch, D., Hartley, S., Hawes, S., Johnston, J., Kemp, P., Kinler, Q., Martucci, A., Porthouse, J., Reed, D., Roy, K., Sapkota, S., and Suhayda, J., 2003, Historical and projected coastal Louisiana land changes: 1978-2050: USGS Open File Report 03-334, 39 p. (Revised January 2004).

Entergy and America’s Wetland Foundation. 2010. Effectively Addressing Climate Risk Through Adaptation for the Gulf Energy Coast, http://www.entergy.com/content/our_community/environment/GulfCoastAdaptation/report.pdf

Insurance Information Institute. 2014. The Ten Most Costly Hurricanes in the United States, http://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/hurricanes

NOAA National Weather Service. 2014. United States Flood Loss Report – Water Year 2014, http://www.nws.noaa.gov/hic/summaries/WY2014.pdf

NOAA National Ocean Service. 2014. Economic Value of PORTS to the Nation, http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/news/aug14/Value_of_PORTS_to_the_Nation.pdf

WWLTV, 2012, Port Shutdown Meant Hundreds of Millions of Dollars Lost, http://www.wwltv.com/weather/hurricaneisaac/Port-shutdown-meant-hundreds-of-millions-of-dollarslost-168222376.html