One third of the tsunami warning buoys that Hawaii and others rely on for advance notice of impending waves aren’t working or sending data, federal officials say.

Some of the buoys have been out of commission for more than six months, while several others are sending only sporadic information.

Now, sequestration and other budget cuts could slow the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s maintenance efforts — meaning that large dead zones in the U.S.’s main ocean-based warning system could get bigger.

“NOAA claims the American buoys are important for getting early warning (about tsunamis). But if you’ve got large swaths of them that are in essence dead, then you’re not going to get that early information,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of government watchdog group PEER, Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility, which first reported the outages.

NOAA scientists told PEER that the average dead period for non-reporting DART buoys — DART stands for Deep-Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis — is more than six months. Other stations, the scientists said, are reporting sporadic data that is unusable.

The National Buoy Data Center, run by NOAA, confirms PEER’s reports. An interactive map shows the location of each of the 39 DART buoys the U.S. maintains. The map shows in real time that 13 of the buoys are not sending any data.

NOAA officials said they were aware of the broken buoys.

“This is historically the time of year we see the highest percentage of DART outages due to winter conditions limiting our ability to perform maintenance,” Mike Angove, director of NOAA’s Tsunami Program, said in an email. “We expect DART readiness to improve when we conduct our scheduled spring and summer maintenance cruises.”

Three of the dead buoys are in the South Pacific near Chile — a region that has produced at least four significant tsunamis that hit the Hawaiian Islands.

Budget cuts forced NOAA to skip one of the buoys last year on its annual servicing trip to that region. In November, Angove told Civil Beat that he expected his maintenance budget to be cut another $1 million. Given the uncertainty with the federal budget, Angove declined to comment on his program’s current budget situation.

Hawaii State Civil Defense officials said they weren’t overly worried about the dead buoys.

“The DARTs are important but we do have pretty good redundancy — tidal gauges,” said Doug Mayne, vice director of Civil Defense. “There are hundreds of them around the world and they do confirm what the DARTs say.”

Tidal gauges, however, are mostly stationed in harbors and near coastal communities, Mayne said.

The deep-ocean buoys are designed to give emergency officials information hours ahead of an impending wave.

Could New, Lighter Buoys Be The Fix?

NOAA’s tsunami-warning program, like many others, has suffered in recent years from federal budget cutbacks.

The 2012 buoy maintenance budget was $8.6 million, which was smaller than the previous year.

In direct response to the cuts, NOAA’s own researchers developed a newer, lighter buoy that does not require a large oceanographic vessel to launch or service them. These new buoys last longer and only need maintenance every other year.

NOAA spent three years testing the new DART-ETD (easy-to-deploy) buoys, which have been bought by other countries including Australia, Indonesia and Russia.

Ironically, NOAA hasn’t bought any of the buoys for itself. Angove said the agency would need congressional direction to do so.

Mayne, with Hawaii State Civil Defense, said that he and his team will be in Washington, D.C., later this month to meet with Hawaii’s congressional delegation. He said discussing the DART system — and finding funding for it — will be a top priority.

He said he wasn’t very familiar with the DART-ETD buoys but he’s willing to consider them.

“We are interested in pursuing all detection methods that make sense. Anything that appears on the surface to provide the data at a cheaper rate I would certainly be interested in pursuing,” Mayne said.

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa requested full funding for the DART buoys in her priorities letter to the House Budget Committee this year.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hrono said in a statement that faulty or dead buoys are a serious concern. She called fixing the problem “an important public safety priority.”

Hirono didn’t comment on the question of whether she thought NOAA ought to put the DART-ETD buoys into use, but said she hoped that the $50 million included in a supplemental budget measure to develop innovative technologies at NOAA would help reduce maintenance costs.

“I’m working to see that innovative technology is adopted that will reduce NOAA’s operation and maintenance costs while also improving ocean monitoring and data collection. If this technology is adopted by NOAA, I will work with the delegation to see that it is deployed to improve our ability to detect earthquakes and monitor tsunami in the Pacific,” she said.

Here’s a video and some diagrams, courtesy of NOAA, of the DART-ETD buoys:

About the Author