The fabulous 40s -- Riding the waves into middle age

Time is money and that is perhaps no more evident than in the world of shipping. FedEx founded a whole service industry niche on the concept of overnight delivery and the company name has become a verb but in terms of the dollar value of timeliness, the maxim is most profoundly at work in the world's ports.

In Long Beach, Calif., cargo loading and unloading operations are prone to disruption by periods of intense wave activity. In the parlance of science, these are known as energetic long-period wave events and they can make the clearance in the harbor insufficient to accommodate the deep-draft vessels attempting to enter.

This is no small matter in a port that moved $145 billion in cargo last year. It costs between $100,000 and $200,000 to retain a vessel offshore so inefficiency can very quickly become an expense that disrupts commerce and takes away work from the thousands of people involved in port operations.

A product from the Coastal Data Information Program (CDIP) at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego is an especially valuable logistics tool. CDIP issues automated alerts to harbor pilots when wave events from a network of offshore buoys indicate that the thresholds have been exceeded for safe operations. With these automated messages, pilots are better equipped to make decisions that will improve efficiency and are economically beneficial.

Now in its fourth decade of operation, CDIP data are used in myriad ways. The network started with one wave instrument in 1975 and now has nearly 50 wave buoys in the coastal U.S., the Caribbean and in several Pacific islands. Oceanographers utilize the long-term data CDIP produces as it creates a record of coastal dynamics and climate change. Most other users receive more immediate benefits from the near real-time information.

In 2009, CDIP Program Manager Julie Thomas attended a meeting of the maritime community at the Mouth of the Columbia River. There was a strong consensus that additional data were needed for navigation in the potentially unsafe surrounding waters. Now, two years later, a pair of CDIP boys are in the area -- one 30 miles offshore and one just south of the entrance channel. The CDIP support base has expanded from surfers, scientists and harbormasters to include Members of Congress, including Oregon senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden.

"It is very simple. These buoys save lives," a Wyden representative recently told an Oregon newspaper.

In San Francisco, the National Weather Service now uses data from two CDIP buoys offshore San Francisco Bay to deliver Bar forecasts, again enabling warnings of energetic wave conditions to boaters. Since the forecast was introduced in 2005, rescue incidents in the vicinity of the Golden Gate Bridge have decreased. In 2003, there were nearly 100 incidents. By 2009 after the Bar forecast was enhanced with the buoy data, the number had dropped to fewer than 20.

CDIP is supported chiefly by the California Department of Boating and Waterways (CDBW) and by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). In addition to providing wave information to the USACE for navigation and dredging, since 2001, the USACE has supported CDIP's beach processes studies. These studies use LIDAR to provide high-resolution elevation maps of the shoreline from the Mexican border to Long Beach. In-situ surveys with GPS-equipped all-terrain vehicles and JetSkis have also provided detailed elevation maps at selected sites. This monitoring of shoreline change is critical for Corps projects for the design of shoreline structures and regional sediment management. CDIP supports CDBW's mission of providing boating safety and managing coastal projects.

To say it's a worthwhile investment is a bit like saying water is wet. Just ask the commercial shipper who would watch profits slip away as his vessels sit idle off the coast were it not for the program that needs less and less time to pay for itself with every passing year.

Monroe is editor of UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography explorations online magazine.

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