Coast Guard launches NOAA weather buoy at Entrance to Prince William Sound

The crew on the buoy deck of Coast Guard Cutter Sycamore prepares to hoist the anchor of a weather buoy near the Hinchinbrook Entrance to Prince William Sound, Alaska, Dec. 10, 2018. The Sycamore is a 225-foot seagoing buoy tender out of Cordova, Alaska. U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA1 Nate Littlejohn

The crew on the buoy deck of Coast Guard Cutter Sycamore prepares to hoist the anchor of a weather buoy near the Hinchinbrook Entrance to Prince William Sound, Alaska, Dec. 10, 2018.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA1 Nate Littlejohn

By PA1 Nate Littlejohn

Smashing through 15-foot swells on a dark December morning, the crew aboard U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sycamore steamed toward the Hinchinbrook Entrance in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Their attempts to launch a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather buoy days earlier had been called off due to rough seas. With only fleeting windows of favorable conditions in the forecast, the requisite tenacity of the crew would be called upon again today.

Aboard with the Sycamore’s crew were two NOAA contractors and Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Delaet from the NOAA National Data Buoy Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Delaet is one of four Coast Guard warrant officers at NDBC with extensive buoy tending and navigational aid experience. His job is to work with NOAA contractors and Coast Guard crews to assist with the deployment and servicing of NOAA weather buoys and towers.

The USCG and NOAA have been working together under a memo of understanding since 1972 at the NDBC. These days a Coast Guard liaison officer there supervises four warrant officers, including Delaet. The liaison officer coordinates with Coast Guard district waterways personnel to arrange for Coast Guard asset and crew support to maintain 106 weather buoys and 45 Coastal Marine Automated Network stations all over the U.S.

Today it was the Sycamore’s turn.

“Planning and executing a NOAA weather buoy mission like this one in Alaska is unique,” said Chad Pool, current Coast Guard liaison at NDBC. “In this instance, the buoy, mooring and equipment had to be shipped from Mississippi eight weeks in advance in order to arrive in Cordova and be placed on the Sycamore in time for their patrol. Delaet and our NOAA contracted technicians played a big role in getting it all up there.”

But a buoy onboard and an experienced crew underway isn’t all it takes in Alaska.

“When we get underway to launch or repair a buoy, it’s never a guarantee that we’ll be able to complete the mission on that trip, unless we get cooperation from Mother Nature,” said Chief Warrant Officer Jeffrey Ritter, 1st Lt. aboard the Sycamore. “But weather is what brings us on NOAA missions in the first place, whether we’re launching a buoy that will record it or fixing a buoy that was damaged by an 80-foot swell.”

Personnel at the NOAA Weather Forecast Office in Anchorage provided daily weather briefs to the captain of the Sycamore to help determine potential weather windows for the operation.

On December 10, the seas subsided just long enough for the cooperative effort aboard Sycamore to launch NOAA weather buoy 46061. Like most 3-meter weather buoys of its kind, it will record and transmit air and ocean temperature, humidity, barometric pressure and wind speed, along with wave frequency, height and direction.

“Like all NOAA weather buoys, this one is extremely important in providing a clear picture of weather and sea conditions to the maritime community,” said Cmdr. Michael Franklin, Captain of the Port, Prince William Sound. “This buoy is crucial to all classes of vessels entering Prince William Sound, including recreational vessels, commercial, charter and sport fishing vessels, ferries, sightseeing vessels, cruise ships, tug and barge and oil tankers to name a few.”

“Supporting NOAA by deploying these buoys is immensely important,” said Cmdr. Collin Bronson, commanding officer aboard cutter Sycamore. “Putting weather buoys in the water is one of my favorite missions, because the outcome has an impact on every facet of the maritime community. The buoys transmit the weather conditions and sea state of a given area and help to forecast much larger areas by providing a piece of the bigger weather picture. Commerce, military readiness, search and rescue, weather and climate research, even recreation; these data buoys are vital to all maritime stakeholders.”

But NOAA data buoys are vital to more than just mariners. Alaska is warming faster than any other state, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment report released Nov. 23, 2018. Studying data collected by weather buoys is crucial to understanding these changes and what they mean for Alaskans.

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