Annapolis scientist wins weather award for work with 'smart' bay buoys

Doug Wilson, a retired NOAA oceanographer, was honored for his buoy program.
Doug Wilson, a retired NOAA oceanographer, was honored for his buoy program. (Candy Thomson, Baltimore Sun)

Part data collectors, part tour guides — with a dash of personality for good measure — the 10 yellow navigational markers that make up the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System have been a hit with the public and weather forecasters since their launch in 2007.

So much so that the American Meteorological Society singled out their creator, NOAA oceanographer Doug Wilson, at its annual meeting last month and presented him with one of its top awards.

"I know he had a lot of help, but he saw the potential and ran with it. He was relentless," said Mark Bushnell, a Virginia meteorologist who nominated Wilson for the Francis W. Reichelderfer Award, given to a person who contributes to the public's understanding of science.

Wilson, who recently retired from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration field office in Annapolis, acknowledged that the buoys have a certain razzle-dazzle to them that delights the public and provides a bit of a shield against budget cuts.

During Hurricane Sandy, the website where all the buoys' information is compiled had more than 1 million hits, according to NOAA. Last June's violent derecho drew thousands of users near the bay who tracked the approach of 80 mph winds.

"We're still here because of them," Wilson said of the diverse fans of the buoys.

The "smart" buoys were originally intended to act as electronic tour guides for the Capt. John Smith National Historic Trail, the first all-water national park, which follows the explorer's 3,000-mile trip around the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries in 1607 and 1608.

But Wilson quickly realized that each buoy would provide a perfect platform to gather the kind of information that forecasters and environmental scientists crave but to that point had little access to.

"We all recognized the potential. It was kind of an obvious fit. From there, it was finding the funding," he said.

Wilson designed his packages of instruments and the battery-and-solar power sources. A partnership of citizen groups, Verizon and the government came up with the $125,000 for each marker.

Beneath hard scientific data is the soul of a bay icon. John Page Williams, a longtime naturalist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, provided a folksy narration of Smith's 1607 and 1608 voyages tailored to each of the 10 sites.

Wilson worked with experts to put the buoys — six in Maryland waters and four in Virginia — where they would do the most good. In Maryland, they were deployed in the Susquehanna and Patapsco rivers, in the bay off Annapolis, below the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in the upper Potomac River and near Point Lookout at the river's mouth, and at the mouth of the Little Choptank River on the Eastern Shore. Virginia's buoys were placed near Norfolk, Jamestown, Cape Henry and Deltaville.

Real-time information about currents, waves and wind are collected by each buoy's sensors and transmitted to a toll-free phone number, 877-BUOY-BAY, and to a website, http://www.buoybay.org. Paddlers, cruisers and even children in classrooms can access the information.

"Scientists get beaten up because they can't explain what they're doing and why," Bushnell said. "The buoys are all about communicating with the public and connecting one community with others."

Brandon Peloquin, NOAA meteorologist who prepares marine forecasts for the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay and the tidal Potomac River, called the buoy network, "very valuable" in helping prepare small-craft advisories and gale warnings.

Forecasters also are using the buoy information to check the accuracy of their forecasts.

"We are using wave heights from the buoys to help us test out a new model that forecasts wave heights. Waves from the Patapsco, [Little Choptank] and Potomac buoys help us compare what is actually happening versus what the model is forecasting, and this information will ultimately help us to improve the model and improve wave forecasts for boaters," Peloquin said.

Maryland environmental officials are able to track water-quality trends and quickly gather information to help pinpoint the cause of summertime fish kills.

"The longer you keep something like these buoys in the water, the more valuable the data becomes in establishing long-time trends," Wilson said. "In five more years, you're going to be able to say something significant about how the Chesapeake Bay has changed."

It takes $800,000 a year to run and maintain the buoys. Wilson has two back-up markers and has stockpiled spare parts to ensure that the buoys operate continuously. (The buoy in the Susquehanna River gets pulled out each December to keep it safe from ice damage; it is redeployed in the spring once waters warm.)

Wilson hopes to arrange a public-private partnership between NOAA and nonprofit science groups so that the buoys continue to be funded and used for other projects such as tracking tagged fish to study migratory patterns.

"We've put them in the water and made them talk and transmit data," he said. "Now what can we do with them?"