High-tech buoy marks old exploit

The Baltimore Sun

Harford and Cecil counties will mark the 400th anniversary of Captain John Smith's second expedition to the northern Chesapeake area with some 21st-century technology.

A so-called smart buoy, equipped with sensors that constantly provide meteorological and water-quality data, including salinity and turbidity, and measure currents, will soon be anchored in the Susquehanna River near where it meets the bay. The buoy, the fifth in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System, will be visible from Havre de Grace and Perryville.

"This is a highly scientific instrument that will collect real-time data," said Mary Ann Lisanti, director of the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway, a nonprofit organization that won the buoy through a competitive process.

The buoy will arrive by truck Friday, along with its 2,500-pound steel anchor. A chartered barge, equipped with a crane, will drop the anchor that day. The crane will drop the buoy during a ceremony at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.

The Susquehanna buoy has an additional sensor that determines nitrate levels, making it, at $100,000, the most expensive in the NOAA system.

"This buoy will let us evaluate the water as it flows by," said Doug Wilson, NOAA oceanographer and program manager for the buoy system. "The Susquehanna, the major source of bay nutrients, is a great place for us to monitor with this nitrate sensor."

After a few years of collecting such data, NOAA might be able to better ascertain the river's impact on the bay. That information could prompt critical improvements in land use upstream, Wilson said.

Lisanti called the equipment a "phenomenal piece of science [that] will help us focus on what we need to do to maintain a healthy estuary. Ours is the most scientific of the buoys that are deployed, and it's geared to the local ecology."

In addition to a smart buoy on the Rappahannock River, NOAA launched three more last year - one on the James River near Jamestown, another on the Potomac near Smith Point and the third on the Patapsco River near the Baltimore harbor.

After the Susquehanna buoy is officially launched, another is planned for the Elizabeth River near Norfolk, Va.

The buoy system roughly retraces the voyages Capt. John Smith made up the Chesapeake Bay in 1608 and 1609, and follows portions of the Chesapeake National Historic Trail, named in the explorer's honor.

Sitting about 10 feet high off the water with 4 feet below the surface, the buoys provide boaters and those on shore with air temperature, wind speed and direction, water temperature and wave height with a click onto buoybay.org or a call to 1-877-buoy-bay.

"It is really the equivalent of looking out the window onto the bay," said Wilson, a sailor who takes advantage of the system whenever he ventures out on the Chesapeake. "It's a way to look at wind, waves and currents, using the power of the Internet. The Web site also gives visitors a dose of history, science and geography."

"Unlike John Smith, you know what's ahead of you, and can decide on an alternative plan to strike out for a landfall closer to home - protected from the elements and sheltered from the growing waves on the Bay," according to the Web site.

The buoys will also provide details of Smith's adventures, including a historical perspective on water quality 400 years ago.

The Susquehanna buoy will be highly visible from both sides of the river, Wilson said.

"This buoy will be a great advantage for the marine community, the tourism industry and for all those who use the river," Lisanti said. "It will even help provide a historical interpretation of Captain Smith's voyages. It will become a priority use for many. There are so many possibilities for what it can provide."

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