The United States’ 11 regional ocean observing systems, including the system responsible for studying the waters around Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, are one step closer to national integration and federal administration thanks to a memorandum of agreement signed on St. Thomas on Tuesday.
The memorandum makes The Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System (PacIOOS) the first regional system to be federally certified, a large step in the process of national integration.
The signing took place at the fall meeting of the Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) Advisory Committee at the University of the Virgin Islands.
The Integrated Coastal and Ocean Observation System Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009, mandates the establishment of a U.S. integrated system of ocean, coastal and Great Lakes observing systems to be administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The national system is made up of 11 regional observing systems: Alaska, the Caribbean, Central and Northern California, the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes, the mid-Atlantic, the Northwest, the Northeast, the Pacific, Southern California and the Southeast. Those regional systems are directed by associations made up of local academic, government and commercial stakeholders.
The IOOC Advisory Committee expects The Caribbean system, known as CariCOOS, to complete its own certification in the near future.
CariCOOS collects data on winds and currents, migratory fish species, and airborne and ocean-going pollutants. This data is used to manage resources, ensure public safety and measure long-term trends.
According to Roy Watlington, a UVI professor who is a member of CariCOOS, the system helps to ensure marine science data is made available to community stakeholders, something he says has not always been the case.
Prior to the establishment of the College of the Virgin Islands (later to become UVI) in 1962, much scientific research done in the V.I. was conducted by transient teams of scientists and published only in esoteric journals, said Watlington.
“For decades these islands served as platforms for important research in many fields of marine, atmospheric and environmental science,” Watlington said. “Some studies resulted in far-reaching contributions to the global body of knowledge. But little of it was shared with local scientists, environmental protectors, emergency managers and others.”
Watlington said that academic transience resulted in a “net zero” of benefits for the community.
“Without continuity, you really can’t accomplish much,” he said.
Throughout the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, Virgin Islanders became aware of the immense promise of the marine sciences in the territory, according to Watlington. The Tektite Project at Lameshur Bay on St. John left the island with a new research station. In 1987, Fairleigh Dickinson University established a research lab on St. Croix.
But in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, a decade of severe storms soon destroyed the research infrastructure that had just begun to develop.
The one silver lining of the storms for researchers, said Watlington, was that people and government agencies were increasingly interested in better understanding and assessing coastal hazards.
In the early 2000s, plans were put in place to develop an ocean and coastal observing system for Puerto Rico and the V.I., which has become CariCOOS. In addition to scientists and students, stakeholders in the marine and tourist industries also use the system’s data, as do the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources and the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency.
VITEMA Director Mona Barnes, who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, said that CariCOOS is “absolutely critical” to disaster preparedness. She said she would like to see the system help with the development of a storm surge map for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, a project that other regional systems have undertaken.
Data collected by CariCOOS can be viewed at http://www.caricoos.org.