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Houston Chronicle Editorial: Eye on the eye

Feb. 18, 2008, 8:05PM

A new partnership will enhance the ability to keep tabs on hurricanes in the Gulf.

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

The idea is so logical, one wonders why nobody thought of it years ago. A conversation between a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official and Shell Oil Co. President John Hofmeister at a storm conference in 2006 gave rise to a plan to utilize offshore oil platforms as meteorological lookout posts.

As reported by the Chronicle’s Kristin Hays, over the next seven years seven of Shell’s giant rigs will be outfitted with sensors to measure a big storm’s vital signs as it moves through the Gulf of Mexico. Although a number of small weather buoys dot offshore waters, their capabilities are limited. The new systems to be placed on installations with such names as Mars, Brutus and Auger will be fully automated and capable of measuring wave heights and direction, water temperature and sea current strength.

According to NOAA administrator and retired Navy Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher Jr., the partnership between his agency and Shell is a natural melding of interests. “NOAA is in the hurricane business, and Shell is in the hurricane experience business,” Lautenbacher said. “Let’s see if we can use real information in real time to help us over the longer term.”

The area of the Gulf where the new sensors will collect data is subject to storms that can rapidly intensify when they cross over a phenomenon called the loop current, a surge of tropical water from the Caribbean. With intensity one of the most difficult aspects of hurricanes to predict, the new resources should improve forecasters’ ability to provide coastal communities advance estimates of storm strength.

Shell’s Hofmeister told the Chronicle that the arrangement is unprecedented and will allow offshore operators to improve the design of offshore platforms and coastline facilities to withstand high winds and seas. “The more information we know from offshore,” he said, “the more we can prepare for onshore consequences.”

Gulf Coast residents need every advantage in preparing for the strike of a major hurricane. Shell Oil and NOAA officials are to be commended for putting their heads together and coming up with a cost-effective way to bolster the weather bureau’s storm-tracking capabilities.

RELATED LETTER PUBLISHED BY HOUSTON CHRONICLE 21 February 2008

Overlooked by this ‘eye’

It is interesting that the Chronicle editorial “Eye on the eye” on Tuesday showed such naive amazement about the private/public relationship agreement between Shell Oil Co. and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The National Weather Service has been monitoring offshore drilling rig weather systems for more than 50 years. Shell endowed money and began cooperation with Texas A&M University in founding the Ocean-ography and Meteorology Department in the 1950s. At that time, weather observation stations were installed across the northwest Gulf that have been providing data to the NWS in support of its hurricane and maritime weather forecast programs.

It is alarming that the NOAA administrator, Shell’s president and the Chronicle did not do just a small bit of research to find that NWS offices, as well as educational institutions such as A&M and the University of Texas, have been utilizing that data for such a long period.

DAVID SMITH
retired NWS forecaster, Houston

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/editorial/outlook/5560816.html

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