As a group, scientists generally grasp the importance of good data collection systems – but federal-agency budgets rarely let scientists collect as much data as they’d like. Trimming funds for monitoring or surveillance programs may seem like the least painful budget choice when money’s tight, but then sometimes it turns out that relatively small savings from such cuts have huge costs further down the line. That seems to be the case when it comes to data on currents in the Gulf of Mexico, as Paul Voosen reports for Greenwire:
For more than a decade, scientists have called for federal funding of a network of radar, buoys and other sensors that would provide the equivalent of a weather forecast system for the Gulf of Mexico. Yet despite what seemed like promising support in Washington, funding for these programs has dropped by half or more in recent years, leaving oceanographers to use satellite snapshots and imperfect models to guess where the oil will travel, dragged by unwatched currents.
University of Miami oceanographer Villy Kourafalou tells Voosen, “If a few tens of millions had been spent to create and operate such a system before the Deepwater Horizon incident, my rough estimate is that hundreds of millions would have been potentially saved.”
Buoys that record data on salinity, temperature, and current speed help scientists model ocean currents, and high-frequency radar bounced from coastal towers to ocean surface let them determine currents’ speed and direction. Several years ago, Gulf oceanographers estimated that the gaps in the existing Gulf Coast radar system could be filled at a cost of $10 million over five years – but since then, the recession has hit, funding levels have dropped, and oceanographers have lost some of the capacity they had. Estimates for how much a dramtically improved ocean observation system would cost range from $300 million to $1.8 billion, with the expenditures taking place over several years.
From Voosen’s article, it sounds like the decisions to slash the budget for this data collection came from within NOAA (Congress actually denied the cuts last year). It may be that the agency was making wrongheaded decisions about its priorities, but I think it’s more likely that it simply didn’t have enough money for all the important work it does. Maybe this year Congress will ensure that NOAA can fund ocean observations at an adequate level without taking away from its other priorities – or maybe this disaster will be overshadowed by something else before the appropriations bill comes up for a vote. But what other kinds of data collection will be cut, and leave us without important information in the next crisis?