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Coast Guard working with local scientists to gather data for rescue missions

Data pix.

SAN DIEGO – When it comes to the Coast Guard's search-and-rescue missions and emergency response efforts, being efficient with time is critical and can mean the difference between life and death. Having precise data about the speed, direction and height of the waves in a search area is crucial.

“Having a real-time map of the surface currents in the ocean can significantly reduced their search area,” said Lisa Hazard, deputy director of the Coastal Observing Research and Development Center. “It allows them to create much smaller helicopter patterns for searching.”

Scripps Institution of Oceanography uses a number of devices to help track that data, including about 150 radio towers and 70 buoys.

“What makes these buoys special is the fact that there is this platform that remains horizontal inside,” James Behrens of SIO said. “No matter how the waves are tossing the buoy around, the sensor is measuring the up and down motion. That tells you the wave height and wave energy with one.”

According to Behrens, six buoys are currently deployed in the San Diego area, with each deployment lasting about one to two years. Behrens said the buoys come back in between deployments to be recalibrated and to make sure they are feeding accurate data.

“You can see radio waves across the ocean,” Hazard said of one of the radio towers on the south side of the campus. “They reflect off the swell waves and receive speed back.” The towers measure how fast the current is traveling at the surface and can read speeds of waves from more than 130 miles away, Hazard said.

A combination of the readings are helpful in understanding the direction, speed and height of the waves. That data can be used by the Coast Guard when its crews are looking for people in the water during search-and-rescue missions, or while tracking oil spills from overturned tankers.

At $70,000 a pop, it’s easy to understand why the Coast Guard doesn’t have the budget to own the buoys themselves -- which means they can’t decide in which locations they end up -- but they can tap into the data whenever they need to.

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