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Diving Deeper: Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System (PORTS®)

Episode 43 (January 31, 2013)

HOST: Hi everyone, Diving Deeper is back! Thanks so much for tuning in again for more interviews with National Ocean Service experts on a variety of ocean topics that we have for you this year. I'm your host Kate Nielsen.

Today we will talk about the Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System, this is also known as PORTS®. As maritime commerce has tripled in the last 50 years and continues to grow, there is great demand for real-time oceanographic data and products to promote safe and efficient navigation. NOAA's Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System helps to meet just this need.

To help us explore this further, today we will be joined by Darren Wright. Darren is the program manager for the NOAA PORTS® system. Hi Darren, welcome to our show.

DARREN WRIGHT: Hi Kate, thanks for having me on your show today.

HOST: So Darren, you were interviewed about three years ago for the Making Waves podcast and you talked a little bit about NOAA's PORTS® system. Just to get everybody on the same page, can you remind us what this program's all about?

DARREN WRIGHT: Sure. PORTS® is a network of physical oceanographic sensors and meteorological sensors that provide mariners with up-to-date information about what's going on in the environment. The navigation community, the folks who bring those large vessels in and out of ports, use it for safe and efficient navigation, but this system can also be used by anybody for recreational boating, parasailing, whatever you want to use it for. It is available to everybody.

HOST: And about how many sites or stations do you have around the country? And actually are they around the country, maybe I'm jumping the gun.

DARREN WRIGHT: Yes it is a nationwide program. We have currently 21 PORTS® systems around the country in harbors around the U.S. and we actually have two more that are in construction.

HOST: That's quite impressive. How do you select new locations?

DARREN WRIGHT: That's a great question. PORTS® is a partnership program where NOAA is funded for the program management, the data collection and dissemination infrastructure. We have 24 by 7 quality control and we develop new products and we're also responsible for the national standards. What we're not funded for is the local equipment and installation. So we look to a local partner to provide that.

So to start a PORTS® program, we need to identify a local partner who's willing to fund the equipment and then we sit down with a group of mariners that have an interest in that area and we get their requirements and where they need either oceanographic or meteorological information.

HOST: OK, so Darren you mentioned that you meet with these partners in their local regions when you're getting ready to set up a new station and talk about the information that they need. What kind of information do they need or what sort of equipment do you need to set up to get this to them?

DARREN WRIGHT: Well, the type of information that we provide in PORTS® is water level, currents, we have meteorological information such as air temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, we offer water temperature. Another type of sensor that is somewhat new and is becoming more and more popular as vessels get larger is an air gap system where we install a sensor on the bottom of a bridge and it measures the distance between the bottom of the bridge and the surface of the water. That way mariners who are bringing large vessels in will know if they have enough room to clear the bridge.

Two of our newest sensors that we've included in PORTS® is a visibility sensor which measures fog and waves because we have many folks, both recreational and in the navigation community that are very interested in waves.

HOST: These sound great including the air gap, I imagine that's very helpful information for somebody to have when they're coming into a new area. So you mentioned a lot of different kinds of sensors and a lot of different types of information that these sensors collect. Does each PORTS® station have the same set of sensors?

DARREN WRIGHT: That's another great question. As I mentioned before, this is a partnership program so we look to our local partner and other maritime folks to help us determine where they need information. So we will sit down with them and determine what areas they need information and this is an a la carte system where we will install sensors only in locations where they need information.

So, one of our PORTS® is a single water level station up in New Haven, Connecticut, and the Chesapeake Bay has hundreds of sensors, so it really varies depending on the needs of the local community.

HOST: That's great, so things are definitely tailored then to the needs of a particular group and to the needs of a certain community. Once a local partner has contacted you to help them set up a PORTS® system and all these sensors have been selected, how do you build a station and ultimately make it operational out in the water?

DARREN WRIGHT: Well, first we set up an agreement with our local partner and they provide us the funding for the equipment, NOAA will go out and purchase the equipment. We will bring the equipment back and test it, assemble these stations and then we typically contract out the installation work to preapproved contractors who do this sort of work and we oversee that whole installation.

HOST: When is a station considered to be fully functional? When can it be out there producing the data that communities need?

DARREN WRIGHT: Well, once the sensor's installed we start to collect the data and we'll process that data and review the data and make sure that it's very good quality and very accurate. And once it passes the quality control checks then we start to develop the products that we'll provide to the general public and test those. Finally, once all the data's considered good, it's been checked and rechecked, and we're sure that the data's good, and the products are all developed, then we release the information to the public.

HOST: And how do you do that? How is that information released, how does that get out to somebody? Is it through your website?

DARREN WRIGHT: Yes, we have a couple different ways. Our primary dissemination of the data is through our website where anyone who's got internet access can get access to the information. We have what we call a text screen which gives you a snapshot of what's going on at all the sensors all at one time and that information is also available via your cell phone. But we also have a voice system that you can use if you're within cell range, you can dial into a system and it will give you an audible read-back of what's going on at each of the locations.

HOST: Oh wow, that's great, really helpful. What is maintenance like for these stations? I imagine things will break over time, especially just after storms and different weather events. Are there scheduled maintenance updates or how do you just make sure that everything's working throughout time?

DARREN WRIGHT: There are. One of the primary functions of the PORTS® system is safe and efficient navigation. So it's very important that we keep the stations up as much of the time as we can. So we have scheduled maintenance where we visit the stations at various times, typically every couple of months and make sure that all the sensors are cleaned off, the solar panels are cleaned off, the power to the stations, that the sensors themselves are clean, and that there's no damage either from a vessel or weather events.

HOST: OK, so really NOAA's involved throughout this whole process of setting up a PORTS® system - everything from meeting with the partner, getting that equipment, setting up and building the station, and just sort of that routine maintenance and maybe even emergency maintenance that you need to undergo.

DARREN WRIGHT: Absolutely and yes, in addition to our scheduled maintenance every couple of months as I mentioned before we monitor this data 24/7 so if we do see a problem with the data, we have crews that we go out, and you mentioned it, emergency maintenance, that we'll try to get out there the next day and make repairs on whatever's wrong.

HOST: OK, so we talked about safe navigation, efficiency of ports and harbors as some of the key benefits from the PORTS® system, but I'm wondering if there are other benefits you can speak to from the PORTS® system?

DARREN WRIGHT: Yes, the PORTS® system can be used for a number of other applications other than navigation. It can be used during groundings. If there's an oil spill from a grounding, there's current meter information and wind information that can be used to track oil spills. It can be used in search and rescue efforts, if you know what direction the currents and the wind is blowing, it will give you a much better idea where a stranded vessel may be located. It can also be used for recreational uses such as fishing, windsurfing, just recreational boating. It can also be used for education. One of my favorite emails I've received in the past is from a secondary school teacher who said they used the PORTS® system to help teach their oceanography class. I just thought that was really cool.

HOST: So endless possibilities, endless benefits. Well, you just shared maybe one little success story there for us, that's kind of what I was hoping to touch on next is what some of the success stories from the regions that currently have a PORTS® station, what you could share with us on just how valuable these are for those local communities?

DARREN WRIGHT: Well, there's a couple I'd like to share with you. One is down in Mobile Bay, it's a PORTS® we installed a couple of years ago and within the first three weeks of having the system installed, I received a letter from a shipping company who said on two occasions they used the system. One, to avoid a grounding, in a situation where they typically, just using tide predictions would have brought a vessel in, but because of meteorological events they actually had less water than they were expecting because of the tide conditions and they held the vessel up and avoided a grounding.

And then in another situation, they had a situation where a vessel, they would have held it in dock for awhile until they got enough water, but they had in this case a high water event so they were able to take a vessel out of port quicker, and as you know, these vessels cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a day to operate, so if you can save two or three hours, getting a vessel underway, you can do the math, it saves a lot of money. So that's one letter that I thought was a real good highlight.

And then a recent example was bringing large, new cranes to the Port of Baltimore. We assisted ship pilots by providing them air gap information and water level information to assure they would get under the bridge safely. We were able to, using a regional model, help them determine the exact time they needed to traverse under the bridge by providing them a forecast of what the water level was going to be, and we provided them the air gap information that gave them that gap between the bottom of the bridge and the surface of the water to assure that they would be able to get the cranes under that bridge safely.

HOST: Wow, that's great. So definitely helping to avoid groundings and helping to avoid collisions with bridges, everybody needs one of these. So Darren, would you say that these benefits then from the PORTS®, you've given us great examples so far, would you say that these benefits stretch beyond just the city that a PORTS® station might be located in or a region?

DARREN WRIGHT: Yes, because the majority of the goods that we see in stores are from ships and if there's any kind of groundings or interruption in that chain, it's going to mean higher prices. One example which I actually gave in the last podcast was in Lake Charles, they had a grounding that shut down that waterway to the refineries in Lake Charles and the price of gas went up $0.20 and this was just in one port, so you can see that any interruption in that chain can mean higher prices to the consumer, so avoiding groundings is very important.

HOST: Definitely then, there's benefits from the PORTS® system for everybody - whether you live in a port city or region or anywhere along the coast or not. What are some of the challenges that you typically see associated with some of your stations and their physical location in the water?

DARREN WRIGHT: Well the marine environment is a harsh environment. Our biggest challenge is to keep our stations operating. Yes we have a rigorous maintenance schedule, but as we saw with Hurricane Sandy most recently, you have big storms and weather that can come through and do damage to stations. Also since we're in a marine environment, boats can hit our stations and often do and we need to be able to get out there quickly and repair stations from incidents like that.

Also biofouling which just means marine growth on our instruments, we have to get out there and clean these things off on a regular basis just so that growth does not affect the data.

HOST: Darren, what do you see for the future of the PORTS® system?

DARREN WRIGHT: Well, most recently we added visibility and wave sensors and that kind of completed the suite of sensors that had been the major requirements from the majority of our users, so what I see for the future of PORTS® is definitely advances in technologies, making stations more efficient so they require less maintenance.

Another product that I see us developing down the road is an under keel clearance product and where that is useful is when these big container vessels that we bring into port a lot of times do not have a lot of clearance between the bottom of the ship and the sea bottom so this product will help determine what that measurement is so that vessels, again, will have a good idea whether they're going to ground or not.

And finally, what I think would be most useful to mariners is system integration. Like right now they have charting software and they have PORTS® information, a lot of times they have to have two or three different things to look at to get the information they need. Well, down the road we would like to integrate that all into one system so that they can look in one location and get all the information they need.

HOST: Thanks Darren, my last question for you today is just if you had any parting thoughts to leave our listeners with?

DARREN WRIGHT: Well, I think NOAA's here to provide information and services to inform the public to keep them safe. Now PORTS® is a program that accomplishes this goal for the maritime community, so just stay safe out there.

HOST: Thanks Darren for joining us on Diving Deeper and talking more about NOAA's PORTS® system. To learn more, please visit

That's all for today's show. Remember, if you have questions on this episode or the National Ocean Service in general, you can contact us at And if you're on social media, don't forget you can find us out there, it's usoceangov, on Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube; and noaaocean on Twitter. Please join us for our next episode in two weeks.