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Making Waves: Episode 26 (May 13, 2009)

… As of last week, there are now 19 Physical Oceanographic Real-Time Systems located at busy ports around the nation. The latest system is now up and running in the Port of Lake Charles, Louisiana. So what do these 19 Physical Oceanographic Real-Time Systems do? We talk with the manager of the program to find out. (Those systems are called 'PORTS' for short, by the way…)

It's Wednesday, May 13th, 2009, and this is the PORTS episode of Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.

Here's something to ponder. Our marine highways carry more than three-quarters of all U.S. goods and supplies. While most of us never think of all of the ships and barges coming in and out of our busy ports every day, this activity affects all of us. When you fuel up your car, that fuel was carried at some point by a ship. Gone shopping lately? Many of your groceries and the clothes you buy…most of the items you depend on, in fact…they got to your store thanks, in part, to the vast watery network of our marine transportation system.
So how do you help keep ships safe as they flow in and out of our ports? How do you keep them from running aground or running into each other? How can you help make the shipping industry more efficient? Well, Darren Wright, the program manager for the Physical Oceanographic Real-Time Systems program, thinks about this kind of stuff all the time. To get what the PORTS program does and why it's so important, it helps to first get an idea of some of the challenges faced by mariners today. Wright explains:

[WRIGHT] "In a lot of cases, you have 40 foot channels. And a lot of times, the vessels draft is 38 feet. And then you have a channel that's maybe 125 feet wide, and you have a vessel that's 100 feet wide. So you're bringing these incredibly large vessels in these narrow channels. And on top of that, you have one of these coming in one after another. In addition to that, you have recreational boaters, and you have sail boaters. Especially if you get a nice day on the Chesapeake Bay, you see a sea of sails out there. Now try to bring a large container vessel in when you have all that traffic going on. So there really is a lot going on in these ports that people may not realize."

And while the network of ships and barges flowing in and out of our ports is huge today, it's expected to double or even triple by 2020. And ships are getting bigger and bigger. Today, some ships can draw up to 60 feet of water – that's like having a five-story building under the waves. And don't forget that all of those ships and barges are sharing our waterways and ports with over 78 million recreational boaters.
Now that you hopefully have a picture in your head of all the activity going on in our watery, let's talk PORTS. We'll start off with the basics – what is a PORTS system? Well, what's going on in a busy port is sort of like what's going on at a busy airport. Just as aircraft flying in and around an airport need current weather and ground conditions, ships coming into port need to know exactly what's going on in the water and in the air in real-time. That what ports does. With the addition of the new system at Lake Charles, Louisiana, PORTS provides this information to 50 ports around the country through the 19 PORTS systems. Wright explains:

[WRIGHT] "Basically what it is, it's a real-time system where we can provide the mariner – and it doesn't have to be just the big shipping vessels – but any mariner in the local area – with real-time water-level or tide data and weather data. We offer wind, barometric pressure, air temperature, water temperature, and that sort of thing. We provide current data – current meter data – so you know what the currents are doing as you're coming up the channel, or if you're out recreational boating and you want to know what the currents are doing in a certain area so you don't get stuck. We also offer salinity information. That can be important to the shipping companies because it helps determine what the buoyancy of the water is."

This stream of real-time data is freely available on the internet for mariners -- or for anyone at all who wants it – and by telephone so ship pilots can dial up conditions wherever and whenever they need it. The different types of information monitored by PORTS are critically important to know. Wright mentioned buoyancy. Well, you might think that the salt content of the ocean at a port would pretty much stay the same. But it actually changes all the time. And if you're piloting a cargo ship, knowing that salt level along with current patterns, weather, and channel depth will factor in to how much cargo you can load onboard while still being able to get safely out through the channel. Or imagine you're steering a giant freighter into a port and you need to know if you can fit under a bridge. PORTS can help there, too.

[WRIGHT] "We also offer a sensor called ‘air gap,' where we install a sensor at the base of a bridge. Believe it or not, there are some vessels big enough these days that they're coming close to hitting bridges. Most vessels know what their air clearance is, which is the clearance from the base of their vessel to the top of the vessel. Now if you know what the clearance is under the bridge and you know what your clearance is, you'll know if you'll be able to fit under the bridge or not."

[WRIGHT] So small sensors — like the air gap device that fits under a bridge or the device that measure salt levels mdash; are examples of the pieces that make up PORTS. Each place where this system is installed is unique. For one port, there might be hundreds of different kinds of sensors measuring conditions below, on, and above the water. Wright said that the configuration of these sensors — which kinds of sensors and where they're located — is customized. In other words, PORTS is offered up a la carte.

[WRIGHT] "PORTS vary across the country. We have 19 PORTS systems in play now. Each one of them is a different size. Basically, we go into an area, we sit down with users or mariners in that area and we have a requirements meeting. So, where do you need information? So it's kind of a piece-meal system where you pick the type of sensor you want and the information you want and the location that you want, and we'll install a sensor there and put together a system based on user requirements. Now, our smallest PORTS system is one water level sensor. And our largest one is the Chesapeake Bay which has hundreds of sensors."

While there are other systems out there that measure tides and currents and other information, Wright said that many of these systems are for research or run by universities, and their primary job is to collect data for a specific purpose … and that's usually not related to shipping and navigation. PORTS, on the other hand, is specifically designed for mariners. The sensors go exactly where the mariners need them and the types of sensors are exactly what the mariners in a given port ask for. And, Wright added, the data provided by the PORTS system is also extremely accurate and reliable.

[WRIGHT] "NOAA stands behind all the data. We have a 24-7 quality control group who is monitoring the data from all these control sensors 24-7. If they see any bad data coming in, it's flagged and dissemination is shut off so very little amount of bad data ever gets out the door. Pilots and users of this data have come to rely on that. They're using this data to make important decisions on whether to send a vessel out or not, whether or not to bring a vessel in or not."

Those decisions are important not only for safety reasons, but PORTS data can also be used to save a lot of money. Wright said that the Mobile, Alabama, PORTS system is a good example of the potential benefits of the system.

[WRIGHT] "In 2007, in December, the port of Mobile had a PORTS system installed. A brand new one just like Lake Charles yesterday. Three weeks after that system was installed, I got a nice letter from shipping company that said: in the first three weeks of this system being installed, they avoided a grounding in one situation where they would have brought a vessel in without having that real-time information. They would have definitely grounded. And then another situation: they would have held a ship up if they didn't have that real-time information for safety reasons … but since they did – there was a high-water event going on, they knew they had that extra foot, foot-and-a-half of water, they brought a vessel in and they brought it in safely. So there's one situation where you would have had a grounding, and another situation where you saved a lot of money by bringing a vessel in that you normally wouldn't have brought in."

While Wright said that it's too early to know what the economic benefits of the Lake Charles system might be, he pointed to an earlier study of two older PORTS in Houston-Galveston and Tampa Bay. That study showed that the number of groundings at both locations went down by 50 percent after the PORTS system was installed…and the economic benefit realized by both of the ports using the system was estimated to be between 7-16 million dollars each year. As for Lake Charles, Wright said that a single oil spill in 2006 that shut down the narrow channel going into the Lake Charles port for nine days shows the potential economic cost of losing this one port for just a little over a week.

[WRIGHT] "Well, just the result of that one port being closed for that nine days, the price of gas went up 20 cents; the price of natural gas went up 58 cents. And it cost consumers about one billion dollars, just having that one port, that one channel down, for nine days. Now we bring oil in at many other different places, too, but this is just one example of why it's very important to keep this particular one up and running."

While it's pretty clear that PORTS can save time and money, it's equally important to note that preventing a grounding can also mean the difference between a safe journey and a big oil spill or other environmental disaster. But when bad things do happen such as spills or accidents where the Coast Guard is called in, Wright said that the real-time data provided by PORTS can be essential.

[WRIGHT] "The PORTS data can also be used for search and rescue type stuff, like the Coast Guard. If you know what the winds are doing and what the currents are doing, and you have a distress call from a vessel that lost power…if you have that information at hand, you have a much better idea of where that vessels going to end up. Also, with hazards such as oil spills, we talked about avoiding collisions and oil spills, and that's the primary goal of PORTS. But you can also use PORTS data after the spill. Again, if you know what the currents are doing and what direction the currents are going, what direction that winds are blowing the water, you're going to have a much better idea of which way that spills going to go."

Well that's just a small sample of what PORTS is all about. If you'd like to learn more about the Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System, surf over to There, you'll find a list of all the different ports in the U.S. using the PORTS system — as we said, there are 19 ports now…and that number is sure to grow. And while you're on the site, don't forget to check out the real-time conditions around the Port of Lake Charles!

Special thanks to Darren Wright, PORTS program manager with the ocean service's Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, for taking the time to talk about this program.

That's all for this episode. If you have any questions about this week's podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean, send us an email at And don't forget that you can get the latest news and information about the NOS at

Now let's bring in the ocean....

This is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service. We'll be back with our next episode on May 27th.