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Checking the Pulse of the Big Bend Gulf
Checking the Pulse of the Big Bend Gulf

If all goes well, a brand-new array of sensing devices deployed off the shores of Franklin County, home of Florida State's marine lab, soon will be firing back a solid stream of information that researchers, students and the public have never had access to.

Construction began in 2007 on a five-year project that when completed will see a complex of scientific instrumentation set up both on the sea floor and on at least one of six existing navigational towers maintained and run by the U.S. Air Force. When fully operational, these devices will be capable of sending constantly updated measurements on such oceanographic and meteorological phenomena as the speed and direction of wind and currents, turbidity, salinity, water temperature, humidity and wave heights.

The project is part of a larger, $6.3 million grant from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to the Northern Gulf Institute, a consortium of Southern research universities based at Mississippi State University. Begun in 2006, the institute has five partnering members, including Florida State.

Scientists associated with the project say a primary goal of the institute is to fill in long-standing gaps in the scientific knowledge of the Gulf of Mexico's northernmost perimeters. For years, marine biologists and oceanographers have known that the waters off Florida's Big Bend region are some of the least studied in the entire Gulf, a problem for natural resource managers charged with monitoring the health of vital marine and estuarine areas. This new project, specifically designed to address this deficit, represents the most ambitious data-collecting effort ever launched for a region that represents one of the Gulf's most important ecosystems.

The project's first phase will see the installation of three monitoring stations directly offshore Florida State's Coastal and Marine Laboratory based on U.S. Highway 98 at Turkey Point. Two of the near-shore installations will automatically measure a variety of sea conditions, including nutrient loads, turbidity and salinity fluctuations, information that will be directly applied to FSU biologists' continuing research into the ecology of one of the Gulf's most important marine fish, the gag grouper. The fish heavily depends on the region's extensive sea grass beds for juvenile development.

The third site, where work began last October, is the U.S. Air Force's K tower, a familiar fixture to area fishermen and boaters since it was constructed in 1977. Located roughly 22 miles south of the marine lab in 60 feet of water, the tower is one of a constellation of six that the USAF uses for fighter-jet training based out of Eglin Air Force Base near the Panhandle's Panama City. FSU scientists won permission from Eglin officials to use the K tower to mount a variety of both subsurface and topside instruments, which will include a live camera for studying wave conditions.

When completed, instruments mounted both on the tower itself and on the sea floor around it will feed data, on round-the-clock, one- to 10-minute intervals, to a radio transmitter mounted atop the tower. The transmitter will then relay the information to a base station at the marine lab in real time.

Mark Bourassa, a meteorologist with FSU's Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies (COAPS), is one of about 20 Florida State scientists involved in the NGI project. Funding permitting, Bourassa said the plan calls to extend the instrumentation to other Air Force towers located further offshore. All of the data, he said, eventually will be available on the COAPS web site: www.coaps.fsu.edu. —F.S.