reported earlier this year, COVID-19 has caused massive disruption to ocean observation systems around the world, as research cruises, maintenance visits, and sensor deployments have been delayed or canceled.
According to the IOC-UNESCO, “COVID-19 creates marine data blind spots that can disrupt weather forecasts and hinder our understanding of climate change. “
When borders closed around the Pacific in March as part of COVID-19 curbs, it provided an opportunity to test the agility of an infrastructure maintenance program supporting 13 permanent sea level observation stations across the Pacific.
These stations form the backbone of one of the most important marine monitoring networks in the world. They provide indispensable records and near real-time data for meteorological agencies, emergency services, shipping operators, and all coastal communities concerned with rates of sea level rise and climate change.
Pacific sea level monitoring
The Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) manages tide gauges in partnership with the Pacific Community (SPC) and Geoscience Australia (GA) through the Pacific Ocean Level and Geodetic Monitoring (PSLGM) project. As one of the oldest sustainable aid investments in the region, the project has provided sustainable and high-quality data on climate, sea level and land movement since 1991, and is currently operating under the Climate and Ocean Support Program in the Pacific (COSPPac).
Prior to COVID-19, technicians from BOM, SPC, or GA would make monthly trips across the region to carry out maintenance, calibration or leveling of any sea level monitoring sites and address any emergency problems that may arise.
But COVID-19 has accelerated the ongoing process of building domestic capacity to maintain and troubleshoot these sites. Here are some of the success stories that have emerged from this project over the past six months.
6 monthly infrastructure maintenance
SPC team members have trained in-country technicians to carry out routine maintenance of sea level monitoring stations for the past two years.
“The maintenance of this critical measurement equipment is an essential component for the continuity of quality data collection,” said Adrien Laurenceau-Moineau, Chair of the Technical Team in the SPC’s Geosciences, Energy and Maritime Division.
Once trained, technical staff from the Meteorological Office and the Department of Land and Surveying perform this basic maintenance every six months, following a specially designed checklist. Sea level observation stations and sensors are cleaned and any damage or deterioration is recorded and reported to the SPC and BoM.
Since March, maintenance has been completed at ten locations in the Cook Islands, Fiji, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.
In August 2020, the Fiji Meteorological Services (FMS) technical team worked with the SPC to carry out 6-monthly maintenance checks at the sea level observation station at Ratu’s jetty in Lautoka.
FMS engineer Amori Nabanivalu said, “The tide gauge station provides valuable data for the work we do at FMS and it is a great opportunity to work with the SPC team to better understand the maintenance of the equipment and processes involved.”
Back to Services
When Tropical Cyclone Harold hit Tonga in April 2020, the old tide gauge at the Queen Salote pier in Nuku’alofa was damaged by the waves. At the new station at Vuna Pier, the waves wash away the gravel that protects the station’s lines and the station goes out due to electricity and communication problems.
The domestic team takes the lead to implement the Return to Service procedure set out under the project.
Viliami Folau from the Ministry of Land and Survey of Tonga conducted a field visit and provided pictures to BoM, updating the status of the two tide stations in Nuku’alofa.
“Post-disaster assessments of tide gauges are very important. It documents damage, if any, to infrastructure and ensures a quick return to service from this critical source of real-time data collection, “he said.
Tonga Meteorological Services Technician Enisi Maea was assisted remotely by BoM to investigate and identify faults that caused the system to go offline. In collaboration with Tonga Power and the Ports Authority, Enisi was able to solve the problem and bring the station back online.
Likewise, Solomon Islands Met Services technical officer Barnabas Tahoo is taking the lead in getting the Honiara tide gauge station back online. The contractor had shifted mains electricity to the station for the jetty extension project in March when the contractor suddenly asked to return to Australia due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
Barnabas worked with BoM to troubleshoot a solution and was able to install a temporary power extension from a nearby warehouse until permanent electricity was restored.
Despite the challenges of COVID-19, a planned upgrade to a number of stations has been able to go as planned with remote support and surveillance.
In Port Vila and Rarotonga, dual radar sensor platforms were installed by local contractors with assistance from the Vanuatu Meteorological Service and the Cook Islands Meteorological service with remote surveillance from BoM. The new platform will provide stations with additional sensors for monitoring sea level as well as GNSS receiving antennas.
Likewise, the Suva and Lautoka stations in Fiji have been updated and dual sea level radar sensor mounts were installed by the local contractor and the SPC surveillance.
Remote capacity development
Although the situation presents many challenges, Jeff Aquilina, PSLGM Team Leader at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has turned to remote support for the project whenever possible. He noted, “This infrastructure maintenance work builds stronger relationships between us and the technical staff of Pacific Island countries, building equipment knowledge, technical capacity, and a sense of ownership of tidal stations in each country.”
“This is a positive result of investing in training, mentoring, country visits, and building a strong network in the Pacific,” added Jeff. “Ultimately, the goal is to make sure the station is fully operational, recording important data sets.”
“This really underscores the importance of investing in local capacity building,” said Molly Powers-Tora, COSPPac Coordinator and Team Leader for Ocean Intelligence at SPC. “And the fact that overworked national staff are committed to maintaining these stations is a reflection of how valuable this data is to the Pacific.”
Source: Pacific Community (SPC)