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Pandemic hits ocean observation systems

The impacts of COVID-19 has caused massive disruptions to ocean observation systems around the globe.

The Pacific Community (S.P.C.) has pointed to research cruises, maintenance visits, and sensor deployments being postponed or cancelled completely as part of the reason.

A statement from the Pacific Community quotes the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (I.O.C.-U.N.E.S.C.O.), saying that COVID-19 created an ocean data blindspot that could disrupt weather forecasts and hamper understanding of climate change.

When borders closed around the Pacific in March as part of COVID-19 restrictions, it provided an opportunity to test the agility of the infrastructure maintenance program supporting 13 permanent sea level observation stations across the Pacific. 

In addition, it also stressed that these stations form the backbone of one of the world’s most important ocean-monitoring networks. 

They provide an indispensable record and near-real time data for meteorological agencies, emergency services, shipping operators, and all coastal communities concerned with the rate of sea-level rise and climate change.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology (B.o.M.) manages the tide gauges in partnership with the S.P.C. and Geoscience Australia (G.A.) through the Pacific Sea Level and Geodetic Monitoring (P.S.L.G.M.) project. 

As one of the region’s oldest continuing aid investments, this project has provided continuous, high-quality climate, sea-level, and land movement data since 1991, and currently operates under the Climate and Oceans Support Program in the Pacific (C.O.S.P.Pac).

Pre-COVID-19, technicians from B.O.M., S.P.C., or G.A. would travel monthly throughout the region to undertake maintenance, calibration, or levelling of each sea level monitoring site and attend to any emergency issues that might arise.

But COVID-19 has accelerated a process already underway to build in-country capacity to maintain and troubleshoot these sites. 

S.P.C. team members have trained in-country technicians to conduct routine maintenance of the sea level monitoring stations over the last two years.

“The maintenance of this essential measurement equipment is a crucial component for the continuity of quality data collection,” said Adrien Laurenceau-Moineau, the Technical Team Leader at S.P.C.’s Geoscience, Energy and Maritime Division.

Once trained technical staffs of the Meteorological Office and Lands and Survey Department conducts this basic maintenance every six months, following a purpose-designed checklist. 

Sea-level observing stations and sensors are cleaned and any damage or deterioration are noted and reported to S.P.C. and B.o.M.

Since March, maintenance has been completed at ten sites 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 Service (F.M.S.) technical team worked alongside S.P.C. to perform the six-monthly maintenance check at the sea-level observing station at the Queen’s wharf in Lautoka. 

While the situation presents many challenges, Jeff Aquilina, the P.S.L.G.M. Team Leader at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has embraced the shift to remote support for the project where feasible.

He notes that this infrastructure maintenance work is building a stronger relationship between us and the technical staff of the Pacific Island countries, building equipment knowledge, technical capacity and a sense of ownership of the tide station in each country.

“This is a positive outcome of the investment in training, mentoring, in-country visits and the establishment of strong networks in the Pacific,” added Mr. Aquilina.

“At the end of the day, the aim is to ensure the stations are fully operational, recording crucial datasets.”

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