How’s the weather? That question is much easier to answer than it used to be. Back in the old days farmers didn’t have the Weather Channel or iPhone forecasts and could only rely on their own knowledge.
Early forecasts of the weather improved because of balloons that were sent up into the atmosphere to gather information – today similar devices are sent up every 12 hours around the world. Combined with satellite and other data, accurate weather forecasts are now at our fingertips. A hundred years ago, it took months to produce inaccurate forecasts.
For farmers, the ability to make plans on accurate weather predictions came down to dollars and sense – a torrential rain or early frost could destroy crops and carry a heavy economic cost. A big storm event could even affect regional and global food prices. The art of weather forecasting took leaps forward when regional monitoring was networked together in the early 1900s.
Shellfish harvesters, like farmers, depend on a crop that grows in waters where other creatures live – some of which, like harmful algae, can have a devastating impact. Generally, algae are essential for shellfish crops – they bloom in the spring and summer and provide food for clams, scallops, oysters, mussels, and other shellfish. But under some conditions, algae can contain toxins that accumulate in shellfish and make them dangerous when humans or other animals eat them. Just as weather predictions about severe storms help farmers on land, forecasting systems that can predict harmful algae could help prevent millions of dollars in damage for shellfish harvesters and farmers. In the Gulf of Maine 23 million dollars was lost as the result of a harmful algae bloom event in 2005.
New research in the North Atlantic Ocean is helping scientists understand why and when blooms of algae occur. Robots that glide to depths of 1,000 meters underwater or hover near the surface collect information on a regional basis. These devices are now being deployed in the Gulf of Maine. In the Great lakes region, NOAA recently issued its first ever harmful algal bloom forecast. In the Northeast, networks of stationary buoys currently track data and provide forecasts about a variety of physical conditions. Someday, ocean gliders may be as common as weather balloons, and harmful algae blooms might be as predictable as the weather.
Using the best available data to help make decisions is one of the cornerstones of Regional Ocean Planning. Investing in new technologies and research is essential for developing accurate forecasting systems that can help shellfish harvesters and distributers avoid costly pollution runoff from big storm events. This type of planning and coordination can help us find better ways to manage our valuable ocean resources in the face of the many changes that are already happening to them.