Weather ahoy

Moira Baird
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Placentia Bay buoys track hurricanes, sea states and oil tankers

Anchored at the mouth of Placentia Bay, a two-tonne weather buoy loaded with sensors monitors wind, tide and visibility in one of the foggiest ports in the country.

It’s part of the SmartBay project and it beams real-time weather observations ashore every half-hour via satellite.

On Sept. 21, the buoy provided forecasters with clear signs that hurricane Igor was tracking westward — meaning it would cut a bigger swath across land than previously anticipated.

“We told our clients a week in advance that something big was coming,” said Steve Green, marine and weather service development lead for AMEC Earth and Environmental in St. John’s.

“We didn’t know how big, and as every day got closer we refined, refined, refined.

“SmartBay was one of the tools that we used to help refine our forecast.”

Led by the Marine Institute, SmartBay is an ocean-monitoring system, using three buoys to track weather, sea states and vessel movements in Placentia Bay.

The data is publicly available on the SmartBay website (

“All we make available is the stuff the average person wants to see,”  said Bill Carter, SmartBay project manager with the Marine Institute’s school of ocean technology.


Hurricanes head east

Most hurricanes sweeping up the U.S. eastern seaboard usually head out to sea as they reach Newfoundland.

“Seven days in advance, (we) had it going over the Grand Banks … each day, it started coming further and further west,” said Green.

“If it had moved further east, that would be a good thing. By moving further west … it covers more land.”

A partner in SmartBay, AMEC issues hourly marine forecasts for Placentia Bay using the weather buoy information.

Its meteorologists also compare their forecasts with the real-time observations, updating forecasts as necessary.

“When we forecast for that buoy area, we’ll actually plot the observations against the forecast,” said Green.

“In the case of hurricane Igor, it helps us generate a better forecast for the province.”

Observation network

The first generation of SmartBay weather buoys went into the water in September 2006 — one at the mouth of the bay, one off the pilot’s station at Argentia and another near Come By Chance.

They provide an observation network throughout the bay.

“The more information you have, the better the forecast,” said Green.

More precise weather forecasts are a must in Placentia Bay, which averages 187 days of fog annually.

The information is used by the Canadian Coast Guard in deciding if the bay should be closed to tanker traffic, fishermen choosing the best weather window to check their nets, and tourism operators offering sight-seeing tours or kayak trips in the bay.

Every year, about 320 million barrels of oil are shipped through the bay aboard tankers ferrying crude to and from the Come By Chance refinery and the Whiffen Head facility that stores crude pumped from the Grand Banks oilfields.

“Hopefully, what we’re doing is limiting the chance of having an accident,” said Carter.

“It’s about providing practical information for better decision-making.”


Savings and costs

Carter said oil tanker captains can also save on fuel by knowing what awaits them in the bay, and whether or not they’ll be able to reach their destination because of weather or vessel traffic.

He estimates the fuel savings at about $1 million annually.

The cost of each buoy ranges from $200,000 to $300,000, depending on the instruments installed on it.

“They’re loaded up with sensors and there’s a computer onboard.”

The sensors record the information, the computer packages it, and the data is transmitted ashore every half-hour. There, it’s processed and is on the SmartBay web site a minute later.

“It’s all automated,” said Carter.

Organizations: Marine Institute, Canadian Coast Guard

Geographic location: Placentia Bay, U.S., Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • shane
    February 04, 2011 - 11:07

    @brad the next time you use a stainless steel pot, pan, cookware, or even use your computer, listen to a cd or drive your car, just know that nickle has played a part in it. don't try to alienate Vale by postings of the 'precious' oil resources the government is looking for.

  • Brad
    February 03, 2011 - 09:25

    @ Shane duh. I am from the area so I know damn well what Vale produces and it is mostly toxic waste, with a little bit of nickel skimmed off the top. Where did I say Vale were an oil company? I was just stating the fact that Placentia Bay is being bombarded by pollution and has the heaviest tanker traffic on the eastern seaboard. The government doesn't care about the bay, they care only for the oil that passes over it. I'll spell it out for you next time.

  • shane
    February 02, 2011 - 14:07

    @Brad. Vale is a nickel company. It has absolutely nothing to do with oil. Nice try though

  • Brad
    February 02, 2011 - 10:31

    Will it be able to track the poison being dumped into Placentia Bay by Vale? It could also track the dead fish and wildlife left in the wake of this polluting giant. Smartbay my behind, perhaps if we could put the concept of smart into the Department of Environment & Conservation. Maybe the government should put some money into cleaning up some of the contaminated sites all around Placentia Bay. They are just interested in seeing where their precious oil resource is at all times.