Protecting the Gulf: Texas A&M's TABS Buoy System
When it comes to state spending and success rates, cost savings, and overall bang-for-your-buck bottom lines, it’s hard to beat Texas A&M University’s TABS buoy system that relays vital information all along the Texas gulf coast.
With support from the Texas General Land Office, Texas A&M researchers have developed the only buoy system of its kind in the United States and one of the few of its kind in the world. The Texas Automated Buoy System (TABS) supplies critical data allowing modelers to accurately predict the movement of oil spills and provides other current data that helps protect the 367-mile Texas coastline.
Now in its 20th year of operation, the buoy system operated by researchers at the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group (GERG) in the College of Geosciences has proved to be extremely valuable in the fight against oil spill damage.
When two ships collided in the Galveston Bay area several weeks ago, as much as 168,000 gallons of crude oil were soon oozing their way along the Texas coast, threatening pristine wetlands and marshes, the Texas fishing industry and recreational boaters, to name a few.
With the first few hours of an oil spill often being the most critical time, the solar-powered buoys relayed key ocean data such as near-surface currents, wind speeds, water temperature, wave heights and other information that is critical for decision-makers on land who were getting ready to send equipment and men for oil spill cleanup work. Such data is reported every 30 minutes.
“The buoys have more than paid for themselves many times over,” John Walpert, senior research associate, explains. “Regarding the oil spill near the Houston Ship Channel recently, we deployed a TABS Responder buoy about 20 miles southwest of Galveston. The buoy and TABS system did exactly what it was supposed to do – it sent back data, and this is used for decision-making, modeling and projections.
“In the last 12 years alone, they have been used over 50 times for decision-making purposes during spill events and have saved potentially millions of dollars in cleanup costs. It is the only system in the country supported by a state government with the mandate of helping to protect the coastal environment.
“This system protects the Texas coast better than any other. Any way you look at it, TABS has been a major success story.”
One study shows that the upper Texas coast averages more than 280 oil spills every year, but most of these involve about 100 gallons or less. Still, any spill can mean trouble for marine life, and that’s when the buoys can become lifesavers.
The buoys range in size from seven feet to more than 20 feet in length, each of them floating on the water’s surface. Prices range from $60,000 to $200,000 each, depending on several factors, among them the amount of sensors on each.
The TABS project is funded by the Texas General Land Office, the state agency that supports the seven core buoys along the Texas coast, while two other buoys located near the Flower Garden Banks – about 100 miles south of the Texas-Louisiana border – are funded by a consortium of oil companies.
“What makes the TABS system so valuable is that the buoys report the state of the ocean at any given moment,” says Steve DiMarco, professor of oceanography who also helps to run and manage the buoys.
“The state of Texas has been very pro-active by using the TABs buoys and all of the information they provide. They have passed every test with flying colors.”
Walpert says the buoys are updated annually, with many receiving more sensors and advanced technology to improve their data reporting.
“The buoy system has already saved Texas taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Walpert adds, “and they serve as a model for other states that are developing similar buoys to detect pollution and oil spills.”
For more about the TABS buoy system, go to http://tabs.gerg.tamu.edu/tglo/.
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