Our shared sea

Mechanisms of ecosystem change in the Western Channel

New and improved Western Channel Observatory buoy records scale of winter storms

Early in June 2013 a new and improved buoy was deployed at the E1 station (50o02.6’N 004o22.5’W), some 20 nautical miles south of Plymouth.  This station forms a critical part of the Western Channel Observatory (WCO) with oceanographic measurements dating back to the early part of the last century.

The Western Channel Observatory  is an oceanographic time-series and marine biodiversity reference site in the Western English Channel. In situ measurements are undertaken weekly at coastal station L4 and fortnightly at open shelf station E1 using the research vessels of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the Marine Biological Association. These measurements are complemented by PML’s recognised excellence in ecosystem modelling and satellite remote sensing science. By integrating these different observational disciplines we can begin to disentangle the complexity of the marine ecosystem.

The new buoy represents a significant collaboration between Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the MET Office.  The buoy continues to measure an array of oceanographic parameters but now has enhanced meteorological capabilities and the addition of a spectral wave sensor.

Over the past few months the southwest UK has been on the receiving end of a seemingly relentless series of huge Atlantic storms and for the first time the E1 buoy has been well positioned to measure the ferocity of these events.  Wind speeds of over 65mph have been recorded by the buoy, which transmits data in near real time back to both institutes and is directly ingested into the MET Office forecasting systems.  These wind speeds are indicative of a Beaufort scale 10 -11 (storm – violent storm) and this is backed up by the wave heights recorded by the buoy.  During the early part of this year the buoy has regularly reported wave heights in the region of 10m.  The sensor is powered for 20 minutes every hour and reports the average wave height, the maximum wave height and the significant wave height, which is the average of the third of the highest waves during this period.  The most significant wave heights were recorded on the 5th February 2014 with average wave heights of 6.5m, significant wave heights of 10.7m and the maximum wave height so far reported by the buoy was 15.14m.  These huge waves have been the cause of much damage to coastal areas, with the large scale destruction of sea defences and homes.  It is, however not just the wave heights that are unusual but also the almost constant bombardment of storm after storm with intensities that haven’t been recorded for decades.

Find out more about the Western Channel Observatory.

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