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Monitoring Irene's Effects on the Bay

Hurricane Irene roared up the East Coast August 27-28, affecting people from the Carolinas through New England. While the strongest part of the storm passed east of the Chesapeake Bay, residents around the watershed felt Irene’s effects. But what did the storm mean for the Bay itself?

As Irene passed, the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS) gave people, including NOAA meteorologists and others interested in the storm’s intensity, real-time information on winds, waves, water quality, and more at ten locations around the Bay area. By examining observations from the buoys, scientists are learning more about the effects of the hurricane.

Hurricane Irene generated high winds, including gusts over 50 knots, over the course of the storm at the NOAA CBIBS Gooses Reef buoy, which is located in the Bay’s main stem, just west of the mouth of the Little Choptank River (just about halfway down the Bay). For example, the graph below shows that the sustained wind speed was close to 40 knots (more than 40 miles per hour) at the CBIBS Gooses Reef buoy for approximately four hours on the night of August 27 and in the early hours of August 28 (click on graphs for larger image).

wind speed at CBIBS Gooses Reef buoy during time period including Hurricane Irene

The CBIBS Gooses Reef buoy recorded waves of roughly 14 feet at about the same time, as this graph illustrates.

maximum wave heights at CBIBS Gooses Reef buoy during time period including Hurricane Irene

What does this mean for the Chesapeake? Wind and wave action can help the water in the Bay mix vertically. This mixing may change things like hypoxic (low oxygen) conditions and possibly initiate “blooms” of algae and other organisms.

The NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office and some of its partners have conducted research cruises since Irene. Multiple teams of scientists collected many data and samples that track ocean physics, microbial species and concentrations, nutrient levels, DNA, water color and clarity, and plankton levels. This information will help them determine if the Bay has indeed mixed and to collect plankton information to confirm possible onset of algal blooms.

Data collected by sensors on CBIBS buoys and from science vessels like the NOAA R/V Bay Commitment help describe the effects Hurricane Irene had on the hypoxic zone (the Bay’s area of low oxygen) and help detect the first signs of algal blooms in the Bay.

The concept of capturing information shortly after a hurricane was developed as part of a Bay-wide workshop following Hurricane Isabel in 2003. In response to Irene, many scientists were involved in consultations, teleconferences, and discussions prior to the cruise efforts brought together by the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office and the Chesapeake Research Consortium.

Both the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office and the NOAA Cooperative Oxford Laboratory deployed vessels, scientists, and resources in response to the hurricane. Other partners participating in these research cruises include the Ocean Biology Group at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Stay tuned for more updated results from this effort.