El Niño sea monitoring system may fail – half dead already

Two researchers collecting data from a buoy

Researchers collect data from one of the 70 buoys in the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean (TAO) array. TAO buoys are equipped with sea surface temperature monitoring instruments. Hourly observations are stored in instrument memory and must be retrieved by operators. Image: NOAA

From the “send money or the instrumentation gets it” department comes news that the TAO array may already be toast due to budget constraints. One wonders if money sucked into climate programs might be a factor.

From Nature News:  Nearly half of the moored buoys in the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean (TAO) array have failed in the last two years, crippling an early-warning system for the warming and cooling events in the eastern equatorial Pacific, known respectively as El Niño and La Niña. Scientists are now collecting data from just 40% of the array.

“It’s the most important climate phenomenon on the planet, and we have blinded ourselves to it by not maintaining this array,” says Michael McPhaden, a senior scientist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Seattle, Washington. McPhaden headed the TAO project before it was transferred out of NOAA’s research arm and into the agency’s National Weather Service in 2005.

The network was developed over the course of a decade following the massive El Niño of 1982‒1983. NOAA maintains some 55 buoys across the eastern and central Pacific that monitor weather conditions as well as water temperatures down to 500 metres. Working in concert, the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) maintains another dozen buoys in the western tropical Pacific. Combined, the monitoring system has become a cornerstone for seasonal weather forecasting given the tropical Pacific’s influence on broader weather patterns.

Fig. 1. TAO Array in the Pacific.

Image: NOAAThe TAO array monitors conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean. Turquoise dots represent US buoys, while yellow dots show Japanese buoys.

An array adrift

The array’s troubles began in 2012, when budget cuts pushed NOAA to retire a ship dedicated to performing the annual servicing that keeps the TAO buoys in working order. According to McPhaden, NOAA’s annual budget for the project stood at about US$10‒$12 million before 2012 — a figure that included around $6 million to cover the dedicated ship. In fiscal year 2013, the agency spent $2‒$3 million to charter boats for maintenance runs, but McPhaden says that these operations have not been enough to keep the system going. Meanwhile, although JAMSTEC has thus far kept its portion of the array up and running, it too is under budgetary pressure.

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Gail Combs

So where have all those GREEN tax dollars gone?
Straight into the pockets of Obama’s good buddies scamming the tax payers with GREEN corporations that fail (leaving behind rusting bat-chomping bird-slicing eco-crucifixes for us to pay to clean up) while our infrastructure falls apart.


It’s a win/win for NOAA. No more money wasted doing actual science and gathering data when the data itself undermines the message.


Monitoring is in denial.

john robertson

Let me guess.
Classic bureaucracy, concentrate spending on the politically expedient fluff.
Restrict spending on core functions(Those that are the mandate of the agency)
Then insist they need more money to carry out those core functions.
Here in Canada, that is called Environment Canada.
Bragging about having spent $4billion researching global warming, while claiming they lacked the manpower and financial resources to rectify known problems with their weather stations and data gathering systems.
If NOAA runs true to form, next you will discover that they have funded a think tank, to research the effects of global warming with $650 million and when the department head is called to account, they will resign from govt, to immediately reappear as Chairman/CEO of the think tank.

Billions and billions and billions spent on CO2 research, papers, grants, green projects, etc. and we have “… the ATO array may already be toast due to budget constraints. …” This is unbelievable!


Would not ARGO have all this covered?


Yeah NOAA stripped a lot of programs to the bone to keep pouring money into the money pit which started as NPOESS and is now JPSS after the Air Force (well known for their stingy nature /sarc) bailed out out the joint military/civilian venture.


I meant to type the Air Force bailed out OF the joint satellite venture. Sorry for the poor proof reading there.

Peter Miller

Classic climate research.
Fund the trendy stuff, as wanted by the politicians and green activists.
Starve the essential research, as needed by our civilisation.
As the “science is settled”, there is no longer any need to do the important stuff on climate research. Such is ecoloon logic.

“The array’s troubles began in 2012, when budget cuts pushed NOAA to retire a ship dedicated to performing the annual servicing that keeps the TAO buoys in working order.”
They probably broke the buoys on purpose so they wouldn’t have to contend with pesky real-world data.
The TAO that can’t be broken is not the eternal TAO.

Speaking of ARGO, how much does NOAA spend on that program per year. About 300 bouys need to be replaced every year, 6 per week, if they last as long as 10 years.

Bryan A

Perhaps their resolution would be to eventually replace the entire array with devices that are also capable of measuring both atmospheric and dissolved CO2 which we all know is the major climate driver. Minor contributors like El Niño and La Niña are inconsequential in the greater scale of climate/weather

Bryan A

CO2 may not be the main driver of Climate but it’s study is the main driver of government funding

Chris in Hervey Bay

Why maintain a multi million Dollar system when any old model will do it better. /sarc


How do you tell if a buoy is failing? When the output isn’t as high as the model predicts.


It sounds a lot like the IRS complaint for mo money.


Who needs them, with magic models you can have all the data you ever ‘need’ and never even have to leave the lab.

Mac the Knife

If the data doesn’t ‘fit’, you must ahhhhh….quit.

Ken Hall

So this is how they get around failing to measure the ocean heating that they are sure must be happening.

Stephen Rasey:
I believe I saw a figure of 24 million per year. I assume that’s just the equipment floating out in the ocean – not the people and equipment in the various research centers collecting, processing and distributing it.
Argo should cover this, though maybe not as fine a resolution. Not sure.
On a different note:
It’s interesting to me how difficult it is to find aggregate data for the Argo network (i.e. ocean temperature vs time graphs). I have a good idea why 😉
I recently downloaded all the Argo data. It’s about 27 GB and unfortunately there didn’t seem to be an easy bulk download method (I had downloaded 1.2 million ‘profiles’ individually). There may have been a way, I just didn’t find it.

Willis Eschenbach

peterg says:
January 28, 2014 at 12:15 pm

Would not ARGO have all this covered?

Good question, Peter, but sadly the answer is no. The TAO buoys collect data on a host of meteorological variables (temperature, sunshine, longwave radiation, etc.) that the Argo floats don’t touch.

John A. Fleming

This is not unique to Climate Science&tm;. This is the behavior of every government bureaucracy. There is no glamour in field data collection. There is no public accolades or notoriety. You will never be the next Schnieder or Trenberth. You are just, as Steve McIntyre call them, a specialist known only to other specialists, toiloing in obscurity to produce clean datasets.
No, the real action for the bureaucratic strivers everywhere is … Predictions of Doom. “ZOMG! Our Super Mega Ultra Flops modeling computer edifice has predicted the End of the World as We Know It, Women and Minorities Hardest Hit. Send more money immediately!” That’s how you get your picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone. And when your picture is on the cover, then the people are ok with shoveling more of their money at you,
And it will continue to be this way until we say “Ya basta! No more for you. Go dig ditches for a while, do something useful.”

Many people on WUWT, including myself, have said that solid unarguable data is secondary to computer models. This proves it, as has been said by others on this post, they can spend billions on wind turbines and dodgy climate “research” but when it comes to putting our money where their mouths are, they won’t do it. In the past this was by manipulation of data, now the new one, is by not collecting it in the first place.


Surely this is chump change in the context of their total budget?
Definitely pure bureaucratic politics – cut something high profile/useful and put the hand out for more money. Meanwhile, fat cats and favoured programs continue to flourish.


“So this is how they get around failing to measure the ocean heating that they are sure must be happening.”
Exactly. Now there isn’t that inconvenient data possibly leaking out to the public, before it gets “adjusted” of course.


Who needs measured data when we can just run the computer models? /s

Leonard Lane

Seems that NOAA has money for it wants, then they put them under the US Weather Service and it seems USWS saw a new cash cow for its programs and there went the funding. When a NEXRAD system came to SE Arizona for the Tucson airport. Several research originations suggest siting the radar a few miles away and it could have protected the Tucson and also seen the ~100 raingage network on the 150 sq km Walnut Gulch Experimental Watershed. A golden opportunity to evaluate NEXRAD over a densely monitored rainfall and runoff measuring network. This would been of great benefit to the sciences of radar used to measure precipitation and observed runoff data for the Weather Service’s regional forecast methodology. But they had no interest. Don’t know for sure but I got the impression they did not want precipitation and runoff estimation procedures they use on a national basis tested with measured rainfall and runoff data. Sad if true, but anyway they had one excuse after another why they could not re-site the radar.

Paul in Sweden

What if the CAGW Industry was right? If they were I would see massive public works projects building dams, levies, reservoirs, sea walls, flood gates, storm drains etc, etc, etc… The thing is, I am fairly certain they are wrong. However; I still want to see massive public works projects building dams, levies, reservoirs, sea walls, flood gates, storm drains etc, etc, etc…because our climate is always changing and we have seen what has happened in the past and are certain it is going to happen in the future.

peterg says: “Would not ARGO have all this covered?”
Nope. ARGO monitors subsurface ocean temperatures and salinity by making a dive to depths and then ascending every 10 days.
The TAO/TRITON project floats are/were fixed in place, take measurements continuously and also include subsurface currents. They also include what would be considered a weather station on the buoys, so they also monitor downward shortwave radiation (sunlight), downwelling longwave (infrared) radiation, wind strength and direction, relative humidity, precipitation, marine air temperature, etc.

The Nature article ends with:
“In my opinion, NOAA dropped the ball on an incredible programme for climate research and weather forecasting,” McPhaden says. “And now they are trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”
Hopefully, NOAA is not going to use “all the King’s horses” to put the TAO project back together. With their lack of fingers and opposable thumbs, horses aren’t very good at putting things back together. Just ask Humpty.

That’ll grid right out.

Mike Smith

Let’s retire the modeler’s supercomputers and use the money to collect some actual observational data.
Yeah, right, I can really see that happening!

Ken Hall says: “So this is how they get around failing to measure the ocean heating that they are sure must be happening.”
Wrong argument.


Why monitor natural climate related events when we know that 99% of climate change is the result of human activity? /sarc

Ken Hall: Oops. Didn’t mean to hit “post comment” so quickly.
The TAO/TRITON, PIRATA, and RAMA buoys only monitor the tropics (basically near the equator) and they’re limited to the depths they monitor. The ARGO floats are the primary source of claims of continued ocean warming, but their outputs have to be adjusted to show said warming.

Doug Proctor

This is the data that should be useful to the warmist. Letting it disappear is an admission that only bad can come from it. It would be better not to take temperature data that refutes a story than collect it and kill the story.
Several years ago I was in Churchill, Manitoba, the home of the celebrity polar bears. At the science centre, global warming was full on. There was a temperature graph showing how badly Churchill’s temperatures were rising. The graph ended in 2000, even though it was now late 2009 and they were sitting beside where the temperatures were recorded. You only had to look at the 2000 – 2009 data to understand why: the temps weren’t matching projection (or theory), but since the naturalists there “knew” what was happening, they didn’t post them.
When you are in battle, never let your enemy know you have a weakness. An Art of War thing, applicable to the CAGW fight.

son of mulder

The ones that don’t fail will be the ones that report rising climate disaster.

DJ says: “How do you tell if a buoy is failing? When the output isn’t as high as the model predicts.”
The TAO Project floats are primarily references for very specific ENSO prediction models. Without the data, those “weather” models don’t have starting points.
Also, many of the failures result from vandalism, with passersby shooting the buoys.

Berényi Péter

Well, well, well, $4 million per annum is missing, you say.
In A National Strategy for Advancing Climate Modeling ( 2012 ) we find

The NRC Advisory Board for USGCRP, convened in 2011, noted in a review of the recently released 2012 USGCRP Strategic Plan that USGCRP needs a stronger overall governance structure, including an ability to compel reallocation of funds to serve the program’s overarching priorities (NRC, 2012b). The current committee shares this view.

Now, annual budget of USGCRP (U.S. Global Change Research Program) is $2.6 billion. A tiny fraction (0.15%) of that money could perhaps be diverted to observations instead of computer games. It is less than the amount US taxpayers spent on IPCC business.

In fiscal year 2011, the USGCRP participating agencies and departments contributed $1,995,642 to the IPCC in support of both the IPCC Technical Support Unit for Working Group II and travel support for U.S. scientists participating in all three of the IPCC Working Groups. In addition, the total U.S. Government contribution to the IPCC Trust Fund in FY 2011 was $2,682,845, of which $350,000 was for the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS), with the remaining $2,332,845 for IPCC programs.

Hey Gail,
Government Wind Energy Programs
Making Wind a Federal Case
In the United States, the federal government’s involvement in wind energy research and development began in earnest within two years after the so-called “Arab Oil Crisis” of 1973.

Keith Minto

Make that vertical monopoly Wal~Mart pay for something. Their trotting EDF inspectors out to all suppliers is ruining this country.

george e. smith

Are these the same buoys that Prof John Christy et al reported on around Jan 2,000 or maybe 2001 in geophysical research letters or one of those. They repoted on up to 20 years of data from buoys, that simultaneously measured SS Temperatures at -1 meter in the water, and lower trop Temperatures at + 3 meters in the air.
So prior to that it was presumed that the Temperature of a bucket of water from some unknown depth, sitting evaporating on a ships deck, was identical the ocean air Temperature at that place, and back to the 1850s etc, that’s how oceanic air Temps were obtained.
Now why anyone would believe that, is quite beyond me. Ocean currents are just a few knots at best, while wind speeds can be tens to hundreds. So air over Hawaii, could be in California, in a few days.
Well evidently Christy et al found that the air Temps had warmed in that period, only about 60% of the water Temp warming (I’m reciting from memory), so the Temps are NOT the same.
Well more importantly, they found that the water, and air Temps aren’t even correlated. So it is impossible to go back and correct all the Temps from ocean ships since 1850 to around 1980, since the 60% factor was simply the observed, for that 20 years or so, and wouldn’t stay the same because of the correlation disconnect.
Well, so you take another ocean gravy train cruise next summer to compare the data in your favorite acidic dive spot, and you return to the very same GPS spot in the middle of nowhere.
Well ocean currents meander, and you will find yourself in totally different waters, than were there last summer. So what good is that.
In any case, what does it matter if the models and the statistics are all hokey. Prior to 1980, much of the data is just garbage. Well the oceans only account for about 70% of the data fortunately.

Here’s the ol’ rust bucket, arr.
Guess all the money when into war ships……shrug. There is always waste, I blame the ISS for chewing up to much money

Very Cool, however, “Ground control we used all the money”.

b fagan

We need a deeply divided, deeply dysfunctional Congress – which has a significant number who don’t want the government spending hardly anything – to agree on doing their jobs, including by compromising between parties to pass a budget. Anyone remember the sequester? How about “deficit hawk”? Funding is cut everywhere.
Obama’s been pretty pro-science, and there are Republicans who understand the benefits, too. Maybe NOAA will get this item from their current wish list.
Here’s a quote from NOAA’s FY 2014 budget blue book:
“Local Warnings & Forecasts Base, Tropical Atmosphere Ocean Array: NOAA
requests an increase of $2,400,000 and 0 FTE to increase the operations
and maintenance of Tropical Atmosphere Ocean (TAO) buoys, to achieve
an 80-percent data availability standard. Data provided via the TAO network
directly contributes to the prediction of El Niño and La Niña impacts.
NOAA proposes to increase ongoing operations and maintenance
(O&M) of the TAO array to meet full O&M needs. With this increase, NOAA
will be able to maintain a data return rate of 80 percent.. “

Without TAO the world goes ENSO-blind.

Bill Illis

I use to monitor the data from these buoys a few times per week.
The ENSO is, after all, the most important driver of the weather on the planet.
I’m not sure why they left so many buoys in disrepair. Some people said metal pirates were scavenging them on a regular basis which is why so many were not operational at a given time.
I think they need to make a concerted effort to keep the ones in the far eastern Pacific in better condition. These are the ones that provide the most lead-time for changing conditions (and might be more susceptible to metal pirates).

Bill Illis

On the current conditions of the ENSO, it looks like we are heading to more-of La Nina conditions in the very near future.
The negative PDO pattern / the heat content in the eastern Pacific has cooled off any development toward an El Nino and it appears strong enough to ward off any El Nino for another year.
The warmers are putting their hopes on another strong El Nino developing but there is just too much cool water in the eastern near-equator Pacific for that to occur. In fact, one should be watching for a moderate La Nina now instead.


Well, I think it makes sense. What is more important, observing the data and conducting real scientific research or funding a video game propaganda machine. When all you have to support the consensus of global warming is propaganda that there is a consensus, then the video games get the money: http://cnsnews.com/news/article/57m-nsf-grant-card-games-videos-teach-public-about-global-warming

Bill Illis,
No, you are wrong. In fact if look at all the major el nino years such as the last one (2009, where record Nino 4 temps where observed):
cooling early on CAN BE a characteristic of impeding el nino, but is no guarantee. My bet is neutral, with 50/50 odds im right