The Value of Florida Reef Lighthouse Weather Stations

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Many of the lighthouses and towers erected along the Florida Reef tract have been essential to Florida Keys marine weather observation and forecasting for over 150 years.  The data collected from these observations are used every hour of every day to prepare and disseminate weather, water, and climate information which supports decisions that save lives, protect property, and conserve and sustain natural resources.  Lighthouse keepers were the first to take routine weather observations, among their numerous other duties.  They did so for many decades, until they gradually were replaced by automated instruments by the 1960s.  Four structures have supported weather and ocean sensing equipment along the Florida Keys since the late 1980s/early 1990s; namely, Molasses Reef Light, Long Key Light, Sombrero Reef Light, and Sand Key Light.  A fifth structure at Iowa Rock just north of Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas supported weather and ocean sensors from 1992 to 2005 (the entire structure was destroyed during the passage of Hurricane Rita on September 21, 2005).  This station was moved to a newer tower at Pulaski Shoal in the northeastern section of Dry Tortugas National Park in 2006, but failed during a lightning storm on July 10, 2012.  The Sand Key Light station has been in operation since 1991, although currently it is transmitting sporadically, mainly during the afternoon hours.  The Sombrero Key Light station has been operating since 1988.  However, recently, the wind sensors failed.  The Long Key Light station actually is located in Florida Bay, and has provided data since 1992.  It failed on July 6, 2013.  Finally, the Molasses Reef Light station has been operating since 1987, and is the only station currently fully functional. The network of environmental stations described is known as the Coastal-Marine Automated Network, or “C-MAN”.  This program is managed by a NOAA/National Weather Service office located at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, the “National Data Buoy Center”.  The National Data Buoy Center employs a staff of engineers, meteorologists, oceanographers, computer scientists, and technicians, who design, develop, operate, and maintain a network of data collecting buoys and coastal stations. Environmental observations along the coast are important to a wide array of users, including anglers, divers, boaters, maritime law enforcers, environmental resource managers, researchers, bar pilots, shipping interests, and many more!  Your Florida Keys National Weather Service meteorologists monitor meteorological and oceanographic data collected from the C-MAN network literally every hour of every day from their 24/7/365 facility in Key West.  The observations are used to maintain a continuous vigil for hazardous weather and ocean conditions in and around the Florida Keys.  Forecasters gather observational data and conduct thorough diagnoses of the current weather situation with subsequent preparation of forecasts which are updated at least four times daily.  The data from these stations are particularly helpful in the preparation of marine weather analyses, forecasts, advisories, and warnings for a service area of approximately 22,000 square miles containing some of the busiest merchant shipping lanes on the planet, as well as a mosaic of sensitive marine ecosystems.  Meteorologists also use the data in the preparation of forecast event reviews, case studies, point verification, and climate summaries.  Therefore, the C-MAN data are an indispensable part of the National Weather Service meteorologist’s “toolbox”. Typical weather instruments reporting from the lighthouse weather stations include the anemometer (wind speed and direction), thermometer (air temperature), barometer (atmospheric pressure), and dewpoint sensor (humidity).  In the past, certain oceanic variables were measured as well, including sea surface temperature, salinity, water level, and photosynthetic radiation.  The installation and maintenance of these ocean sensors were supported by the “Sustained Ecological Research Related to Management of the Florida Keys Seascape”, or “SEAKEYS” program from 1989 to 2012.  The remaining sea surface temperature sensor at Molasses Reef is supported by the NOAA Integrated Coral Observing Network. One marine element for which data have been historically scarce to nonexistent in the Florida Keys is wave height.  In fact, no wave-measuring buoys currently exist over any of the coastal waters adjoining the Florida Keys or the coasts of Mainland Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward, or Palm Beach Counties.  For this reason, National Weather Service meteorologists rely heavily on the “sea truth” observations provided by the marine community.  Please feel free to pass along observations of sea state any time via phone (305-295-1316 ext. 3), Facebook (search National Weather Service Key West), Twitter (@NWSKeyWest), or e-mail (sr-key.marine@noaa.gov). Remember to be weather-ready, and stay safe in 2014! For more information on the National Data Buoy Center, you can visit them online at http://www.ndbc.noaa.gov.  And, for the latest weather/ocean observations around the Florida Keys, visit: http://www.srh.noaa.gov/key/?n=obs.


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