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USF-led team deploys tsunami buoy test in Tampa Bay

Six-month test will measure sea floor motion and allow for improved forecasting of tsunamis

A University of South Florida research team, along with numerous local and international partners, are testing a potentially life-saving device designed to warn experts of devastating natural disasters before they strike.

The Shallow Underwater Buoy for Geodesy (SUBGEO) system measures seafloor uplift in coastal areas prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. The test deployment in Tampa Bay is a significant step forward in an ambitious three-year project funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF) and developed by a group of university, industry, state and federal collaborators, including researchers at the USF School of Geosciences and College of Marine Science.

Deployed inshore of Egmont Key, the SUBGEO device utilizes a high-precision GPS system to measure vertical displacements as miniscule as one-centimeter. By assessing sea floor motion in the months and years prior to these events, researchers will have better data to help forecast the occurrence of these disasters, especially large tsunamis with the potential to kill thousands of people.

Experts say the tragic earthquake and tsunami sequences of 2004 (Sumatra) and 2011 (Japan) were significant wake-up calls that the science community needed to do more to forecast these destructive events.

The project is made possible through an NSF-OTIC (Ocean Technology) grant to develop a sea floor geodetic system suitable for shallow coastal regions. The system is designed for subduction zone applications, like the Pacific Ocean’s ‘ring of fire’ region, where offshore strain accumulation and release processes are currently poorly monitored.

The buoy was developed in close collaboration with INGV-Italy, the government agency charged with volcano hazard assessment. The design and drawings were completed by Hydra Solutions, also in Italy, who designed earlier versions of these buoys with INGV. The electronic and systems engineering was completed at USF by the College of Marine Science Ocean Technology Group and the USF Geodesy Lab.

Constructed at the College of Marine Science’s machine shop facility, the device is approximately 100-feet long and rises roughly 35-feet above the waterline. The deployment was performed by a crew from Orion Marine Group, using a 150-foot barge equipped with a 250-ton crane.

Orion Marine Group hoisting the SUBGEO system into the water. 

Over the next six-months, researchers will run a full-scale test of the system, collecting and processing raw GPS data from the buoy along with satellite orbit information from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Along with its seafloor monitoring application, researchers say the buoy can be used in several other ways, including gathering weather data for boaters, red tide research and ocean circulation applications.

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