Congress pulls the plug on Gulf Stream maps

2019-02-27 06:16:00

By Kurt Kleiner Washington DC BUDGET cuts have forced the US National Weather Service to abandon a long-running effort to keep track of the meanderings of the Gulf Stream. Scientists who used the service will now have to go to expensive and possibly less reliable sources. Three times a week for the past 21 years, Stephen Baig, an oceanographer at the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Florida, has released maps showing details of fluctuations in the Gulf Stream, a mass of warm water which flows from the Caribbean to Greenland. The current is about 65 kilometres wide, but its edges can shift by as much as 15 kilometres overnight. About 10 000 people received some or all of the free updates, including oceanographers, marine biologists, Coast Guard search and rescue teams, recreational boaters and crews cleaning up hazardous waste. “For scientists going out in the area, the analyses were very useful,” says Phil Richardson, an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. The raw satellite images that Baig used, which are gathered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will still be available, and can even be downloaded from the Internet. But the images are difficult to interpret. The Gulf Stream’s general shape can be picked out on a good satellite image. But cloud cover and confusing temperature gradients can make it difficult to pin down its exact borders. For example, says Baig, it is a common error in the winter to mistake the temperature gradient at the outer edge of North Carolina’s coastal shelf for the edge of the Gulf Stream. James Howcroft, deputy director of the National Weather Service’s National Centers for Environmental Protection in Washington DC, says that a succession of Congressional budget cuts has forced the weather service to shut down many operations that do not directly protect lives or property. But Baig, who is being transferred to other projects, believes the cutback will prove a false economy. He points out that other government agencies will now have to buy maps from private companies for up to $50 apiece. Some scientists also fear that commercial Gulf Stream maps may not be as reliable as those produced by Baig’s team. “They did it for years. They got good at it,