Scientists use Waverider buoys to conduct wave energy research


Mike Muglia hates to miss a wave.

A self-proclaimed surf addict, Muglia catches the waves on his surfboard off the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Further into these waters – 15 nautical miles to be exact – is another surfer. Aptly named Waverider, this surfer is a 440-pound, half yellow banana, half beet purple buoy that Muglia uses to study the energy that circulates in our oceans.

This banana yellow Waverider buoy will spend 12 months off the coast of North Carolina, collecting data on ocean waves, currents, tides and water temperatures to help marine energy developers find the best places to source clean, renewable energy from the ocean. Photos courtesy of Mike Muglia

Marine energy – clean energy generated by ocean currents, waves, tides, and water temperature changes – is still young, but it has the potential to provide clean, renewable electricity to communities. coastal areas where nearly 40% of Americans live. Before that happens, scientists must identify the ocean arteries that harbor the most reliable energy. With 3.4 million square nautical miles of U.S. waters, an area larger than the combined landmass of the 50 states, there is still much to explore.

Now Muglia and Miguel Canals have just deployed two new Waverider buoys, one off the coast of North Carolina and the other off Puerto Rico. There, surfers will collect detailed data on surface waves in these areas of the Atlantic Ocean, adding to publicly available datasets on waves, currents and water temperatures that will not only bring marine energy closer together. large-scale use, but will also help scientists understand how climate change is affecting our oceans.

Muglia is a principal investigator at the Regional Association of Southeast Atlantic Coastal Ocean Observation and a research professor at the North Carolina Institute of Coastal Studies, and Canals is a principal investigator at the System of observation of the Caribbean Coastal Ocean in Puerto Rico.

“We want to characterize the wave energy resources available,” said Canals, who, like Muglia, rides the same waves he studies. “But we also want to collect long-term wave data to understand the ocean and climate change for the benefit of future generations.”

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), which owns the two Waverider buoys, has partnered with ocean experts Muglia and Canals to collect this vital new data. This NREL-led effort is part of a larger nine-year project funded by the Water Power Technologies Office of the US Department of Energy. Multi-agency collaborative study generates the resource data that technology and project developers need to design the next generation of devices. No institution (or buoy) can collect it all, which is why partners like Muglia and Canals are so invaluable. The data generated by these partners are used to verify and improve the accuracy of the models, and are also valuable in themselves as detailed records of the real ocean. The data from this project, both the measurements and the models that use them, are publicly available on the Marine Energy Atlas.

“The ocean,” said Levi Kilcher, physical oceanographer at NREL who leads the Waverider and Marine Energy Atlas projects, “is an extremely difficult environment. But we’re starting to see success, which makes it a very exciting time to be. in this industry. ”

On August 2, 2021, Muglia departed aboard the Miss Caroline with a deckhand and marine mammal watcher, who watched for sea turtles, dolphins, and other wildlife that might swim too close to the boat. For the 40 nautical mile, three hour trip, the Waverider bulb buoy was securely attached to a rubber tire on the back of the small skiff. When the Miss Caroline sailed to the selected location – indistinguishable from surrounding waters except by GPS – the team scanned the area for underwater obstacles before anchoring the Waverider under a blue sky almost cloudless.

From their homes isolated from the ocean, the two buoys will send live data to teams at Muglia and Canals using satellite communication systems. Solar panels help power these systems and flashing lights warn boats to keep a safe distance.

Now Muglia, Canals and their colleagues and students are eagerly awaiting the first batch of data. Wave energy researchers and engineers are also eagerly awaiting. Using high-quality data on ocean movements, they can design wave energy converters better suited to extract energy from movement of the ocean surface.

The data can also be used by climate and environmental scientists.

In the tropical waters of Puerto Rico, severe winter storms and summer hurricanes can create rough seas. Canals and his team chose their buoy site specifically for its high energy potential – these waves contain power – but the data can also help researchers understand how extreme waves impact the coastal environment. So far, Canals has lost only one buoy in Puerto Rico, due to Hurricane Maria. She was recovered two weeks later off the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Canals, which successfully deployed its Waverider on June 15, 2021, also chose its site because the seabed lacked a significant population of benthic organisms – inhabitants of the seabed, such as clams, oysters, starfish. or sea cucumbers – or sensitive habitats. “There is only sand and mud,” he said, “which makes it a great place to deploy the anchor.”

In Puerto Rico, the Waverider Buoy can help climatologists determine how extreme waves, forged during severe winter storms and summer hurricanes, can impact the coastal environment. Photos courtesy of Miguel Canals

Neither Canals nor Muglia, who keep watch on several offshore buoys, have never seen wild animals get tangled in the moorings of the buoys. In fact, they saw the opposite: the buoys attract schools of slender mud-colored Cobia and neon yellow big-nosed mahi-mahi, which like to swarm floating devices.

And the Waveriders aren’t just for fish and scientists.

By showing the buoy measurements at Jennette’s Pier in North Carolina, which receives approximately 250,000 visitors a year, “the public can come in and see how high the waves are, see what the water temperature is, see what ocean surface currents look like. off the coast of North Carolina, ”Muglia said.

You can find the same data from any computer anywhere in the world: With an online data feed available through the Coastal Data Information Program, surfers like Canals and Muglia can check for dangerous currents. , freezing temperatures or flat waves before setting off on their surfboards. It can also help law enforcement navigate volatile waters to catch up with offshore offenders.

“Even though the primary focus is the characterization of resources,” Canals said, “the buoy will have many applications for surfers, fishermen, paddleboarders, divers, law enforcement, coastal managers and boaters “.

Both buoys now float near the Gulf Stream, which crosses the Gulf of Mexico (near the Caribbean Coastal Ocean Observation System on the north coast of Puerto Rico) and hooks around Florida before ascending the east coast of Canada. With its warm, nutrient-rich waters, the Gulf Stream is a major regulator of the global climate, nourishes marine life and helps their populations thrive, so the US fishing industry can thrive as well.

Still, Muglia said: “What is going on here is not well understood.” These rich and energetic waters could help supply coastal communities with clean energy. But if their temperatures change or their rapid currents slow, it could disrupt global weather and climate, potentially causing more severe storms in Europe or sea level rise in major US cities like Boston and New York.

The two Waverider buoys will help both marine energy developers and climatologists better understand these mysterious waters.

For now, while awaiting the data, Muglia is sure to never miss another wave – whether on his surfboard or in his lab – with the Waverider surfing off shore.

Learn more about NREL’s water resource characterization research.

Article courtesy of NREL.

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