In the early 1980s, two shipping vessel collisions at the Tampa Bay Sunshine Skyway Bridge happened within weeks of each other. These accidents spurred Federal legislation leading to the development and establishment of NOAA’s first Physical Oceanographic Real Time System (PORTS®) in 1991. This July, PORTS celebrates 30 years of providing commercial vessel operators with accurate and reliable real-time environmental conditions to enhance the safety and efficiency of maritime commerce.
From the start, the PORTS program was unique in many respects. Establishing the network required integrating both observing and data management systems to deliver data from multiple sensors and locations in just one place. Data was quality controlled in real time to assure reliability and establish confidence in its use. These efforts laid the groundwork for providing users with situational awareness of their highly dynamic operating environment to enable precise decision making. At its inception, PORTS provided data on an hourly basis. Today, observations are delivered in 6-minute intervals and available on a variety of platforms from land-based phone lines to mobile internet applications – now serving over 35 PORTS locations.
Through the years, continuous testing, evaluation, and infusion of new technology has enabled the PORTS program to evolve along with the needs of its partners. PORTS has worked with local and regional partners to expand the suite of real-time sensors for oceanographic and meteorological observations at each location. Water level gauge observations were followed by current meters – deployed in busy shipping channels and installed along docks to assess conditions right where users most needed them. Air gap sensors are now installed on bridge infrastructure to address the emerging issue of ever-larger vessels, enabling ships safe passage beneath even with thinnest of margins. Visibility sensors provide insight for harbors routinely impacted by fog. This level of real-time knowledge has had invaluable benefits to NOAA’s Precision Marine Navigation by safeguarding scheduled commercial and recreational marine transit. Safety and efficiency of PORTS real-time data is further amplified by nowcast and forecast parameters from NOAA’s Operational Forecast System.