Inlet currents being mapped

UAF project uses radar to look at surface water movement

Posted: Friday, December 15, 2006

High-frequency radar signals beaming from new radar stations at Nanwalek and Anchor Point began bouncing off waves on lower Cook Inlet recently, part of an effort by the University of Alaska Fairbanks to map surface currents over a 1,350-square-mile area between the mouth of Kachemak Bay and Augustine Island.

University scientists with the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences installed the radar stations in early November, according to a university press release.

The new system could have immediate benefits.

“The ability to map real-time surface currents in Alaska waters can greatly increase safety for all water users,” said Rachel Potter, a university oceanographer and deputy programmer for the project. “Having this data at our fingertips can aid in contaminant spill response, search and rescue operations, and marine navigation, just to name a few examples.”

According to the university, the radars emit high-frequency signals across the surface, which reflect off the tips of waves back to antennae. Those signals are then transmitted to Potter and other technicians at UAF.

The radar signals compute the speed and direction of currents on lower Cook Inlet. Combining data from Nanwalek and Anchor Point allows scientists to produce and update maps hourly.

“If a kayaker gets stranded in lower Cook Inlet, it’s likely that we could tell rescuers where that kayaker may end up,” said Andrew Bray, a research technician on the project.

The university said it expects the data stream to be of help to other scientists studying how winds, tides and seafloor topography affect changes in surface currents. It may also be useful in predicting the movement of pollutants, sediments and living organisms, the press release said.

The UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences is headquartered at the Fairbanks campus and serves the state from facilities in Anchorage, Juneau, Kodiak and Seward. Agents with the SFOS Marine Advisory Program are located in eight coastal communities across Alaska.

The new radar information can be found at www. , where you will find a simple map of the area with arrows indicating currents. Note that the times associated with the map represent Greenwich Mean Time, not Alaska Time.

It also is possible to hear the “chirping” of the radar signals by turning your radio dial to around 93.9 FM. However, you will need to be in the Anchor Point or Nanwalek areas to have a chance to hear.

The U.S. Minerals Management Service, which is concerned with improving data useful when dealing with spills, provided funding for the project, said Carin Bailey, public relations person for the program.

The radar sites will function until November of next year and then be taken down, probably to be installed elsewhere. The SFOS will produce a report for the MMS. The data will help predict currents in future years. The sites may periodically be reestablished at Anchor Point and Nanwalek, Bailey said.

A similar system is mapping currents around Anchorage, she said.

Hal Spence can be reached at

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