NOAA vessel buoys' lifeline

The crew of the NOAA research vessel Ronald H. Brown prepares to return a giant weather buoy to the Pacific Ocean after cleaning and repairing it.

The buoys rock away in the isolation of the deep Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from anywhere. They provide real-time data that help forecast seasonal rainfall and hurricanes as far away as the Atlantic Ocean.

The problem is, they get vandalized.

That's partly why four months ago the federal research vessel Ronald H. Brown untied its moorings from a pier at the former Navy base in North Charleston to help maintain 70 buoys arrayed across the ocean along the equator that are critical links to calculating and eventually predicting El Nino and La Nina warm and cold currents.

The currents are said to influence floods, droughts and hurricanes worldwide.

Along the way, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers found evidence of an odd connection between cloud cover and ocean gas, something that tells science a little more about the factors in global warming and cooling.

The difficulty keeping the buoys in place and operating was brought home when radar picked up a vessel in the open ocean closing fast on the Ronald H. Brown as its crew brought one of the buoys onboard to clean and repair.

Hailed by the ship, the vessel reported that it was a fishing boat looking to tie off — on the buoy. The buoys, like piers along shore, draw fish.

Tied-off fishing boats drag buoys out of position. The lines tear off equipment such as "wind birds," the rotating devices that measure wind speed. And, occasionally, equipment simply gets removed.

"The buoys are vandalized," said Nicole Manning, the ship's operations officer.

The eastern Pacific tends to be covered by huge cloud canopies that have a demonstrable effect cooling the planet. The droplets that make up those clouds form from particles that are created by gases off decomposing plankton in the ocean.

The more droplets, the lower the temperature.

"In the big picture it has some effect on the balance of climate," said Chris Fairell, a NOAA physicist who took part in the research aboard the Ronald H. Brown.

It also suggests a little more about the two-sided impact of gases released by human industries — some cooling the planet and some warming it. And that gives a little more insight about the rate of global warming from carbon fuels.

The Ronald H. Brown returned to its Charleston home port this week. The eastern Pacific "was like a desert, not much wind or rain," said Manning, who was on her first trip to the vast ocean.

But there was that fascinating, constantly changing canopy of clouds, and occasionally humpbacked whales, dolphin pods and exotic birds.

"It's always an interesting adventure to be out at sea," she said.