Buoying the Pacific Islands to advance equitable ocean observing systems

On the eastern coast of Majuro Atoll, a banana-yellow sphere bobs with the waves. To beachcombers, it looks inconsequential as it appears and disappears from view. But the yellow blob is actually a 440-pound data buoy and houses scientific sensors that are key in warning Marshall Islands residents ahead of dangerous storms and floods.

“The Pacific Islands include some of the most underserved communities within the ocean observing world.”–Melissa Iwamoto

Nicknamed “Kalo” after a species of brown boobies that breed on the atoll, the buoy transmits wave and atmospheric data to a program in Hawai’i that uses models to churn out coastal hazard warnings and flood forecasts. These make their way back to the low-lying atoll nation through national and local weather services. Soon there will be more banana-yellow buoys around the Marshall Islands, only much smaller, lighter, and more affordable. Instead of being maintained by personnel in Hawai’i—as is the case with Kalo—the smaller buoys will be managed by the Marshallese. More data from these so-called “Backyard Buoys” promise improved forecasts.

Kalo, a PacIOOS wave buoy, is moored off the coast of Majuro Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Photo: Max Sudonovsky


“The Pacific Islands include some of the most underserved communities within the ocean observing world,” says Melissa Iwamoto, director of the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System (PaclOOS) at the University of Hawai’i at Mãnoa. PaclOOS manages Kalo and 15 other buoys across the Pacific, and has worked hard to address such inequities in ocean observing systems.

The organization is one of 11 regional programs in the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (I00S) and one of many players in the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS). PaclOOS recognizes that it serves islands extremely vulnerable to ocean hazards and climate change, so it has tried to lead in the global effort to address critical data gaps.

“The ocean is a big part of our planet, and if you want to observe that, it’s a vast area,” says Mathieu Belbeoch, manager of OceanOPS which tracks 10,000 observations per day coming from the GOOS networks. “Yet the observing system relies only on a few member states, with the U.S. doing half of the work.”

This imbalance has resulted in inequities in research priorities and funding. Belbeoch says, for example, that because northern hemisphere countries fund most ocean observing systems, oceans in the southern hemisphere have not received as much funding and haven’t been studied as much as they should be. The same gaps have overlooked remote island nations and territories in the Pacific. Bringing awareness to these and other such inequities is one reason this observation challenge is part of the UN Ocean Decade.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands, a nation of low-lying atolls, faces rising sea levels projected to affect 40 percent of buildings in the capital city of Majuro, as well as fresh water supplies on all atolls. Courtesy Asian Development Bank

Equitable access

Backyard Buoys aims to address the inequity experienced by Pacific Islands by empowering Indigenous and other coastal communities to collect and steward their own wave data. Ajeltake Village, located on the southwestern portion of the Majuro Atoll ring, is preparing to deploy its first buoy, just off the village coast.

“You take care of what’s in your backyard. That’s why it’s named Backyard Buoys,” says Dolores Debrum-Kattil, who leads the Marshall Islands Conservation Society (MICS), PaclOOS’ partner in the atoll nation. “You take care of something that is providing safety for your home.”

Organizations that frequent the waters off Ajeltake have committed to help. Around 100 fishers from the Marshalls Billfish Club and the Majuro Urok (Marshallese for bottom fishing) Club will maintain the buoy during their monthly fishing tournaments.

“You take care of something that is providing safety for your home.”–Dolores Debrum-Kattil

“Sea safety is really big in the Marshall Islands,” says Dua Rudolph, MICS deputy. “It’s the way we find our food, and it means a lot for the billfish and urok clubs.” Surrounding communities have taken notice and now want their own Backyard Buoys. Some of them will get their wish, as PaclOOS is working with more communities to deploy the buoys.

Iwamoto would love to see more ocean observing systems working with community partners to help them realize their desire to take charge of their own data collection and analysis. “We hope Backyard Buoys can be one example for how to serve the needs of people and communities, especially in the islands,” Iwamoto says. “We are learning every day from our partners and hope to provide a model that others can learn from as well.”

Published in Ka Pili Kai.
Banner image: Peter Perez, who heads a nonprofit preserving maritime culture in the Marianas Islands, holds up a Backyard Buoy. The buoy weighs 16 pounds and 7 ounces and can transmit data on sea surface temperature, barometric pressure and various wind and wave parameters, in real time. Courtesy Peter Perez