Satellite Beach approves low-power radar at Hightower

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Satellite Beach approves low-power radar at Hightower


The long-wavelength reach of radar may soon provide better “eyes” for what our regional waves are up to.

This week, the city of Satellite Beach and the Indian River County Commission both approved small arrays of high-frequency, low-powered radar systems at one of their popular public beaches, where people love unencumbered views and endangered sea turtles tend to nest.

Federal forecasters and the local scientist leading the effort assure it will improve search-and-rescue, red tide, rip current and erosion predictions, as well as fill a crucial gap in ocean surface radar coverage that’s often left us all in the oceanic dark.

“Long-term collection of the data could be useful for people who do coastal planning for the county,” said Steven Lazarus, professor of ocean engineering and marine sciences at Florida Institute of Technology. “I can imagine folks doing work in the sea turtle world as well.”

The proposed radar system in Satellite Beach would go at Hightower Beach Park, backscattering in sync with another at Treasure Shores Park in Indian River County. Two radars are needed to get a clear picture of what’s going on out there along the distant ocean’s distance. The radars have a 60-kilometer range.

There won’t be any domes, just radar antennas on 7-foot-tall, thin poles, usually painted to blend in. 

But if all required environmental permits come through, once installed, the radar arrays would close a glaring gap in an integrated system federal forecasters want to improve predictions of the good, bad and the “oily” that happens at the sea’s surface. The two radar sites could help better track oil spills such as the Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010, or the currents that chew into our beaches.

The $500,000 five-year project (not including the cost of the radar) is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as part of its so-called Integrated Ocean Observing System. That network of radars, underwater and above-water monitoring buoys aims to help forecast red tides, fish spawning patterns and other changes in the ocean.

For the local version of the system, Florida Tech would provide near-real-time access to the wave and current data via a web interface — data of interest to fishermen and surfers, as well as scientists.

“Better coastal forecast are good for boaters,” Lazarus said. “There are a lot of potential benefits, especially for real-time use.”

The radar is very low power, 40 watts, Lazarus said, so no risk to people or wildlife.

“That’s a fraction of a lightbulb,” he said.

And at a frequency of 13.5 megahertz, the radar would be orders of magnitude lower than the frequencies of most cellphones. 

In Satellite Beach, the project would include 12 “receiver” poles spaced 30 feet apart and above the dune line, away from sea turtle nests, parallel to shore, Lazarus says.

There also would be four transmit antenna in a 30-square-foot array about 300 feet away from a power source. Cables connect the receiver poles and transmit antenna to the electronics and can be buried about a foot down to reduce visibility to beachgoers, Lazarus explains in a Dec. 14 letter to the city.

“The cables are embedded in conduit with minimal impact to the dune,” his letter says. “The antenna monopoles are approximately 7 feet tall and will require stabilizing cables (guy wire) to reduce movement. The radar electronics can be housed in a small space (30” x 30” and 48” high) such as an air-conditioned storage closet or small trailer.”

The Satellite Beach City Council unanimously approved the project Wednesday, after council members raised concerns, including potential vandalism to the radar infrastructure, and impacts to sea turtle nesting and other marine life.

The Indian River County Commission approved a similar radar site at the Treasure Shores Park on Tuesday.

Lazarus said the radar infrastructure would be away from the prime sea turtle nesting areas at the Hightower Beach preserve.

Other concerns were raised Wednesday about buried cable and a small trailer that will be needed at the site for equipment.

“I wouldn’t get involved in a project if it had any impacts on sea turtles,” Lazarus assured the City Council. “This is minimal disturbance.”

Lazarus is principal investigator on the project.

He inherited the reins of a longtime ambition of the late Florida Tech oceanographer George Maul, who died in September.

Maul had long sought to convince NOAA and others that Brevard needed to tap into NOAA’s national ocean observing system.

In a May 2016 guest editorial to FLORIDA TODAY, Maul speculated whether such high-frequency radar technology might have prevented the loss of Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos. On July 24, 2015, the two 14-year-olds set out in a small boat from Jupiter Inlet and were never found again.

Australian scientists noticed in the 1940s that high-frequency radio waves were backscattered from the sea surface. So the concept works similar to “Doppler radar,” only the radio waves echo from the sea surface, rather than pockets of air.

Maul and other oceanographers pushed state and federal government for years to create the Integrated Ocean Observing System. 

Buoys equipped with special devices that measure florescence could detect oil spills in real time, he said, giving a much clearer picture of where it might be headed next.

But lack of funding stalled the project for years.

“Nobody was willing to spend the money,” Maul told FLORIDA TODAY in 2010, as he and other oceanographers lamented that they couldn’t track the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in real time. That information could have helped focus the response.

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