A malfunctioning weather station that mariners say is essential to safety on local waters may require a location change, and further delay before it can be reliably operated.
The weather equipment is located at Sand Key Light, which lies on a reef about 6 miles southwest of Key West.
As a component of NOAA's National Data Buoy Center, it transmits detailed information about wind, rain and other weather issues that are accessible on a government website.
Mariners began complaining in early August that the system was either not working or only working intermittently.
"Every time before we handle a vessel we visit that site to see what the weather is, the wind speed, conditions and directions before we make a decision whether we move a ship," said Bob Maguire of the Key West Bar Pilots Association, whose members move big tankers, cruise ships and other vessels through and into Key West Harbor. "Most days I can look out the window of my house but if it is a borderline situation such as tankers, a lot more information is needed."
The bar pilots will not move tankers if the wind at Sand Key is more than 25 knots, or 28.7 mph, in accordance with their regulations.
Maguire wrote to the National Buoy Data Center Aug. 6 reporting a problem with the light, officially called SANF1.
"When Tropical Storm Debby was in our area at the end of June 2012, we had five days in a row of overcast, rain and wind. SANF1 failed each evening and did not start transmitting again until hours after daylight," Maguire's letter states. "When those conditions are present, that is when we need accurate information the most. The local maritime community depends on SANF1 for information on the current conditions at the reef."
The problem, according to Jon Rizzo, warning coordinator at the National Weather Service's Key West forecast office, "has to do with the batteries on board."
"The instruments are solar powered and when the batteries get old they cannot hold their charges and it takes longer for them to charge," Rizzo said. "You can have data sometimes from noon on a sunny day to about 7 p.m."
Rizzo agrees with mariners that the data collected and transmitted by the Sand Key station is vital.
"The most important would be warning verification," Rizzo said. "If we have a strong thunderstorm with gale force winds in a limited area, that station there is extremely important. If you get verification it helps areas that are downwind."
The nation's buoy program has been subject to budget cuts, and further cuts to educational institutions that have helped maintain the weather stations haven't helped.
Although there has been talk of the program's near-elimination in some places, NOAA officials have said there are no plans to dismantle or decommission the stations serving the Keys.
The Sand Key light, said officials at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi where the program is headquartered, will be placed on a priority list for repair. But they needed to enlist help from the Coast Guard, which owns the tower.
Steven Cucullu, program manager at Stennis, said the ladder used to access the tower, which technicians would have to climb, was deemed unsafe. The Coast Guard was asked to replace or repair the ladder.
A preliminary assessment was done, according to Jeff Hunter, chief of the Key West area Aids To Navigation division of the Coast Guard, and the news is not good.
Hunter said the ladder was in a state of complete disrepair and that a dock used to access the tower is dangerously damaged.
"We may just remove that weather equipment and put it elsewhere nearby," Hunter said.
The light's beacon is still functioning, Hunter said, and whether the state of the structure will allow for it to be serviced in the future will have to be determined by later assessments.
Until then the only reliable local data comes from Sombrero Light in Marathon. But for Maguire and other mariners that's too far. He expressed gratitude to the Coast Guard for looking into the matter so quickly after they were notified by NOAA. If the weather equipment must be moved, Maguire said, he is certain the Coast Guard will find a spot close enough to Sand Key.
"It's like a tool bag," Maguire said. "You can get your weather from the airport, from Boca Chica, from a weather station or Weather Underground. There are other light towers farther up the Keys. But you want to use the best tool you have in your kit and right now that is Sand Key Light."