A weather station that Keys mariners have relied on for information crucial to safe travels could be moved to a location 17 miles away, federal officials have confirmed, due to structural problems with the tower where weather equipment is housed.
The Sand Key Light weather station has provided intermittent data for months, due to problems with onboard solar panels that power batteries needed for instrumentation. Because the light tower is in such bad repair, the equipment may now be moved to the Cosgrove Shoal light, located well to the west of Sand Key.
Some people who use the data say they are on board with the idea, but there are concerns.
"We use that reference point a lot," National Weather Service Warning Coordinator Meteorologist Jon Rizzo said of the Cosgrove Shoal location. "It can be helpful for squalls coming in from the west. It would be nice to have something there but it is not point-specific near the channel."
The Cosgrove Shoal option, Rizzo said, would leave a large gap between its westward location and the Sombrero Key Light off Marathon, which also provides weather data.
Steve Cucullu, program manager for NOAA's National Data Buoy Center, based at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, said moving the weather equipment to Cosgrove Shoal may be the only reasonable option available.
His organization has a huge backlog of weather and climate stations needing repair. The problems posed by Sand Key light, including a destroyed tower ladder, are complicated by the fact that NOAA does not own the tower. It is the property of the Coast Guard. If any repairs are to be done they would be at the Coast Guard's discretion and schedule.
"We are running it up through our headquarters," Cucullu said. "At Sand Key we can't access it, it's an accessibility issue. The tower is not being supported so the Coast Guard offered this up. We are kind of trying to get agreements in place to put our equipment on the other agency's property."
Robert Maguire of the Key West Bar Pilots' Association, whose members pilot cruise ships and other large vessels into and out of Key West Harbor, said a Coast Guard lieutenant mentioned the Cosgrove possibility during a meeting earlier this month with local mariners.
"He mentioned that the NDBC was looking at locating a weather station on top of Cosgrove Light to replace the Sand Key station, Maguire said. "Cosgrove is approximately 17 miles west of Sand Key, due south of Marquesas Key, it is located at the reef, and is a newer, good condition tower, 54 feet high," Maguire said. "The pilots would be satisfied with this compromise, the station is close enough to Key West, not as high up as Sand Key but high enough, and it's at the reef, which is good. Now we have coverage both east and west of the harbor."
If NOAA officials end up approving the move to Cosgrove, the light at Sand Key would still function as part of the Coast Guard's aids to navigation program. It is possible that the change might have to await a public comment period after publication in the Federal Register.
While the bar pilots say the Cosgrove solution is acceptable to them, some local fishermen are not sure how helpful it will be to them.
"What they're doing is avoiding necessary maintenance to the Sand Key lighthouse," said Key West commercial fisherman Lee Starling, who has long depended on that station's data. "Cosgrove Light is a different world out there. The weather patterns are different. But I guess it is better to have something than nothing."