University of South Florida-led Team Deploys Tsunami Buoy Test in Tampa Bay

St. Petersburg is characterized by 260 miles of waterfront and is home to the largest marine and environmental sciences community in the Southeast. The city's marine science hub is situated within walking distance to downtown and next to major research and higher education institutions, along with leaders of the field including NOAA, the Florida Institute of Oceanography, and USGS.

The research and findings of St. Petersburg's marine science institutions is not only globally recognized, but cultivates an optimal synergy with the advanced research of the local life sciences community.

ST. PETERSBURG, FL- (August 23, 2018) A University of South Florida research team and numerous partners completed the successful deployment of the first Shallow Underwater Buoy for Geodesy (SUBGEO) system designed to measure seafloor uplift in coastal areas prone to earthquakes and tsunamis.  The test deployment in Tampa Bay represents a significant step forward in an ambitious 3-year project funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The complicated deployment was executed flawlessly, a testament to the hard work and close collaboration of the many research team members, which included local and international industry partners, university researchers and state and federal agencies.  These include the USF School of Geosciences and College of Marine Science, Orion Marine Group, Florida Institute of Oceanography (FIO), Port Tampa Bay, the Tampa Bay Harbor Pilots Association, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, US Coast Guard Sector St Pete and District 7 Miami, the Italian Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), UNAVCO, Loupin Construction and Hydra Solutions Engineering.

The tragic earthquake/tsunami sequences of 2004 in Sumatra and 2011 in Japan were catastrophes that produced respectively the most fatalities and the largest financial losses from a natural disaster in recent history, and were wake-up calls that the science community has not been very successful at forecasting these tragic events.  The buoys being designed and tested by the USF-led team will enable precise measurements of sea floor motion to be made in the months and years prior to these events, and should allow for improved forecasting ability, especially for the largest tsunamis, which are the real killers.

The project is made possible through an NSF-OTIC (Ocean Technology) grant to develop a high precision sea floor geodetic system suitable for shallow coastal regions (less than 200 meter water depth).  The system is designed for subduction zone applications (such as the Pacific “ring of fire”) where offshore strain accumulation and release processes are currently poorly monitored.  The strain measurements in these offshore areas are needed for earthquake and tsunami forecasts, and for improved understanding of the earthquake process.  In some subduction zones, including Central America, the continental shelf area that is shallower than 200 meters covers 30%-40% of the sea floor area between the coastline and the trench.  Hence the new buoy design should have wide applicability.

The SUBGEO system uses a high precision GPS system to measure vertical displacements to an accuracy of approximately 1 cm.  It was designed in close collaboration with INGV-Italy, the government agency charged with volcano hazard assessment.  INGV  pioneered the use of such systems in the Gulf of Pozzuoli in southern Italy to monitor dangers associated with nearby Campi Flegrei and Mt Vesuvius volcanoes (Vesuvius was the volcano that destroyed the Roman town of Pompeii in AD 79).  Enhancements to the Italian design will allow the USF buoy to also measure horizontal motions of the sea floor to high accuracy.

The buoy design and drawings were completed by Hydra Solutions of Casalserugo Italy who designed earlier versions of these buoys in collaboration with INGV.  All electronic and systems engineering were performed in-house at USF by the College of Marine Science Ocean Technology Group and the USF Geodesy Lab.  Improvements to previous designs include the addition of heading and tilt sensors to allow for the recovery of horizontal components of deformation, thus the system will be capable of recovering the full three-dimensional displacement vector of a point on the seafloor to an accuracy of 1-2 cm averaged over 24 hours.

The buoy was fabricated at the USF College of Marine Science’s machine shop facility and the anchor was constructed on site by Loupin Construction in collaboration with USF engineers.  The figure below shows the buoy design and specifications.  At approximately 100 feet long and deployed in 65 feet of water, the buoy rises 35 feet above the waterline.  The concrete anchor weighs over 50,000 lbs in air, has an in-water weight of nearly 30,000 lbs and required more than 12 yards of concrete for the pour.   The float provides 26,000 lbs of buoyancy. After correcting for the weight of the buoy itself, this leaves a net positive buoyancy of nearly 20,000 lbs, keeping the spar buoy upright in the water column despite strong winds and currents.

The buoy was deployed on August 23, 2018 inshore of Egmont Key.  The deployment was executed by an experienced crew from Orion Marine Group, using a 150-foot barge equipped with a 250-ton crane.  Vessel support was provided by the Florida Institute of Oceanography’s R/V Hogarth and R/V Price.  A project of such large scale and ambition has required years of collaboration and cooperation between USF researchers and engineers, local industry, international partners and both state and federal agencies.  The professional execution of the deployment further underscored the exemplary teamwork of the many dedicated professionals in the Tampa Bay region.  The system was deployed, electronics installed and data collection begun within 12 hours of arrival on site.

The next 6 months will see a complete test of the system.  Raw GPS data will be downloaded weekly, with high precision GPS calculations post-processed after high precision satellite orbit information is received from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California.  Weather system data, particularly wind speed and direction, will be used to assess effects on buoy tilt, which can impact the accuracy of the GPS measurements.

USF engineers are working on posting the weather data online in real-time for use by boaters and other end users.  The buoy represents an ultra-stable platform complete with solar power at a location of ecological and oceanographic interest at the mouth of Tampa Bay, and has elicited interest from other researchers for a variety of purposes.  These include red tide research, fish and mammal migration studies, ocean circulation applications (especially useful for hazardous material tracking at this busy port entrance) and search and rescue operations.

For more information, visit:  (click on the “Research Projects” button)

For inquiries on additional uses of the buoy, contact Jay Law (

For inquiries on scientific applications, contact Tim Dixon (