UCSB researchers are overseeing part of a high-frequency ocean radar network that provides detailed maps of ocean currents and other coastal patterns along the West Coast.

The network is composed of 78 sites between Astoria, Washington and Tijuana, Mexico that transmit low-powered radio waves that receive feedback from transmissions that bounce off the ocean surface. Researchers are able to use the data to better understand the ocean’s various features.

According to UCSB Computer Network Technologist Brian Emery, who has been working on the project since 1997, the system is based on the same technology that law enforcement uses to catch speeding drivers.

“When it comes down to it, it’s not that much different than a cop radar gun,” Emery said. “The gun sends off radio waves that bounce off your car and tell the cop how fast you are going which is essentially what we’re doing to the ocean. The tricky part comes in determining direction and what part of the ocean surface we’re looking at.”

The UCSB researchers — part of the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System — oversee 11 separate sites along the coast. The closest site is located west of campus at Sands Beach.

Associate professor of oceanography Libe Washburn said the sites are located two kilometers from one another and provide researchers with hourly data.

“These are land-based systems; each site we operate propagates high frequency radio waves and some of the wave energy is back-scattered from the surface waves,” Washburn said. “We look at that Doppler Shift and it allows us to estimate current speeds, which we put online every hour.”

Washburn said the network benefits the local academic community and helps keep the coastline safe.

“There are a lot of projects that use the data and many here at UCSB,” Washburn said. “It’s also used to respond to oil spills to get an idea of where the currents are going and also by the Coast Guard for their search and rescue missions, so it has practical applications as well as scientific ones.”

Washburn said he is working on a project that uses the system’s data to understand the impact coastal wind changes have on ocean current patterns.

“For my project, we are going to be looking at certain circulation patterns that develop as the strong winds that blow up and down the coast relax,” Washburn said. “When those winds stop, we are going to see how it affects the currents.”

Local swimmers also use the data to help plan routes on long journeys, according to Washburn.

“There is even an ocean-swimming community that uses the network,” Washburn said. “I sometimes get calls from people trying to swim to Anacapa Island or other places asking about the currents.”