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Monitoring Oceans and Coasts

25 August 2011, 6:52 pm

deploying UAV

Monitoring Oceans and Coasts

Our planet is constantly changing in ways that impact every facet of our society. To keep coastal communities, economies, and ecosystems healthy requires keeping track of ocean and coastal areas—monitoring and assessing how these areas are changing. From tracking contaminants in the water, assessing environmental change, monitoring sea-level rise, or surveying the coastline and coastal sea floor, NOS physical, chemical, and biological observations help coastal communities make the best decisions for them and for the environment.

  • An Integrated System.Scientists all over the globe are monitoring how our planet is changing. They use tools, such as satellites, thermometers, and tide gauges, to collect observations. However, not all collected observations are in the same format, meaning they cannot be easily used together. Also, there are gaps in the information that is collected. Enter the Integrated Ocean Observing System, or IOOS®. Led by NOAA, IOOS brings together federal and non-federal people and technology, building a network to fill observing gaps. IOOS is also establishing standards for data collection, so that data can be used together and be more accessible to users. All of this means more information, which means a more comprehensive understanding of our planet.

  • Changing Landscapes. Development, erosion, and other forces can alter the face of the coastal landscape. These changes can have implications for conservation, recreation, development, planning, and even safety. NOS uses a range of tools to monitor changes in the shape of the coast. For example, NOS uses Light Detection and Ranging (or LIDAR) technology to determine changes in coastal elevations. Aerial photography is another tool used by the National Geodetic Survey to survey and create maps of our nation’s shoreline.

  • A Rising Sea Level. With the majority of Americans living in coastal states, rising water levels can have potentially large impacts. Scientists have determined that global sea level has been steadily rising since 1900 at a rate of at least 1 to 2.5 millimeters (0.04 to 0.1 inches) per year. The Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services has been measuring sea level for over 150 years, with tide stations operating on all U.S. coasts through the National Water Level Observation Network. Information collected at tide stations is helping coastal managers analyze and plan for future impacts of sea-level rise. Accurate sea-level information is also critical for informed coastal planning, management, and decision making.
  • Estuarine Habitats. Estuaries are some of the most diverse and productive ecosystems in the world, supporting everything from fish, birds, and otters to mussels and plants. To monitor the health of these important habitats, NOS partners with 28 state-managed National Estuarine Research Reserves, which serve as living laboratories. One NERRS program is the System-Wide Monitoring Program. As part of this program, scientists collect information such as temperature, salinity, pH, biodiversity, and population characteristics at reserves across the country. Collected information helps changing reserve conditions in both the short and long terms and provide an important baseline for evaluating similar habitats outside reserve boundaries.

  • Oil Spill Response. Thousands of incidents occur each year in which oil or chemicals are released into the coastal environment. Spills into our coastal waters, whether accidental or intentional, can harm people, the environment, and the economy. To help, the Office of Response and Restoration has developed more than 3,300 Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps. These maps cover the majority of the U.S. coastline and include information on shoreline shape and biological and socioeconomic resources.  The maps are used to rank sensitivity to oil impact, but can also be used in evaluating coastal-erosion potential and coastal-storm vulnerability and in monitoring coastal change.

  • Safe Navigation. America’s ports are our lifelines for commerce, trade, and the economy. As more goods travel along our marine highways in increasingly larger ships, the risk of accidents and environmental harm increases. To ensure safe travels, the Office of Coast Survey conducts hydrographic surveys to measure water depth and emphasize elements that affect navigation. NOS also provides environmental observations and forecasts through programs such as the Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System to help mariners safely navigate in to port.

  • Benthic Habitats. Benthic habitats support a wide variety of marine life, from corals and fish to clams, plants, and bacteria. These organisms play important roles in ecosystem system health, from being members of the ocean food web to helping filter pollutants out of the water. They also play an important economic role, providing food, protection from erosion, and tourism. To map these habitats and assess how they are changing, NOS uses satellite and airborne sensors, acoustic imaging, photography, and benthic community analysis. Aerial photographs are also used to create maps of coral reefs and other habitats important to the coastal economy.

  • Protecting Health. Our health is intricately connected to the health of the ocean. When water quality is poor, beaches dirty, or seafood tainted, communities, economies, and ecosystems all suffer. Projects such as the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science Mussel Watch program, which measures concentrations of various contaminants in sediments and mussels around the country, bring together environmental monitoring, assessment, and research to determine water quality along our nation’s coasts. NOS also produces advance warnings of harmful algal blooms (HABs) and then provides science to monitor bloom development. HABs produce potent toxins, which can cause illness or death in humans and marine organisms.

Original article: Monitoring Oceans and Coasts