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Environmental Monitoring


January 2011 Issue

"5 Gyres" Cruise Finds Plastic Across Southern Atlantic
Researchers with the 5 Gyres Institute completed in December a voyage from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Cape Town, South Africa, during which each of the 67 surface samples they collected contained plastic pollution. The monthlong trip, the first to document plastic pollution across the Southern Atlantic, covered 4,100 miles.

"The garbage patches we discover are highly diffuse, perhaps a little more than a handful of plastic particles scattered over a football field," said Marcus Eriksen, co-founder of the institute. "But there are 315 million square kilometers of ocean surface in the world, so there are billions of these football fields."

The researchers said that despite calls for cleaning up the plastic pollution, there is no well-defined plastic patches or islands to gather, and that the fragmented plastic pollution is distributed globally. Solutions begin on land, Eriksen said, "with improved recovery systems and better product stewardship where producers factor in the true environmental cost of their products."

This year the group will investigate plastic marine pollution in the South Pacific Gyre. For more information, http://5gyres.org.

MBARI-Developed ESP Device to Track New England Algae
A three-foot-high robotic instrument that will be installed off New England's coast in this spring has the potential to change how scientists detect and study harmful ocean algae.

The environmental sample processor (ESP), developed by researchers at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), samples seawater, filters out cells and breaks them apart to release their DNA and chemicals. It rapidly analyzes the DNA and specific chemicals to identify and count cells living in the ocean and transmits the information ashore in real time.

The first commercially built ESP, which will be used in New England waters by researchers with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), will act as both an observatory and an early-warning system, alerting researchers to the beginnings of blooms of Alexandrium fundyense, a toxin-producing single-celled alga.

The current method of finding algal blooms involves chartering boats, taking water samples and identifying and counting cells under a microscope. As a result, they can detect blooms only after they are already under way. WHOI scientists plan to use the ESP to continuously monitor the water and detect blooms as they begin, days or weeks before current methods can.

The ESP was developed over several years by Chris Scholin, a former graduate student in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology/WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography and now president and chief executive officer of MBARI.

The 2011 coastal ESP placement will be the first long-term deployment on the East Coast, where it will provide the first fully remote observation of a seasonal Alexandrium cycle in New England waters.

The WHOI-operated instrument was built by McLane Research Laboratories (East Falmouth, Massachusetts), with a license from Spyglass Biosecurity Inc. (Marina, California), with MBARI's collaboration. It was purchased by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and loaned to WHOI senior scientist Dan Anderson for use in his harmful algal bloom studies.

McLane Laboratories plans to build five more ESPs in support of Anderson's plan to place them in strategic areas for Alexandrium detection along the Gulf of Maine coast. But this is just the start. Researchers have used early models to detect other toxic algal species, and ESPs can also be used to detect bacteria and larval organisms in the ocean.

"You could use it to monitor sewage outfalls or pollution in harbors and beaches, for example," Anderson said. "The developers even hope it can go into space one day." For more information, visit www.mbari.org.

High-Tech Software, UAVs Keep Tabs on Arctic Seals, Ice
A project using cameras mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flying over the Arctic is serving double duty by assessing the characteristics of declining sea ice and using the same aerial photos to pinpoint seals that have hauled up on ice floes.

The project is the first to use UAVs to monitor ice and seals in remote areas, said Elizabeth Weatherhead of the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder), who is leading the study. The four species of Arctic seals of most interest to the research team are the bearded, ringed, spotted and ribbon seals, each of which rely in some way on sea ice for breeding, resting and as a safe haven from predators.

Known as the Scan Eagle, the UAV was launched in May and June of 2009 from the NOAA Ship McArthur II over the Bering Sea west of Alaska. The drone has a 10-foot wingspan and is owned and operated by the University of Alaska. The image-recognition software was developed by Boulder Labs Inc. (Boulder, Colorado) and automates the identification of seals in the 27,000 images that were collected.

"The results show that the seals have distinct preferences for specific types of ice, demonstrating that ice extent is not the only factor affecting seal populations," Weatherhead said.

The Scan Eagle flights lasted between two and eight hours and flew at altitudes ranging from 300 to 1,000 feet. While the amount of ocean and ice scanned by the UAV was small—it flew transects over the Bering Sea that were three to five miles long—the researchers were eager to see whether the image-recognition system would work for both the ice and the seals.

"We can send an unmanned craft out from a ship, collect 4,000 images, and have them analyzed before dinner," Weatherhead said.

Typically, seals appear in less than one percent of the images, Weatherhead said. But on the ice floes or ice edges where they are found, the software can help researchers identify seals by species. In the future, researchers might be able to identify the relative age and gender for some species. The software could even look for polar bears and their tracks.

Weatherhead said the team wants to combine its results with forecasts not only of future sea ice extents, but also of future ice characteristics, allowing for predictions regarding the impacts of changing and disappearing ice types on seal populations. For more information, visit For more information, visit www.colorado.edu.


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