Ferries for Science – Innovative Marine Monitoring on Ferries
Washington State’s Puget Sound is in trouble, due mostly to the everyday activities of the 4.4 million people who live on or around the nation’s second largest marine estuary. There are many pressures on the sound. These include population growth, urbanization that increases the amount of hard surfaces covering the land, loss of habitat, pressures on water supplies, water and air pollution, and other challenges.
In addition to these stresses, funding to study and monitor conditions in Puget Sound – the very activities that help people understand and protect the sound – is scarce. Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) scientists envisioned an opportunity to make use of the ferries that were already crossing the waterways they wanted to monitor. In 2009, Ecology made that vision a reality and added sensors to Washington State Department of Transportation ferries and private vessels.
Ecology’s Marine Monitoring Unit created Ferries for Science along with U.S. EPA, the Department of Transportation, the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory, Integral Consulting Inc., and the Puget Sound Partnership. Together, the partners leveraged their resources by “hitchhiking” data collecting equipment on the ferries that cross the sound’s waters daily.
Ferries for Science is a cost-effective way to extend Ecology’s monitoring capabilities and improve the department’s ability to characterize, understand, and predict marine water quality throughout Puget Sound. This allows Ecology to protect Washington’s marine waters by quickly and accurately informing the public and stakeholders about current water quality conditions.
Washington’s ferries frequently pass through strategic cross sections in Puget Sound. They happen to set regular courses through the very constriction points that will allow Ecology to easily measure water exchange and circulation between those basins. By installing Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers, sensors that measure velocities and provide surface-to-bottom measurements of water mass movement, scientists can better manage the water quality in Puget Sound. This helps them identify and understand nutrient enrichment, low dissolved oxygen conditions, transport of toxic chemicals, harmful algae blooms, and ocean acidification.
Results to Date:
Ecology currently has monitoring equipment installed on the Coupeville-Port Townsend state ferries. This route travels across the mouth of Puget Sound, crossing the gateway separating the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the greater Puget Sound many times each day. This course is the constriction point where circulation and water exchange between the Pacific Ocean and Puget Sound occurs.
Ferries for Science also partners with the Victoria Clipper, a private passenger ferry that travels daily between Seattle, Washington, and Victoria, British Columbia. This ferry data is used to calibrate ocean color satellite images that provide estimates of chlorophyll, Colored Dissolved Organic Matter, suspended sediment concentrations, and indications of algae abundance.
Eyes over Puget Sound – Visually Connecting People to Marine Monitoring Data
Washington State’s Puget Sound region is home to 67 percent of the state’s 7 million residents. The number of people living in the 12 counties bordering Puget Sound has more than doubled since 1960, growing from 1.8 million to more than 4.4 million residents in 2008. The everyday activities of these residents put major pressures on the sound.
Although Puget Sound is a large part of the region’s identity, average citizens are removed from the impacts they have on water quality. The Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) felt that the data it gathers on the conditions in Puget Sound could give residents a closer connection to its health, but the average person often had trouble relating to, understanding, or even finding Ecology’s information.
Ecology’s Marine Monitoring Unit conducts a variety of marine observations, including monthly sampling at 40 core monitoring stations spread along the 100-mile length of Puget Sound and on the state’s Pacific Coast. Ecology scientists use a floatplane to cover their widely distributed station network, making monthly flights to the north, central, and south parts of Puget Sound, and another to visit monitoring stations in Grays Harbor and Willapa bays on the Pacific Ocean.
In 2011, the Marine Monitoring Unit began a new approach to increase the public’s interest in its longitudinal data collection efforts, as these readings can be important indicators of change in the environment. Marine monitoring staff members began taking photos of Puget Sound water conditions during routine sampling flights. Within 48 hours after each flight, Ecology scientists combine these high-resolution airborne photos with satellite images, data taken from sensors on Washington’s ferries, and measurements taken from monitoring stations. The result is the Eyes of Puget Sound report, a rich narrative of photos, descriptions, and data that together tell a story that the public can understand.
Each month, about 30,000 people download the Eyes over Puget Sound report. Scientists across the state use it to track data in the sound, educators use it to explain the environment to their students, and the public is fascinated by the dynamic aerial photos featuring algae blooms, jellyfish, sediment deposits, ships, and glacial flour (fine silt from glacial outwash).
Along with engaging the public, the airborne photos support Ecology’s science work. On the flight, scientists use a piece of equipment called the Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth (CTD) monitor that is specially designed with oceanographic sensors to measure dissolved oxygen, water clarity, phytoplankton, and several other readings. The photos taken on the flight allow Ecology scientists to compare the water color they see from the air with the data they collect from the CTD equipment. For example, if they see green, red, or brown water, they can compare it to the CTD data and see if there has been a recent algae bloom or storm event that has flushed river sediment or stormwater into Puget Sound.
Results to Date:
30,000 monthly downloads for longitudinal marine monitoring data report
Communications Manager, Environmental Assessment Program
Washington Department of Ecology