Scientists use automatic sensors on portable platforms to study how harmful algal blooms develop in Florida's coastal waters.
The early versions of autonomous platforms were modeled on pontoon boats, resulting in large and unstable structures.
Time and resources limit the information marine scientists can collect from Florida's vast coastal waters. Sampling weekly or monthly provides only snapshots of coastal conditions. Yet, researchers often need to collect information, such as water quality data, continuously to understand how environmental changes affect different organisms. The Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB) group uses continuous water quality data to identify the environmental drivers of blooms – aiming to understand bloom initiation, maintenance and termination.
In 2000, researchers at the FWC's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) built a
floating platform with automated sensors that continuously collected water quality data. Researchers modeled the solar-powered platform after a pontoon boat for portability and ease of maintenance. Since that time, FWRI has deployed similar platforms in the upper Caloosahatchee River, near the mouth of the Caloosahatchee estuary, near Long Boat Key in Sarasota Bay and off Feather Sound in Old Tampa Bay.
Recent modifications to platform design have resulted in a new generation of continuous water quality monitoring systems for FWRI. These monitoring systems – placed on docks or based on foam core buoys – measure salinity (salt content), temperature, chlorophyll and phycocyanin fluorescence (indicators of algal biomass), pH (acidity), turbidity (water clarity) and dissolved oxygen in the water. Above the water, they measure wind speed and direction, rainfall, barometric pressure, humidity and visible light. Each system transmits information in near real time through the Internet to the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System and the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association. This allows anyone to see and use the data.
Current autonomous monitoring systems use established docks (left) and oceanographic buoys (right).
Currently, the FWRI HAB group operates two platforms: one at Mote Marine Laboratory’s dock at the New Pass channel in Sarasota and another in Old Tampa Bay. Scientists placed the buoy in Old Tampa Bay to monitor water quality parameters that might influence annual blooms of the harmful algal species Pyrodinium bahamense. The buoy complements the core monitoring program of the HAB group. The current platforms are more reliable than the older systems and do not have to be serviced as often.
With continuous water quality monitoring, scientists can document short- and long-term environmental changes. This capability helps them isolate the drivers of HABs and assess how management actions affect water quality. This information is helpful to managers, who can use it develop strategies to enhance water quality.