Protecting the Chesapeake Bay by Centralizing Data

Nov. 10, 2021
Scientists at Chesapeake Biological Laboratory use an online platform to manage, host and workup data.

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science has been collecting data since 1938 at its founding laboratory, the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory (CBL), located where the Patuxent River meets the Chesapeake Bay. CBL is the oldest publicly supported marine laboratory on the east coast and is a leader in research on fisheries, estuarine ecology, environmental chemistry, and toxicology.

Through the years, CBL has accumulated an enormous amount of historical data at its research pier, including some of the longest records of salinity and water temperature on the United States coastline, dating back to 1938. This measurement program, initiated by CBL’s founding director Reginald Truitt, has proved invaluable in establishing baselines for changes in the estuary. Some 25,000 observations were collected with thermometers, hydrometers and wet chemistry between 1938 and 2010.

In 2011, CBL evolved to a modern system involving multiparameter sondes. In 2016, the lab received a grant from the National Science Foundation to deploy new sensors to monitor the conditions of the Patuxent River. This new set of sensors significantly expanded the frequency and breadth of data collected, moving beyond basic water temperature and salinity to also include solar radiation, current velocity, chlorophyll-a (an index of algal biomass), dissolved oxygen, and other physical, chemical and biological environmental measurements.

But this expansion of the data collection program did not come without challenges. Turning massive amounts of raw data into usable information requires modern software to centralize and validate the quality of the data using algorithms, and then provide access to all stakeholders in an easy-to-understand format.

“The sensors gave us a lot of immediate, raw information but we also wanted to use the data to estimate ecosystem conditions and report the data openly in real-time, Jeremy Testa, Associate Professor at CBL said. "To achieve this, you need continual capturing and near real-time processing of data.”

CBL chose the Aquarius platform to acquire, process, model, and publish data in real-time. The new software automatically imports and integrates sensor data, giving CBL a continuous stream of environmental intelligence without manual input or output. Some of this information is of interest to the public as they plan their recreational activities in the area, and it also provides an opportunity for scientists to discover relationships between the different data sets.

“Having the data in Aquarius has made it easy to organize information and calculate parameters, such as the likelihood of sea nettles,” said Testa.

Sea nettles are a stinging jellyfish that can be very painful to humans and, in some cases, their venom can cause an allergic reaction. CBL was able to leverage the analytical capabilities of Aquarius to predict the likelihood of sea nettles based on a known relationship between salinity and temperature and their presence. The public can now visit the CBL web portal and see the likelihood of sea nettles before swimming or boating on the Bay.

The portal is customizable with visual dashboards displaying live data, graphs showing the conditions of the past week, links to live webcams, and local weather conditions. The portal could also evolve with interactive mapping, allowing visitors to zoom in to locations for a more granular look at data and color-coding features to make it easy to visualize contextual information, speeding up analysis.

CBL also accesses a real-time data feed from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for tide and weather and the US Geological Survey’s Stream Gauging.

“Integrating data from other platforms was a motivator to move all our data to the cloud using Aquarius,” said Testa. “From an IT standpoint, having a cloud solution has taken a lot of the IT burden, like updates, security and access off of our plate, allowing us to focus on science and research.”

Community outreach is an important component of any research discipline, and it’s a central focus for the team at CBL. Giving access to real-time environmental conditions and showing their related consequences helps the public to see the relevance of changes in water conditions.

Historically, the Chesapeake Bay had a rich ecosystem with seagrass meadows, oyster beds and plentiful species of birds and aquatic life, but this declined in the ‘70s. Measuring water conditions over long periods of time helped to identify patterns and short-term consequences of events.

“Deepening the public’s understanding of how intricately connected our ecosystems are brings a sense of responsibility to protecting it,” said Testa.

The Right Tools for Scientific Analysis

CBL conducts many research projects on coastal marine ecology, including eutrophication, nutrient cycling and dissolved oxygen dynamics.

“We are especially interested in the interactions between biological, chemical, and physical processes in coastal ecosystems,” said Testa.

CBL scientists use a combination of experimental efforts, historical data analysis and coupled biogeochemical-hydrodynamic modeling studies to examine these aspects of estuarine and coastal aquatic science. These efforts are greatly enriched when source data is managed and readily available through an online portal.

In the late part of 2018 and early 2019, a historic rain event took place that dropped the bay’s salinity down to 6 ppt for an extended period of time (the norm is 11-16 ppt). The response to this event was surprising both in how fast it changed and how long the bay took to recover to normal levels.

“The platform gives us the tools we need to work on predictive modeling, which is increasingly important as climate change has brought changes in precipitation and associated freshwater inflow. If we can be better prepared, hopefully, we can influence better outcomes,” said Testa.

The software has a unique portfolio of capabilities for error detection, data cleansing and flagging, automatic bias corrections, and rating shift management. These automated procedures eliminate the majority of tedious manual data workup processes. By automating quality assurance and quality control activities, CBL can have greater confidence in sharing this information with other researchers.

“We can add new measurements for water velocity, turbidity, carbon dioxide, photosynthetic light and chlorophyll levels from the different labs. Having quality-assured data at our fingertips opens the door for us to augment other research,” said Testa.

Testa’s vision is to integrate data from other sites in the region to create a truly collaborative, real-time water measurement program. This will further CBL’s capabilities for baseline measurement and forecasting.

“It’s an exciting time because the platform has not only helped us to leverage our valuable history — we have what seems to be a bottomless toolkit of new capabilities allowing us to go deeper with our research and expand collaboration with all our stakeholders, knowing that our data footprint is safe and accurate” concluded Testa. SW

About the Author: Chris Heyer is the senior director of sales for Aquatic Informatics.

Published in Stormwater magazine, November 2021.

About the Author

Chris Heyer

Chris Heyer is the senior director of sales for Aquatic Informatics.