Mapping Estuarine Environments

By Marguerite Huber

Aerial photograph of estuary at Newport, Oregon

Estuaries serve as the connections between the ocean and freshwater rivers and streams.

As the spots that link freshwater from rivers and saltwater from the ocean, estuaries thrive as productive environments that support distinctive communities of plants and animals.

Current and historic data on estuary conditions are necessary for researchers to make informed decisions on protecting and preserving these unique environments. But with approximately 2,000 estuaries along the five US coastal regions (Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, Pacific, Alaska, and Hawaii), scientists have amassed a lot of data to keep track of, and it’s spread out among many different agencies and organizations. Traditionally, it has been a challenge to pull all that information together to see the big picture. EPA’s Estuary Data Mapper application changes that by providing a fast, easy way for researchers to zoom into a specific estuary of interest and find current, available data for that system.

The Estuary Data Mapper provides:

The mapper was designed as a one-stop-shop to support the work of environmental scientists (aquatic biologists and chemists), water ecosystem managers, non-governmental organizations and citizen groups focused on water ecosystems.

Screen shot from EPA's Estuary Data Mapper

EPA’s Estuary Mapper

The Estuary Data Mapper also includes information about coastal rivers, tributaries, and watersheds. On top of that, it gives users the ability to display background reference information, such as cities and roads, to help them explore areas of interest and learn more about the context of their inquiries. Having access to this data will help researchers gauge the status of estuary environments, and even possible threats—facilitating the use of decision-support tools to help them visualize the effects of potential management actions. For example, having access to nitrogen loading sources and predictive models of seagrass habitat can help communities and watershed organizations find ways to reduce nitrogen loads.

The Estuary Data Mapper has just released an updated version with expanded data sources on atmospheric deposition, nonpoint and point nitrogen sources and loads to estuaries and their associated watersheds. EPA researchers will continue to incorporate new data resources and update the mapper to help protect these vital, productive ecosystems well into the future.

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.