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Around the Water Cooler: HICO and H20

2013 January 17

By Dustin Renwick

Even without a call from President Kennedy, outer space has enthralled America again. With the Mars rover, the inauguration of the commercial space industry, and a human diving from space unencumbered by vehicles, space is back in the public discussion.

EPA’s link to space exploration comes from the other final frontier: our oceans.

Blake Schaeffer, an EPA research ecologist, led a group that explored the use of space-based technology to monitor coastal waters as part of the EPA’s Pathfinder Innovation Projects.

The team used the Naval Research Laboratory’s Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean (HICO), mounted on the International Space Station.

Satellite sensors are typically designed for darker depths in the open ocean; light reflected from land prevents accurate measurements in waters close to shore. HICO was calibrated for coastal waters, but the EPA has never used remote satellite monitoring to measure water quality.

“We wanted to show something like this was possible,” Schaeffer said.

Images from HICO reveal a spectrum that EPA scientists analyze to determine water quality factors such as concentrations of chlorophyll and organic matter.

The difference of effort between current boat-based surveys and remote sensing via outer space is akin to creating fabric. A factory of people armed with knitting needles could weave cloth, but operating a loom could produce better results in less time and with fewer people.

Today’s monitoring strategies involve field observations that pinpoint tiny areas out of the thousands of beaches, inlets, and estuaries carving the U.S. coastline. Similar to the efficiency of a loom, HICO operations allow scientists to monitor larger swaths of water and conduct research previously limited by time, personnel or geographic constraints.

“We’re seeing right up into where freshwater streams and rivers meet the headwaters of estuaries, and that’s great,” said team member Darryl Keith, an EPA research oceanographer.

Keith said scientists have models to estimate water quality in freshwater and saltwater environments, but “few models cross the interface between these environments.”  HICO helps integrate the two.

Team researchers are also developing a smartphone application that will make their data accessible to the general public.

The project was based in Florida, but an ideal future could bring national water quality forecasts similar to today’s weather reports. If an algal bloom closes your favorite swim spot, you’ll have the information before you leave for the beach.

About the author:  Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. TK Remote Sensor permalink
    January 18, 2013

    “But the EPA has never used remote satellite monitoring to measure water quality.” Why not? Several of scientists have been doing it for years! Numerous water bodies are considered impaired and have TMDLs created for them, but there is an obvious lack of monitoring and adequate measurements being implemented. Instead of taking one sample from an impaired water body every month or so (and pay for the lab costs) why not receive more consistent sampling, with a much denser net of measurements being taken, all by satellite?

  2. Dustin permalink
    January 23, 2013

    Hi, and thanks for your comment. I spoke with Blake Schaeffer, and this is what he told me:

    “The highly reflective surface of land compared to that of water causes error flagging of remotely sensed water quality data at the coastline. Light contamination from land, bottom reflectance and the optical complexity of waters in estuaries and inland waters typically confound the derivation of remote sensing products. Methods developed with ocean color satellites such as MODIS, MERIS and SeaWiFS have demonstrated some success for deriving water quality products in estuaries and inland waters, but most of the focus has been on open ocean waters.”

  3. Blue Water Satellite permalink
    December 20, 2013

    Water quality monitoring technology is already being utilized commercially to monitor and quantify the threats to freshwater in the form of blue-green algae, total phosphorus in water and chlorophyll-a among other chemical and biological compounds including heavy metals. The possibilities are nearly endless, the technology is as accurate as lab analysis of water, but much more statistically significant and the EPA has no excuse not to use the same technology for monitoring our nation’s sources of freshwater. Take a look at and prepare to be amazed!

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  1. Top Space Station Research Results Countdown: Eight, Hyperspectral Imaging for Water Quality in Coastal Bays | A Lab Aloft (International Space Station Research)

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