Science Wednesday: Sensor Field Day-Humans Still Needed

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On June 15, I joined about a dozen colleagues from state and federal environmental agencies, academic institutions, and private industry aboard the Research Vessel Rachel Carson .  We were joined by an AAAS Fellow working at EPA, along with her daughter, a middle school student, to learn about environmental sensor technologies used to monitor the Potomac River.

The field trip included a “show and tell” of high-tech equipment, such as automated, solar-powered, web-enabled, sensors moored to research buoys that collect a host of data on water quality and environmental conditions. There was even a demonstration of a radio-controlled mini-submarine fitted with water quality and bathymetry monitors and side-scan sonar.

As impressive as all the high-tech equipment was, I was reminded of some of the lessons I learned from one of my first jobs, working in the environmental health unit of the City Health Department in Madison, Wisconsin: the importance of cooperation and remembering to use our “human” sensors.

While on board the Rachel Carson, I was struck by the exemplary cooperation among VA and MD environmental agencies. They have collaborated across political boundaries to standardize water monitoring methods and capabilities on a huge aquatic ecosystem, feeding real-time monitoring data—collected, processed, quality-assured, and visually displayed—to a vast range of eager eyes. This cooperation is helping them tackle complex watershed problems in times of lean budgets and staff shortages.

Human Sensors
Everyone on board used their own human ‘sensors’ to appreciate the river and the importance of healthy aquatic ecosystems. The gathering also provided an opportunity to share data by one of the easiest ways I know: swapping stories.

When the team demonstrating how to use the mini-sub realized they needed to adjust the buoyancy to match the Potomac’s lower salinity, scientist Dr. Walter Boynton shared the story of a colleague who could test salinity by tasting a drop of water. His tongue was sometimes more accurate than the sensors.

Another story involved the sunken WW II submarine Black Panther. It was “misplaced” for decades until a team of divers searching for it suspected the coordinates for its location had been transposed. They switched the numbers and sure enough, they “rediscovered” the Black Panther submarine in 1989!

image of author looking out at water over the side of the shipA great day on the Potomac reinforced lessons I think we need to remember as we work to solve the enormously complex problem of managing water quality throughout the huge Chesapeake Bay watershed: all the new technologies and databases still need humans to make the connections and keep it all calibrated.

About the Author: Ed Washburn has covered “multimedia” topics in the Office of Research and Development since joining EPA in 1998.

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