Measuring, communicating and mitigating negative coastal impacts

The University of Florida and Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, in concert with North Carolina State University, Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University and UF’s Innovation Station-Sarasota, recently convened a five-session virtual summit on “Innovating Coastal Resilience.” Thought leaders and industry experts gathered online to help envision new technologies and applications, and converse about a workforce development strategy for enhancing coastal resilience. During the summit, participants explored three specific areas pertaining to measuring, communicating and mitigating negative coastal impacts.

The challenges

Thomas K. Frazer, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer of the State of Florida, addressed the group of 75 participants on the “Grand Challenges of Coastal Waters” during the first session. His office tackles challenges as diverse as red tides, blue-green algal blooms, coral reef degradation, storage and treatment of water from springs and proper flow of the Florida aquifer from north to south Florida, among other issues. In his presentation, Frazer emphasized the complexity of Florida’s water-related challenges and the need to develop innovative technologies to meet these challenges and mitigate harm to the environment and the economy. Frazer also highlighted the importance of developing new technologies for detecting and tracking water quality hazards that impact coastal regions. Products emerging from these technological breakthroughs are critical in enabling communities to better adapt to coastal environmental threats in real-time.

Christine Angelini, Ph.D., associate professor in UF’s Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure & Environment (ESSIE), and co-organizer of the summit marked the discussions as the beginning of comprehensive public-private collaborations to accelerate progress in tech innovation and ensure that new technologies are rapidly deployed for measurement and mitigation. “Our ecosystem and coastal communities deserve a well-thought-out plan that ensures the long-term health of their homes,” she said. “Graduates of our research institutions will be well-trained leaders of these efforts.”

Measurement and analysis

Today’s state-of-the art sensors and other data-gathering tools consist of mooring buoys, coastal monitoring stations and high-frequency radar, while newer technologies include sub-surface gliders and acoustic receivers. Experimental technology is focused on lowering costs and involve web cameras, drones, wave gliders and multi-parameter sensors attached to buoys. Tomorrow’s developments include smart watersheds connected by the Internet of Things (IoT) and deep UV sensors employing fluorescence and absorbance methods. There are even satellites equipped with remote sensors that can provide data.

At UF, the Multi-functional Integrated System Technology (MIST) Center, co-directed by David Arnold, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, unites faculty and students together with industry partners to bring research on advanced sensing products to market. These smart products become a part of the IoT that are used to connect people with their environment.

“MIST is an Industry/University Cooperative Research Center (I/UCRC) funded by the National Science Foundation,” said Arnold. “Faculty and students focus on innovating hardware technologies in this IoT era, including sensors for monitoring the environment. MIST’s industry partners take our research and translate it into commercially viable products.” On example of this collaboration is a phosphate/pH sensor to monitor algal blooms in Florida’s waterways.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and data science, which analyzes critical information harvested from coastal sensing data, is another important piece in the protective and preemptive measures for sustainable coastal environment management. Alex Beavers, Ph.D., Chief Innovation Officer at Mote, described AI as being able to automate the analysis of data with great speed, discover new and more causal relationships, and create more information more effectively. Scientists and decision makers alike rely on using AI-generated data and analysis to identify with greater precision key factors that impact past coastal water quality crises as well as forecast future hazards and their economic and public health impacts. One of the largest needs in the field of data management is a trained and qualified work force.

Communication and mitigation

Presenters and participants shared ideas about innovative information platforms that would enable coastal residents and businesses to receive effective communications on an ongoing basis to better respond to coastal water quality crises and other hazards, thereby reducing their negative impacts on public health and local economies.

Lori Pennington-Gray, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Tourism, Hospitality & Event Management at the UF College of Health and Human Performance, summarized the session by describing the need for credible, up-to-date and understandable data that can be used to influence behavior. She and Tracy Fanara, Ph.D., Manager of the Environmental Health Program at Mote emphasized the importance of engaging the public in community and citizen science and providing a platform for reporting their observations and providing feedback in a timely manner. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) web sites were cited as current-day platforms that provide information directly to the public and to stakeholders who make decisions about mitigation of hazards to coastal water quality.

The monitoring data and subsequent forecasts can be communicated to help scientists discover causes and effects of environmental hazards and allow them to engineer solutions. Mitigation stakeholders include public health and natural resource managers. Fishery management and aquaculture processes can benefit immediately. The tourism industry, a major economic contributor in Florida, will be able to communicate more clearly and transparently to coastal visitors. A workforce with interdisciplinary training will be needed to produce reliable data and clear communications.

The path forward

Through the virtual summit, UF and its collaborative partners have successfully laid the foundation for working relationships with industrial partners in the field of coastal water sensing, governmental agencies and other non-government organizations as a result of this virtual summit. Paul Gader, Ph.D., professor in ESSIE and in the Computer & Information Science & Engineering Department, and an Associate Director of the UF Engineering Center for Coastal Solutions (ECCS) said, “We will collaboratively engage in research and education to produce coastal forecasts and mitigation strategies at the ECCS to improve quality of life and economic health in Florida and other coastal states.”

Angelini concluded, “Accelerating progress in technology development through building more coordinated, high-functioning partnerships and developing a well-trained workforce is vital for responding to Florida’s coastal water quality crises. We need everyone at the table to collectively solve these types of challenges.”