Deep water data
by Angela Herring
Urban coastal sustainability becomes an ever more pressing concern as more than half of the world’s population flocks to its shores—the places where cities thrive. But coastal cities don’t just provide jobs and homes for humans; they are also home to myriad intertidal marine species, like oysters, corals, mussels, and sea stars to name a few.
“If you look at the major global environmental threats that are operating,” said Northeastern’s Marine Science Center director Geoff Trussell, “whether it’s sea level rise, or invasive species, or over fishing—all of these issues are fundamentally important to the sustainability of coastal communities and ecosystems.”
To better understand how global change is affecting marine environments, the College of Science announced last year an initiative on Urban Coastal Sustainability that is currently underway and includes the implementation of a new doctoral program in marine science and the design and build-out of new laboratory facilities to expand research opportunities for current and new faculty, as well as students.
The Marine Science Center, where the UCS initiative is housed, welcomes two new faculty this fall whose research is focused on collecting the data stored securely within the ocean’s depths.
For Mark Patterson, a new professor of marine and environmental science who holds a joint appointment in the College of Engineering, this involves developing autonomous, underwater robots. For instance, his Fetch robot’s design strategy mimics that of real ocean species; the robot swims through the ocean and collects water samples while simultaneously analyzes them for various chemical pollutants.
Equipped with GPS, cameras, and various sensor types, Fetch can also collect information about water movement or the ocean floor, all at much lower cost than traditional manned-diving expeditions.
“All of this technology is autonomous,” Patterson said. “The robot is thinking for itself, executing a mission, dealing with unforeseen circumstances, trying to preserve itself, and reacting to things it sees on the coastal zone.”
Patterson’s interest in robotics developed out of his research on the way global change affects coral reefs. New associate professor Justin Ries is a leading researcher in this very field, but instead of launching unmanned-underwater vehicles through the waves in search of clues on the impact of climate change, he is investigating the corals themselves.
“Corals are archives of oceanic change,” explained Ries, noting the calcium carbonate that composes these organisms actually traps chemicals inside its crystal structure. These chemicals can be analyzed to determine the temperature, acidity, and chemical record of the ocean at various time points throughout history.
This information doesn’t just help determine how climate change affected the oceans of yore; it can also be used to predict what might be in store for us in the future.
Patterson and Ries hope to join their efforts with the Marine Science Center’s growing team of faculty and student researchers. In particular, Patterson and Northeastern professor Brian Helmuth will participate in Mission-31, a month-long underwater exploration this fall lead by Fabien Cousteau— grandson of the famous Jacques Cousteau.