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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.

Mark PattersonFor 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.”

Justin RiesPatterson’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.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on September 19, 2013.

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