ST. PETERSBURG, FL - From local to global and micro to macro, the applications of remote sensing are integral to understanding biodiversity across regions and filling the data gaps that exist between them.
Dr. Frank Muller Karger and his group at the Institute for Marine Remote Sensing collaborate with a larger network of scientists and resource managers to catalog biodiversity as it has never been done before: with consistency of data from region to region and at scales that reveal the important connectivity among the gradient of marine habitats.
Sanctuaries Marine Biodiversity Observation Network (Sanctuaries MBON) is part of a global consortium of BONs that are building web portals of real-time and historical data through which scientists and environmental resource managers can assess the ecological well-being of the region they are tasked with studying, maintaining or improving.
On-going bimonthly cruises in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) are conducted by NOAA AOML scientists and members from IMaRS to gather a suite of water quality data. Pairing water samples with satellite observations, IMaRS member Megan Hepner uses GIS maps to display biodiversity of coral reef fishes along the entire reef tract of the FKNMS. Simpson and Shannon diversity indices – statistical methods used to classify ecosystem integrity and resilience – show that greater diversity is found in the Lower and Upper Keys than in the Middle Keys. Dr. Muller-Karger and assistant Dr. Enrique Montes oversee the assimilation of the sampling efforts and observations into the Sanctuaries MBON research initiative.
Tools like infographics will be a key point of interaction on the sites for both resource managers and members of the general public to learn about the biological composition of some protected ecosystems and any changes in diversity over time. GIS maps hosted on the MBON web portal provide further spatial and temporal visualizations of ecosystem health and diversity in three National Marine Sanctuaries: the Florida Keys, Monterey Bay and Flower Garden Banks.
An additional layer of sampling within the MBON initiative is environmental DNA (eDNA). The Marine Genomics Lab led by Dr. Mya Breitbart at the USF College of Marine Science is responsible for analyzing seawater samples for trace amounts of genetic material left behind by anything from microbes to whales. New methods allow for fast, affordable interpretation of the DNA present in concentrated water samples.
The size, depth, and unforgiving surface conditions of the ocean make it impossible to continuously monitor conditions from all desired locations. Satellite-based remote sensing provides solutions at exceptional spatial and temporal scales. Careful groundtruthing is required to match sea surface conditions to the data derived from sensors orbiting the earth, and once that is accomplished, the result is unparalleled coverage of terrestrial and oceanographic ecosystems.
Analysis of satellite data has allowed researchers from IMaRS to study phytoplankton blooms off the Texas coast in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, explore outbreaks of Dengue fever in the Caribbean, and improve wetland mapping methods for coastal areas. In addition, the lab is improving characterization of the impacts to coastal areas from red tides, storm-generated sediment plumes, water quality events, and land cover changes.
Concurrent satellite observations of biological and physical variables from around the world allow observation networks to map the data in near real-time. Some records span nearly three decades, and without these long term measurements, our understanding of changes throughout time would be lacking over much of the surface of the earth. The list of global measurements includes: vegetation biomass (land and ocean), winds, currents, waves, rainfall, cloud cover, land topography, and more. As Dr. Muller Karger states, “This allows us to see how biological processes on land and in the ocean react to, or in some cases modify, environmental variables that force them.”
Understanding diversity of life in the oceans is crucial to managing and preserving these resources, and the use of remotely sensed data enables the study of biodiversity on the proper scales.
Written By: Sean Beckwith