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High tech dips into improving marine water quality


Demonstrating how to help safeguard Europe’s many thousands of kilometres of coastline is a new system that brings together the vast range of data from weather and ocean monitoring stations across Europe, predicts likely outcomes so authorities can best respond to pollution crises.

"We have an operational demonstrator right now," says Dr Stein Sandven, DISMAR project coordinator and Research Director of the NERSC, Norway’s Environmental and Remote Sensing Center. "There are always technical improvements we want to make, but the system works and now we are gathering user feedback for the demonstrator evaluation. The project will be finished in six months," he says.

The overall objective of the IST-funded DISMAR project is to develop an advanced, intelligent information system to monitor and forecast the marine environment and thus improve management of pollution crises in coastal and ocean regions of Europe. The system will support public authorities and emergency services who are responsible for the prevention, mitigation and recovery in crises like oil spills and harmful algal blooms (HAB).

This is important. The risks associated with ecological pollution are often underestimated. HABs can destroy an entire coastal ecology, robbing the water of vital oxygen, sun and nutrients, killing fish and disrupting the whole food chain, local tourism and the fishing industry. In Norway, a toxic algae devastated fish stocks and commercial fishing 15 years ago.

DISMAR will help tackle these issues.

The system integrates data from Europe’s monitoring stations into a variety of modelling systems. For example, when there’s an oil spill it’s vital to anticipate how ocean currents and weather patterns will affect the clean up, what areas will be at risk and how serious the spill might be, in order to prioritise and direct the appropriate response. By integrating a wide variety of data DISMAR will be a powerful tool for this.

The variety of data is truly staggering. It includes data from satellites, and weather and ocean monitoring stations around Europe. It incorporates data from infrared and ultraviolet aerial photography, which can detect the temperature and thickness of an oil slick and can even determine the type of oil involved. DISMAR uses many types of radar like coastal, sideways looking and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) all of which provide rich data on coastal and ocean dynamics.

The system also includes data from the innovative Ferry Box system. Here, ships in Europe’s commercial ferry system collect ocean samples as they ply their routes through the North Sea and elsewhere. These ocean samples are subsequently analysed, notably for the presence of harmful or beneficial algae, and that data will be immediately available on the Web. It’s a phenomenal service.

It’s not only raw data, which is in itself vital, but DISMAR also supplies advanced mathematical simulation models so that researchers and emergency response teams can plot various scenarios in their Web browser. So users get online access to a number of Earth, or satellite, Observation (EO) modelling tools, oil drift models, coastal currents, algal blooms and ecosystem models

One of the main challenges for the team was the integration of data. The team achieved this by using open standards and adopting established protocols where possible.

DISMAR used robust and well-established protocols to develop its data integration and Web-rendering software. Implementation is based on INSPIRE, OpenGIS and W3C standards, using Open Source software where available. Protocols include XML and XSLT.

INSPIRE, the Infrastructure for Spatial Information in Europe, a separate EU initiative is a major success in itself. Spatial information in Europe is fragmented across datasets and sources with gaps in availability, lack of harmonisation between datasets at different geographical scales and duplication of information collection. INSPIRE is working to tie that infrastructure together and DISMAR took advantage of their work to harmonise the Geographic Information Systems data in its service. The practical upshot is that the project moved toward the key EU goal of harmonisation between different data and monitoring systems across Europe.

Theses tools enable Internet access to DISMAR, offering one central resource for responding rapidly to crises like man-made or ecological pollution. In addition to the data integration and Web-based rendering, the DISMAR team also developed DISPRO, a prototype decision support system that can help users to give the vast quantity of data supplied by DISMAR some practical meaning.

DISPRO is a powerful suite of data analysis tools. It is a multi-tier system with four main groups of components: user applications, geo-processing and catalogue services, catalogues and content repositories. It can be used to examine a map of the affected area, browse a catalogue of data on the area and receive pollution warnings and crises response updates from a news client.

The team initially deployed their system in six European coastal sites, broadly representing the various coastal ecologies found around Europe. These include the North Sea / Skagerrak area, the coasts of Germany, Italy, France, the UK and the South-West Ireland. These locations also emphasise the cross-border nature of man-made or ecological pollution; for example North Sea algae affects many countries.

It’s an indication of the ambition behind the DISMAR project, and the team hopes to continue the work and expand it to cover Europe. "This was an R&D project to develop a demonstrator, and we’ve achieved that, but it would take a lot more work to make it operational throughout Europe," says Sandven.

That said, the team will try, and plans to apply for more funding to put DISMAR on an operational footing. "If we can get another three-year project to pursue this research, we could really go a long way to making this service operational on a Europe-wide basis," he says.

Tara Morris | alfa
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