Featured News

Expanding Dead Zone Monitoring

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Posted: September 23, 2020
Category: Featured News

A public-private partnership is working to speed up the transition of a new unmanned monitoring and reporting system to track hypoxia in the northern Gulf of Mexico, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System’s (IOOS) Ocean Technology Transition Project.

The University of Southern Mississippi (USM), L3Harris | ASV, Integral Consulting Inc. (Integral) and the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System (GCOOS) are working together to develop technology that will allow an autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) to gather water quality data from throughout the water column and report the information back to a central data hub in near-real time.

Developing this unmanned system will allow resource managers to expand water quality monitoring in the Gulf of Mexico over time and space while reducing the cost to gather the information, with the ultimate goal of reducing the size of the Gulf’s annual dead zone near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Forty-one percent of the continental U.S. drains into the Gulf of Mexico through the Mississippi River. The nutrients from human activities that flow with it creates an annual hypoxic or “dead zone” — an area with low or no oxygen that has major impacts on fisheries — in the northern Gulf. In some years, this dead zone has been as large as Rhode Island. Dead zones can have a destructive affect on Gulf fisheries, which provide 20 percent of the nation’s seafood production and $1 billion in commercial landings.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is required to map the northern Gulf’s dead zone each year to set nutrient reduction goals and measure the progress being made by the national Hypoxia Task Force to reduce the dead zone’s size to less than 1,930 square miles by 2035. (The average size of the dead zone between 2015 and 2020 was 5,407 square miles. The 2020 dead zone was 2,117 square miles — the third smallest since mapping began in 1985, thanks to Hurricane Hanna, whose winds helped with water column mixing.)

Forty-one percent of the continental U.S. drains into the Gulf of Mexico through the Mississippi River. The nutrients from human activities that flow with it creates an annual hypoxic or “dead zone” — an area with low or no oxygen that has major impacts on fisheries — in the northern Gulf. In some years, this dead zone has been as large as Rhode Island. Dead zones can have a destructive affect on Gulf fisheries, which provide 20 percent of the nation’s seafood production and $1 billion in commercial landings.
Currently, NOAA develops an annual hypoxia forecast. But the models need more data than can be provided by the manned hypoxia mapping cruises alone.

Developing an adaptive winch, launch and recovery system for L3Harris | ASV’s C-Worker 5 vessel along with a way for the ASV to communicate sampling data in near-real time through the GCOOS data portal is expected to increase the frequency of on-the-water monitoring, increase the size of the area covered and complement the existing manned surveys already collecting data. C-Worker 5 is a paired instrument sampling system that can take measurements from throughout the water column to within about three feet from the seabed.

“Transitioning this unmanned technology will help improve hypoxia forecasts by increasing the data points used to develop them,” said the project’s Principal Investigator, Dr. Stephan Howden, professor in the School of Ocean Science and Engineering at USM, where he directs the Central Gulf of Mexico Ocean Observing System within the GCOOS framework. “Additional data leads to improved models that will better enable NOAA to set nutrient reduction goals.”

Ultimately, the project will lead to a healthier Gulf, said Dr. Barbara Kirkpatrick, Executive Director of GCOOS, which will create the data hub for the information that C Worker 5 gathers. “A healthy Gulf of Mexico is critical for healthy fisheries and the jobs that depend on them. This new data portal will give us a more precise picture of hypoxia in the northern Gulf and provide information to resource managers, who are working to reduce excess nutrients flowing into the Gulf.”

About the Team


The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) is a comprehensive public research institution delivering transformative programs on campuses in Hattiesburg and Long Beach, at teaching and research sites in central and southern Mississippi, as well as online. Founded in 1910, USM is one of only 131 universities in the nation to earn the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education’s "R1: Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity” designation, and its robust research enterprise includes experts in ocean science and engineering, polymer science and engineering, and large event venue safety and security, among others. USM is also one of only 37 institutions in the nation accredited in theatre, art and design, dance and music. As an economic driver, USM generates an annual economic impact of more than $600 million across the state. USM welcomes a diverse student body of more than 14,000, representing 71 countries, all 50 states, and every county in Mississippi. USM students have collected four Truman Scholarships and 36 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, while also leading Mississippi with 24 Goldwater Scholarships, an honor that recognizes the next generation of great research scientists. Home to the Golden Eagles, USM competes in 17 Division I sports sponsored by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). For more information, visit usm.edu.

Integral’s mission is to apply science and engineering expertise across a wide range of public and private enterprises to identify technically sound and cost-effective solutions to complex problems. Our experienced and dedicated team of professionals and support staff are recognized experts in ocean sciences and engineering. Our scientists pursue state-of-the-science approaches to better characterize and understand dynamics and stressors in coastal and open oceans and waterways, and thus to support informed decisions and management practices. Integral’s company culture promotes technical achievement and quality, and we strive to find scientifically sound solutions for our clients.

L3Harris | ASV the leading Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV) and autonomous vessel control systems supplier to the defense, oil and gas, scientific, and survey industries having supplied over 125 systems and optionally manned vessel conversions worldwide. Our team of highly skilled software, electrical, and robotics engineers with extensive real-world experience using ASV’s at sea has developed and optimized the ASView™ control system which features a collision and grounding avoidance system to detect and avoid hazards above and below the waterline during all operational conditions with resultant maneuvers and indicators that are compliant with international maritime regulations (e.g. 72 COLREGS, rules 11-19). Our solutions are capable of executing a variety of mission maneuvers based situational awareness information, and support a range of autonomous, adaptive behaviors through sensor feedback.

The Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System is a 501(c)3 organization responsible for developing a network of business leaders, marine scientists, resource managers, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholder groups that combine their data to provide timely information about our oceans — similar to the information gathered by the National Weather Service to develop weather forecasts. GOOCS covers the coastal and ocean waters of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, collecting thousands of data points from sensors and ensuring the data are reliable, timely, accurate and available to all who need it. GCOOS is the only NOAA-certified observing organization focused solely on the Gulf of Mexico and is a regional association of the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS).

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