NOAA 03-110
Contact: Barbara McGehan
NOAA News Releases 2003
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Project is First Successful Demonstration of High Tech Search Capabilities

A team of scientists from the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), along with industry and university partners have successfully completed the first aerial search for marine debris guided by satellites and sophisticated computer modeling.

The team from NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (NOAA Research), National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries), National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NOAA Satellites and Information), Airborne Technologies, Inc. (ATI), NASA, and university and industry representatives, was assembled to survey an area along the Pacific Coast from Oregon to Alaska this summer.

The ability to locate and remove oceanborne debris is becoming more important in areas of the U.S. coasts that are cluttered with debris from fishing and shipping operations. Lost or abandoned fishing gear that drifts in the ocean (known as ghostnets) pose a significant hazard not only to coral reefs, but to whales, fish, seals, turtles and sea birds. The synthetic materials used in these nets decay at a very slow rate and can drift intact for years.

Identifying the likely location for this debris was the primary goal of the research. “Ocean circulation models were run to identify regions and periods of convergence, where debris would be likely to concentrate. These areas were examined using space-based instruments to locate actual convergence zones more precisely,” said James Churnside, lead scientist from NOAA’s Environmental Technology Laboratory (NOAA/ETL) in Boulder, Colo.

A small twin engine aircraft was equipped with an instrument package developed by ATI and NOAA/ETL for ocean survey work. The suite of sensors, including visible and thermal imagers, a fish/lidar/gated imager developed at NOAA/ETL, sea surface temperature radiometer and ocean color radiometer, were linked by a software package to detect objects floating at the surface and sub-surface of the water.

The model, developed by NOAA Fisheries, identified several locations along the coast of Alaska and along the Alaskan continental shelf where eddies and convergences are common. The satellite data located a number of specific areas, both near the shore and farther off shore, where debris was expected to collect.

“The Alaskan survey was used because the problem of ocean debris is very real for remote Alaskan native communities,” said Tim Veenstra, president of Airborne Technologies, Inc. “For instance, the beach at St. Paul in the Pribilof Islands is regularly affected by this debris. Not only is it an eyesore but it has an impact on returning salmon runs.”

“NOAA Fisheries is very pleased to be involved in this program,” said Bill Hogarth, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “By utilizing the combined resources of NOAA and our partners we gain an edge in the daunting task of cleaning our oceans and coast lines.”

According to Hogarth, “This experiment clearly demonstrated that we can use models and satellites to direct aircraft to anticipated areas of debris - allowing a much more focused search and effective removal of the debris.”

In the future the researchers hope to survey the North Pacific Sub Tropical Convergence Zone, an area north of the Hawaiian Islands. “Most of the coral reefs in the U.S. lie in the waters around Hawaii. If we can spot debris, especially the ghostnets that drift in the ocean, we can remove them before they damage the reefs,” said Churnside.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of our nation’s coastal and marine resources.

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