Taking the Pulse of Estuaries with Cutting-edge Technology

Define “estuary.” Now pronounce it. If either challenge gives you pause, you’re in good company. Many people who live along the coast are not familiar with the term. They are, however, familiar with the benefits an estuary provides.

Aerial image of the Texas Mission-Aransas Natioan Estuarine Research Reserve.

Texas Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Places where rivers meet the sea, estuaries are home to a rich diversity of animal and plant life. Nearly three quarters of the fish we eat spend part of their lives in an estuary. Estuarine wetlands filter pollution from stormwater runoff and protect shorelines from storm surges and flooding. And, as any kayaker or fisherman will tell you, estuaries are beautiful places in which to relax.

Estuaries also are exceptionally vulnerable to the effects of land development and climate change. Damage to estuaries means damage to the services they provide, and restoring estuarine habitats is a critical concern for coastal communities in many parts of the United States.

For estuary restoration to be effective, we need to understand how these habitats function and how they react to changing land use. That takes monitoring relatively pristine estuaries over long periods of time, a labor intensive and expensive practice.

NOAA’s Role

Researchers based at Oregon's Elkhorn Slough NERR developing new tools to take the pulse of coastal wetlands.

Researchers developing new tools to take the pulse of coastal wetlands.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Along Oregon’s rural southern coast, a unique NOAA partnership is testing a more affordable way of monitoring the health of estuaries. With a grant from the Cooperative Institute for Coastal and Estuarine Environmental Technology (CICEET), a joint program of NOAA and the University of New Hampshire, a team based at Oregon’s South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve is using an instrument straight out of Silicon Valley to learn more about their estuary and a network of sites along the Oregon Coast.

With a refined Wi-Fi network, wireless sensors, and portable temperature loggers, the researchers are collecting baseline data on tidal flooding, groundwater levels, and salinity in Oregon’s least disturbed habitats. This data will enable coastal resource managers to assess changes in these wetlands over time and use that understanding to support local restoration projects. The data is part of a user-friendly Web portal that restoration practitioners will be able to access 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

A CICEET-sponsored modeling and mapping technology, piloted at California's Elkhorn Slough NERRS.

A CICEET-sponsored modeling and mapping technology, piloted at California's Elkhorn Slough NERRS.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

The Oregon project is just one of the 27 sites in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) to test CICEET-sponsored monitoring technology. Additional examples include:

Partnerships to Monitor Estuary Health

Prototype robotic technology monitors continuously, providing an early warning system for red tides.

Prototype robotic technology monitors continuously, providing an early warning system for red tides.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

NOAA created the Cooperative Institute for Coastal and Estuarine Environmental Technology in 1997 to work in partnership with the NERRS. Based at the University of New Hampshire, CICEET designs competitive funding opportunities for technology and science-based solutions that coastal natural resource managers around the country can use to address critical problems in coastal environments.

As place-based programs — each reserve is a NOAA/state partnership — NERRS sites have strong relationships with their local communities. At the same time, they are part of a national network through which scientists, educators, and managers in different locations can collaborate to advance common goals. This combination makes Reserve sites ideal places for CICEET-sponsored research teams to develop, demonstrate, and disseminate tools that can be used to monitor and restore habitats within the NERRS and throughout the country’s coastal regions.

To learn more, visit NOAA’s Estuary Restoration Act Web site. NOAA logo.