The new venture is possible thanks to the generosity of Virginia Tech alumni Bill and Carol Seale, who committed a $2 million donation to the project. Their generous support enabled Weiss and his team to develop a comprehensive plan to begin ocean monitoring. “The work of the Coastal Zone Observatory is a critical step in helping us become better stewards of the world’s oceans, which are arguably our most critical resource on Earth,” said Bill Seale.

Follow the Data Trail

According to Weiss, our knowledge of the marine environment – ​​apart from the presence of microplastics – is full of holes. This is partly because the ocean itself is a fickle source of data.

“We know the resolution of the surface of Mars better than that of the surface of our seabed,” Weiss said. “But that’s the topography just on the seabed. Now imagine how little we know about the conditions when the ocean water is in constant motion. How can we describe a condition in a certain area If it constantly changes? If by the time you measure it, it’s gone?”

Coastal Zone Observatory researchers will collect ocean data such as temperature and turbidity – the ability of sunlight to travel deep – in a way that accommodates the transience of the ocean. They will use swarms of underwater robots equipped with sensors developed by a team of engineers led by Dan Stilwell, a electrical engineering teacher in the College of Engineering and director of Virginia Tech Marine Autonomy and Robotics Center.

“It is energizing to see the Seale Coastal Zone Observatory quickly taking shape,” said Kevin Pitts, dean of the College of Science. “The pollution of our oceans is getting worse by the day, and I’m thrilled to see researchers from the faculties of science, engineering and veterinary medicine working together to learn more about these issues and find ways to help alleviate a global problem.”

The approach “rethinks how we take ocean data,” Weiss said. He believes this can help the team establish a dataset that reflects the marine environment as it is shaped by climate change over time. Autonomous vehicles offer researchers a much more dynamic method of measuring environmental conditions, with the ability to move through ocean depths and with currents to track data. Eventually, the team can then operate these vehicles to collect concentrations of microplastics and learn how they are affected by the moving ocean conditions around them.

“Let’s say that in the future we will have a sensor that would allow us to determine on the spotvery quickly, the concentration of microplastics,” said Weiss, director of the Academy of Integrated Sciences, is also part of the College of Science. “We can follow the value of the concentrations in the ocean, and through the movement of the vehicle, we can determine how these concentrations are changing over time. So that gives us a much more complete and comprehensive data set to understand how microplastics move through the ocean. What conditions, such as temperature, do they depend on? »

As researchers collect data on the marine environment, others at the Coastal Zone Observatory will study the impact of microplastics on marine life, as this impact extends from individuals to species and up the food chain. . In the Chesapeake Bay region, biologists of the College of Sciences and Veterinarians of Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine will study the effects of microplastic ingestion on fish used for seafood. Others will collaborate with biologists from Radford University and Fairfield University of Connecticut to study the consumption of microplastics by tilapia and Magellanic penguins and find out what types of microplastics affect coastal organisms the most.

The Center for Coastal Studies is part of the Fralin Institute of Life Sciences. Weiss launched the center in 2020 to coordinate research, education and outreach aimed at ensuring a more sustainable coexistence of humanity and nature within coastal communities.