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Sensors, Satellites Monitor Water Quality in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Written by on September 15, 2023

Australia’s national science agency has installed specialized sensors in the southern section of the Great Barrier Reef to help monitor and forecast sediment runoff. Experts from CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization say the discharge can harm the UNESCO World Heritage site’s marine ecosystem.

Researchers from CSIRO say their system of sensors, installed over recent months in the southern section of the Great Barrier Reef, is the first such system in the world. It checks water quality using a combination of specialized sensors and satellite data. Details were released Wednesday.

Experts hope to develop an integrated ground-to-space water quality monitoring network using sensors in the water and existing Earth observation satellites. Artificial intelligence would also be used to help analyze the data.

They say Australia’s coastal and inland waterways’ quality is being threatened by global warming, urbanization, deforestation and contamination.

The system analyzes the flow of sediment and dissolved organic carbon from the Fitzroy River into Keppel Bay in central Queensland, which is in the southern region of the Great Barrier Reef. The system is designed to provide an early warning of the presence of harmful algae and contaminants.

The reef is one of seven test sites for CSIRO’s AquaWatch Australia Mission. This is the name of the ground-to-space water monitoring project. The research team hopes to have up to 15 sites testing the system by 2026.

Alex Held, head of the project, told VOA on Thursday that sediments can stop sunlight from reaching the seafloor.

“The sediments can, of course, block light and therefore also reduce the growth and the photosynthesis of seagrass and other algae in the coastal area,” Held said. “They can have an effect also if they form a small layer on top of the coral reefs. It is an ongoing issue.”

Held said the sensors and satellites will monitor the effectiveness of programs to reduce runoff of river sediment into the sea.

“There are a number of government programs already in place to help with that,” Held said. “They will include maintaining vegetation along riverbeds and small tributaries so that the sediments and the erosion is reduced. So, the government is already doing quite a bit of that.”

The Great Barrier Reef faces a range of threats, including climate change, pollution and farm pesticide and fertilizer runoff, as well as coral-eating crown of thorns starfish.

The world’s largest coral system runs 2,300 kilometers off Australia’s northeast coastline and was included on the U.N.’s World Heritage List in 1981.

It is the only living thing visible from space.


By Phil Mercer

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