New N.C. ferry-linked water monitoring begins generating useful data for analysis

December 10, 2000

CHAPEL HILL -- For the first time, marine scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University have begun monitoring surface water quality in the Neuse River with the help of the Neuse River ferry and its N.C. Department of Transportation staff. They expect the effort, called FerryMon, eventually to become a model for ferry-based water quality monitoring throughout the nation.

Drs. Hans Paerl and Joseph S. Ramus, professors at the UNC-CH and Duke marine laboratories in Morehead City and Beaufort, respectively, and project co-directors, will expand their monitoring to the Swan Quarter-Ocracoke and Cedar Island-Ocracoke ferries next spring.

"So far the system has been working flawlessly, and we can't say enough about how helpful the people with the N.C. Department of Transportation's ferry division and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources have been," Paerl said.

Pamlico Sound, the nation's second largest sound, "holds the distinction of being the largest estuary in the United States about which there is the least known," Ramus said. "Our program will form the basis for evaluating and modeling how the ecosystem responds to human and natural impacts to the sound."

The equipment sits in a box attached to a water intake line in the vessel's protected sea chest below deck and amidships, Paerl said. Some of the water, needed for the ferry's air conditioning system, is first diverted to devices that record temperature, salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll and geographic position once a minute. A telemetry system involving a cell phone enables researchers at their laboratories to collect data for analysis anytime they wish.

Another automated, refrigerated device collects water samples to be tested for nutrients, algal pigments, dissolved organic matter and suspended solids.

"The frequency of data collection will ensure that we have all-important information on where and when samples were gathered and tested," Ramus said. "We'll also be able to study daily, seasonal and yearly variations, cycles and trends and also compare those with effects of weather on algal productivity. All data will be archived in digital form for further analysis."

Goals include learning how excessive naturally produced nutrients and those resulting from agriculture, industry, municipalities and domestic sources affect the environment and providing information needed for long-term water quality management.

"The Neuse River ferry already has started to show its value in enabling us to get a very comprehensive, integrated view of the river," Paerl said. "That's important because events that occur there, like fish kills and low oxygen, may happen at sites across the estuary that may not be covered by routine monitoring at restricted locations. Trying to establish cause and effect relationships between changes in water quality and those events has been one of the more frustrating aspects of understanding how complex estuarine environments work." Ramus and Paerl consulted with colleagues in Finland, where a comparable monitoring system already is operating. The Finns encouraged the Americans, who began work on the N.C. version three years before last year's Hurricane Floyd, which prompted the state's financial support. Endeco/YSI of Marion, Mass., built the FerryMon equipment, which is the most sophisticated of its kind in the world, the scientists said.

"Hardly anything ever functions the first time you try it, but in this case, it started spitting out data as soon as we turned it on," Paerl said. "It will provide the first comprehensive view of water quality in Pamlico Sound, which is pretty amazing since it's the second largest estuary in the country."

A major advantage will be cost savings resulting from placing the equipment aboard the ferries, he said.

"When you look at the cost of doing oceanographic survey work for water quality, even if it's just in a lake, more than 50 percent of the cost is just the vessel itself," the scientist said. "For us, that part is free."

Ramus said the recent hurricanes have been a wake-up call for state support of water quality monitoring.

"Given the fact that there are predictions of several decades of elevated tropical storm activity, the timing couldn't be better for taking a serious look at North Carolina's remarkable water resources in the east," he said.
-end-
Note: Paerl and Ramus can be reached at (252) 726-6841 and 504-7617, respectively. Their e-mail addresses are hans_paerl@unc.edu and jramus@duke.edu.

Contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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