New observation site to provide data on marine environments, climate change

CHAPEL HILL, NC, February 6, 2008–A platform to be built this spring three miles offshore in the Pamlico Sound will give researchers across North Carolina a site to conduct scientific experiments and collect environmental data that will be critical to understanding the behavior of this huge body of water, its role in North Carolina’s marine ecosystem and its response to climate change.

The North Carolina Research Competitiveness Fund, an initiative of the North Carolina General Assembly to fund university-based research that could impact the state’s economic future, awarded a collaboration of seven university campuses $200,000 to build and deploy the North Carolina Environmental Observation Network System (NC-EONS). The award was announced last December.

NC-EONS will consist of a 325 square foot durable platform 15 ft above the surface of southern Pamlico Sound and about three miles out from the Cedar Island Ferry, loaded with equipment to capture environmental data. Platform instruments will include environmental sensors, video cameras, meteorological stations and specialized devices to measure physical conditions of the water (such as temperature, salinity, sea level rise, circulation, and waves), water quality (such as harmful algal blooms, nutrient, chlorophyll and oxygen levels), and the behavior and health of fish populations, winds, the attributes of severe storms, and more. Data obtained from NC-EONS will help scientists evaluate the environmental health of the sound and the effects of storms, erosion and rising water temperatures and sea level on an area that is both environmentally sensitive and important to the state’s commercial fishing and tourism industries.

“This is a truly inter-institutional effort in marine and environmental sciences and I’m thrilled about it, ” said Rick Luettich, Director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Institute for Marine Sciences and a research scientist at the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) in Chapel Hill. Luettich is one of the lead scientists with NC-EONS and he is working closely with colleagues at the collaborating universities to implement the project.

“Our ambition is to use this project as a starting point in the estuaries and to eventually create an environmental modeling and monitoring system that links up with concurrent efforts upland and in coastal waters to create an overall system for collecting aquatic data that is comparable to what the National Weather Service offers for atmospheric data,” said Luettich. “This is a grassroots effort that will be supported by a robust network and communications system, and we would love to see it duplicated in other areas of the state.”

RENCI will develop and install the power and communications infrastructure for the platform, including solar panels to power the scientific instruments and battery banks to store energy for use at night and on cloudy days. The communications system will consist of three units: a VHF 9600 baud packet switched network using antennas that work well in rain and fog; a 902 megahertz wireless network similar to one that has been successfully deployed in RENCI’s Brunswick County water level sensor network; and an experimental 5.8 gigahertz WiMax system (an alternative high-speed wireless communications system), which will provide very high data throughput.

The communications links on the platform will transmit their data to servers at the collaborating institutions and to RENCI’s Chapel Hill headquarters for integration with RENCI’s Sensor Data Bus, a project supported through a collaboration with Microsoft Research. The Sensor Data Bus is a database and data analysis system, which aggregates disparate environmental sensor information so that scientists can analyze multiple kinds of data for patterns and relationships. In turn, the Sensor Data Bus servers will be able to forward the data to NC-EONS collaborators and could eventually become the principal distribution mechanism for NC-EONS data.

Scientists will use the data from the platform to gauge the impact of development, coastal storms and climate change on the Pamlico Sound ecosystem.

Besides RENCI and UNC Chapel Hill, the NC-EONS university collaborators are UNC Wilmington, North Carolina State University, East Carolina University, the Coastal Studies Institute, and Duke University. The Ferry Division of the North Carolina Department of Transportation will provide a site at the Cedar Island Ferry Terminal for a ground station to receive the data communications from the NC-EONS platform.

RENCI…Catalyst for Innovation
The Renaissance Computing Institute brings together computer and discipline scientists, artists, humanists, industry leaders, entrepreneurs, state leaders and educators for collaborations designed to reshape science, the economy, the state of North Carolina and the world. RENCI leverages its expertise and resources in leading edge computing, networking and data technologies to ignite innovation and find solutions to previously intractable problems. Founded in 2004 as a major collaborative venture of Duke University, North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the state of North Carolina, RENCI is a statewide virtual organization.  For more, see