The threats to our ecosystems today are multiple—pollution, biodiversity reduction, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification. The consequences for the livelihoods, health, and futures of people living in those ecosystems, as well as for the health and lives of other animals, are serious. Develop a program—adventures, food experiences, citizen/public science activities, or other knowledge creation and sharing processes—that can engage a specific community in understanding their changing local ecosystems, and the factors involved, and empower them as stakeholders and stewards of these ecosystems.
Lydia Chain, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar
New York University, Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program
This group was interested in developing programs to engage and empower communities to address threats to ecosystems.
Imagine standing on a Louisiana beach on a breezy summer day. In the distance, you spot it: The mythological creature of the Gulf greets you and your community with a dazzling display of colors, flashing fins, and triumphant water spouts. Your community cheers! The water along your coast is pure.
The team decided to tackle issues involving water. Our oceans and coastal ecosystems are under threats that are numerous and difficult to tackle. Lint and micro-plastics fill the seas, agricultural runoffs create dead zones bereft of oxygen, hormones and pharmacological chemicals leak from our wastewater and disrupt animal biochemistry, overfishing strips the trophic chain, and petrochemical manufacturing waste pollutes the water.
The Gulf of Mexico has additional problems because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the fact that the sea level rise is destroying coastal communities, and from an increase in the frequency of hurricanes.
The lack of community coordination and awareness of environmental conditions is striking in the states and nations surrounding the Gulf of Mexico. The team wanted each of the Gulf States, as well as the nations that border the Gulf, to come together to study, understand, celebrate, and improve their waters. The Gulf is a place where an intervention to help people be stewards of their ecosystem may be of the most use, but the group wants to design a project that can be easily adapted to different coastal environments.
The group envisions an art project that will raise awareness, create media attention, and stir community engagement, while providing citizen scientists with data about their environment. The group wants to build MARU, a Mobile Aquatic Research Unit, otherwise known as a robotic fish that will swim around the entire Gulf of Mexico in a summer. MARU will be outfitted with sensors to measure water temperature, current speed, water purity, trace chemicals, plastic levels, oxygen levels, and more in the aim of providing lots of information about the quality of the water.
MARU will be programmed to communicate with the communities through its behavior and physical appearance. There will be lights that change color depending on what’s in the water. MARU’s swimming patterns will tell a story, as will whether it spouts water or smoke. Perhaps sickly yellow smoke will spew from the robot’s blowhole if there are high levels of contamination in the water. If the water is clean, there may be a display of sparkling lights and flashing fins to reward and celebrate with the community.
MARU will provide real-time information about water quality in the Gulf, streaming data to a website that people can analyze. Its eyes will hold a camera feed, providing a live video stream. People will be able to see what the robot fish is experiencing in any moment: schools of fish, whales, birds, and even themselves waving to it from the shoreline. There will also be an
audio feed, perhaps broadcasting on AM radio, which is, according to one member of the group, still one of the most frequently used forms of media.
The team hopes that a mythology will build around this creature. They intend to design it to incorporate mythological elements as well as features from extant and extinct Gulf animals. Because the project is intended to involve communities, they will also include the public in the design process and work to include elements that communities find important. Even the name might be open to community input. “The mythology of the creature is similar to the mystery in the ‘here there be creatures’ in ancient maps” said one group member. “It’s still sort of a mystery what goes on in the Gulf waters.” The team hopes to shine a light onto those mysteries and enable communities to learn about water quality for themselves instead of relying on agencies they may not trust.
This is not just a data generation project or a mobile art installation, however. The team wants to accompany the project with a template for event planning and educational toolkits. As the robotic fish travels to a given community, that community would have access to materials to plan a festival, a workshop, a sighting—whatever the community decides would be best for it. Organizers will reach out to community groups, youth groups, church groups, and universities to create events. Workshops will provide scientific context for the artistic display and anchor the information in the current problems and observable data about the environmental condition of the shoreline. One example is a workshop to collect shrimp and score the water quality based on mutation rate in the shrimp. These sorts of projects will especially educate children about what is going on in their world while providing an engaging and exciting event.
The team also hopes to guide the community toward action. They do not want to provide a data dump devoid of context that might cause rifts within communities, if people come to different conclusions about the data. It’s important to help people understand the real-world significance of a certain pollution level, and provide resources to taking the next step of action. This must be carefully balanced with not forcing a certain viewpoint upon the community and letting them make their own decisions. A town can’t feel ownership over its environment if they do not choose their own course of actions based on good information.
Robotic drones that skim the water’s surface already exist. One such robot is the Wave Glider by Liquid Robotics in California. It is an autonomous drone, about 10 feet long, propelled by solar energy and wave action. So far, Wave Gliders have logged more than half a million miles in
the water and weathered 97 hurricanes, making them proven and durable options. The group hopes to build the fish around these sorts of preexisting technological frameworks, which will minimize the cost of development and the risk of catastrophic failure. They will add functionality and aesthetic appearance, but will not need to reinvent the technology.
One group member has deep ties in the Louisiana community of Grand Isle, a small town with fewer than 2,000 permanent residents, although they are joined by 18,000 tourists during the summer. It’s a historically disadvantaged community that is already home to several ecofairs, including the Grand Isle Migratory Bird Festival. The team could build on current programs and test several educational programs and festival events. They may use a boat to accompany the fish, giving people a closer view at MARU and as a venue for activities.
This initiative will eventually create a Gulf-wide community, binding together disadvantaged and currently disengaged coastal towns. MARU will create informed conversations among community members about their ecosystem, and give them the tools to be engaged and passionate stewards of the Gulf.