Last August, a 3,000-pound, eight-by-22 foot-robotic platform was launched into the Hudson River just north of Denning’s Point Peninsula in Beacon, N.Y.

On board the floating platform are state-of-the-art sensors that will provide continuous air and water monitoring including barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, water depth, temperature, salinity and flow rate. The sensors will also measure the levels of hydrogen contaminants, dissolved oxygen, and chlorophyll-a (a green pigment found in algae). The data will be transferred in real time to researchers who can track fluctuations in these measurements.

The information provides a detailed record of the overall health of the river. This will alert scientists and environmentalists to escalating pollution levels or to episodic events that can be problematic, such as algae blooms, which can lead to hypoxia. Hypoxia is characterized by a low concentration of oxygen that is exacerbated by increases in nutrients or a particular set of physical conditions. It is associated with fish kills among other problems.

This technology, which promises to revolutionize the way bodies of water are monitored, was developed by a team of scientists and researchers headed up by James Bonner ’85, professor of civil & environmental engineering and director of Clarkson’s Center for the Environment (CCE).

“Our goal is to eventually cover the entire 315-mile river from Mt. Marcy to New York City with a network of sensors,” explains Bonner. “The technology will allow us to create a cyber-infrastructure that stores and processes a great deal of data about the Hudson River. Scientists and engineers around the world will be able to access this information via the Internet.”

Reading the RiverBonner began the development of this real-time monitoring technology at the Shoreline Environmental Research Facility at Texas A&M University where he served as founding director. While in Corpus Christi, Bonner and fellow researchers developed sensing systems that they used to monitor the Gulf of Mexico. Since joining the Clarkson faculty in 2007, Bonner (who holds a Ph.D. from Clarkson) has continued his NSF-funded research program with an eye toward transferring the technology to map and monitor the ecological health of the rivers, Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway.

The Hudson River monitoring project is a joint partnership between Clarkson University; the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries, a not-for-profit environmental research organization; and IBM. Last year, Bonner was named the Beacon Institute’s REON Director of Research and will lead the development and implementation of the River and Estuary Observatory Network (REON). The Hudson River project is the first step in a larger plan to develop technology-based monitoring and forecasting network for rivers and estuaries.

“Tremendous human impact occurs in the regions where rivers and estuaries meet the ‘coastal margin’ — coastal wetlands, bays and shorelines,” explains Bonner. “In the United States, this region is home to 70 percent of the population and 20 of its 25 largest cities. It is also where most industry and ports are found. Damage to these ecosystems comes from this increased density of anthropogenic activity associated with pollution from industry, farms and the surrounding communities.” 

For example, hypoxia generally occurs in aquatic systems where the water is poorly mixed excluding  oxygen and trapping pollutants in the “hypolimion” — the dense bottom layer  in a stratified body of water. Chemical reactions within the hypolimion and with bottom sediments depletes the benthic oxygen so aerobic organisms such as fish, oysters, clams and other bottom dwelling organisms perish.   “This problem is a growing national concern, for example increasing areas of the Gulf of Mexico (thousands of square miles), portions of the Great Lakes, embayments such Corpus Christi Bay and other near-shore areas are experiencing hypoxia,” says Bonner.

IBM is working with Bonner and the Beacon Institute to develop the cyber framework that will store the data and provide assessment tools, which researchers around the world will be able to use. “Scientists will be able to analyze data and develop models on any environmental parameter of interest.”

For Bonner, one of the most exciting aspects of the project is the way it will transform environmental science and engineering. “The old-fashioned method of retrieving data by collecting samples at discreet locations at only a few times gives a static, incomplete and aliased view or understanding. With this technology, we’ll be able to get real-time data that reflects the constantly changing, dynamic environment of the river. The information will be far more reliable.”