Friday Harbor Laboratories’ observation system collects and shares real-time data about Salish Sea

Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL) recently established the Friday Harbor Laboratories Ocean Observatory (FHLOO), vastly expanding their capabilities to collect and share real-time data about the surrounding marine environment. Connected to the larger Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems (NANOOS), FHLOO takes continuous seawater measurements such as salinity, temperature, CO2, oxygen and chlorophyll, in addition to monitoring microplankton. While the system has been taking measurements since the summer of 2020, the ability to live-stream its data is new, providing a window into the Salish Sea accessible to researchers, students and the public.

“FHLOO is the only live-streaming asset of its kind in the San Juan Archipelago, so I like to think of it as a digital ‘lighthouse’ for marine scientists,” says postdoctoral researcher Kirk Sato. “Until the FHLOO was installed, FHL only monitored for water temperature and salinity. Using programming and code, we’ve been able to translate incoming raw bits of data from multiple sensors and package all the data into a single file, which is what you can see on the NANOOS NVS Data Explorer site.”

FHL is unique because of its physical location, which is not quite in the open ocean but not quite in Puget Sound proper, either. Influenced by the Fraser River and Strait of Juan de Fuca, there is significant freshwater and saltwater tidal mixing due to currents and reef formations throughout the archipelago. FHLOO will collect data over the long term, allowing scientists to better understand the dynamics of this marine ecosystem.

student checking sensor on FHLOO
Student researcher Elisa Prohroff uses one of the FHLOO sensors to understand how warm water temperatures affect juvenile Dungeness crab, a valuable fishery on the US West Coast.

So, what is this new system measuring exactly and why?

FHLOO quantifies chlorophyll in the water, which gives researchers information about the phytoplankton present. Phytoplankton are microscopic marine algae that play a critical role at the base of the food web and are crucial for energy flow in the ocean. Using an instrument called the Imaging FlowCytoBot (IFCB), biological oceanographers like Evelyn Lessard can study the abundance and diversity of phytoplankton, shedding light on which species are prevalent at certain times and how changes in the environment might affect them.

“We still have little understanding how the multiple stressors brought on by ocean change, like ocean acidification, warming and pollution, may be affecting phytoplankton and the food webs they support,” Lessard explains. “This data will also make possible the development of an automated harmful algal bloom (HAB) alert system to provide timely alerts for Sound Toxins, and tribal, state and federal resource managers in the region.”

FHLOO also provides fundamental measurements that inform scientists about the impacts of ocean acidification. The system is now part of the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network, a network of scientists who observe the status of ocean acidification and its effects across the globe. With the release of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, it’s clear that ocean observing systems are more relevant and necessary than ever to determine how the ocean responds to a changing climate.

College of the Environment, University of Washington, 13 September 2021. Full article.

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