Cruising the Chesapeake for Water and Air Quality

A NASA-led team of scientists took to the Chesapeake Bay this summer to study a diverse yet close-to-home ecosystem in a field campaign that will help the agency determine how to study ocean health and air quality in coastal regions from space.

Two weeks of research cruises throughout the Chesapeake during a steamy July provided scientists with a detailed wealth of data on what might be called the fundamentals of the ecosystem. How do nutrient levels, pollutants, organic matter, water temperature and dissolved oxygen change throughout the day? What is the makeup of particulate matter in the air, and how does poor air from nearby urban and industrial regions move around above the water and ultimately influence the bay? And how does the air, water and land or in this case, wetland affect one another?

Antonio Mannino, an oceanographer at Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., and Maria Tzortziou, an oceanographer and physicist at the University of Maryland and Goddard Space Flight Center, led the campaign as chief scientists. Both are working toward what would be a first for NASA and a significant milestone for their field: a geostationary satellite designed to make detailed measurements of ocean color and air quality along the coasts.

Current and former NASA satellite instruments have measured ocean color in essence, a measure of the amount of sediment, dissolved organics and phytoplankton in the water from polar orbits. These have provided significant and long-term global data on the composition, productivity and health of the oceans. But NASA has never had a geostationary satellite meaning it would occupy the same spot hundreds of miles above Earth, rather than orbiting around the planet for ocean color.

This would provide constant coverage of dynamic ecosystems, providing important information of the sort Mannino,Tzortziou and more than 20 other scientists from nine US academic and research institutes were gathering directly in the field this summer – how do air and ocean qualities change throughout a day, not just over long periods of time? And how can we measure this from space?


The Geostationary Coastal and Air Pollution Events (GEO-CAPE) mission was outlined by the National Research Council in its 2007 Earth science decadal survey as one of the most important goals for Earth science research from space. While it is years from being scheduled for launch, scientists such as Mannino and Tzortziou continue to lay the groundwork for a successful mission.

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