Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Crowd Sourcing Lake Mapping

Natural Resource Managers and Climatologists have long recognized the critical importance of observer networks and volunteer citizen monitoring.   With citizen monitoring networks, Managers and Scientists acquire useful data for making more informed predictions and management decisions, while involved citizens gain an ownership stake in building the knowledgebase about the condition of ecosystems and the climate.

Citizen protocols for water quality (e.g., Secchi clarity) and meteorology (e.g., rainfall) data collection are largely objective and are becoming increasingly standardized throughout the nation.  As a result, comprehensive datasets are being merged at large geographic scales to assess the current status and trajectory of water resource and climate conditions.  Despite well-intentioned citizen programs to map and monitor aquatic plants in several US states, most are subjective and non-standardized.  Consequently, results will differ across surveyors, systems, and geographic regions.  This strongly limits the power and usefulness of data collected from these programs.   This is unfortunate because of the importance of aquatic plants for fish habitat and water clarity, and the vulnerability of lakes to invasive aquatic plants.

Contour Innovations has addressed this issue with ciBioBase and is poised to revolutionize citizen aquatic plant monitoring.

Objective data collection and analysis

Few others cover more water than citizens living on lakes.  Why not capture information about bottom conditions while on a pleasure cruise or fishing?  With only a modicum of planning, the lake could be divvied up among users to ensure consistent and uniform coverage.  By loading in a $10 SD card into the slot on a Lowrance HDS unit and hitting record while driving over areas of interest, lake citizens are well on their way to collecting important information on aquatic plant growth.  After a trip, citizens upload the recorded files to ciBioBase’s cloud-based servers which will trigger algorithms to automatically analyze bottom and plant signals, map the output and match it up with your sonar viewer (Figure 1).  Pretty maps? Absolutely! But also, objective statistical reports that summarize the plant growth conditions (e.g., percent cover, biovolume; Figure 2).  By sampling the same area over time, citizens can objectively monitor change as environmental conditions change.  Further, these efforts will provide objective benchmarks by which to evaluate watershed, shoreline, and in-lake management efforts. 

Figure 1. Automated mapping of bottom and vegetation signals matched up a high resolution DownScan sonar trip replay. 
Figure 2. Excerpt from ciBioBase automated statistical summary report.

Data that most closely corresponds to water quality, fish habitat, and nuisance conditions

Prior to ciBioBase, lake citizens, service providers, and natural resource agencies had little choice but to express plant growth in the lake as “abundant” or “sparse” with sophistication ranging up to digitally drawn maps around the outside of plant beds that they could see from looking over the side of the boat or from an aerial photo.  Anything that could not be seen with the naked eye or from an aerial photograph was ignored.  Quantification was limited to what could be pulled up with a rake and expressed as a presence/absence  metric of frequency of occurrence.

From a water quality and fish habitat perspective, these methods have left the fishery and water resource manager, lakeshore owner, and angler wanting.  Traditional plant assessment methods as described would give the same value to the strikingly contrasting environments depicted in Figure 3).  In the panel on the left, plants only occupy approximately 60% of the water column.  There are adequate hiding places for prey and room for predators to swim around in search of prey.  Plants are adequate to anchor sediments and prevent stirring of sediments that can make the lake murky.  Last but not least, a boat can easily pass through without disturbing the habitat.  Contrast this with the panel on the right.  Although the visual delineation or rake throw prescribed by traditionalists would give the same information on density as the panel on the left, fish habitat and water recreation conditions are strikingly different between the two environments.  In this simulated invasive aquatic plant community (e.g., Eurasian watermilfoil or Hydrilla) without any edge, predatory fish have difficulty finding prey, boat propellers are stopped in their tracks and outboard impellers imperiled!  Essentially, the differences described between the environments in Figure 3 can be summarized in the ciBioBase biovolume maps and statistical outputs.  Ask your service provider or local water resource manager how they measure aquatic plant growth conditions in your favorite lake and evaluate whether they stack up to what ciBioBase provides.

Figure 3.  Contrasting aquatic plant environments that are often represented equally in traditional assessment methods.  On the left is growth that typifies a diverse, native aquatic plant community as opposed to topped-out growth that typifies invasive plant communities.  By mapping biovolume (percent of water column occupied by vegetaton), ciBioBase distinguishes the differences between these plant communities.
Centralized database – Apples to Apples

All data uploaded to ciBioBase are processed uniformly in a centralized database and made available to subscribers in a private organizational account.  Data from Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota can be compared with data from East Lake Tohopekaliga in Florida or data from Esthwaite Water in the UK and comparisons will be apples to apples.  The centralization feature of ciBioBase comes with these tangible benefits as well as intangible ones like fostering greater collaboration between groups interested in aquatic resource conservation.

Merged uniform outputs from multiple surveyors

A new buzzword has been entering the vernacular of natural resource managers called “precision conservation” brought on by advances in aerial photography, lasers (LiDAR), automated sensors, and greater computing power.  We can now identify miniscule areas on the landscape that are sources of runoff and pollution and strategically target those areas to install “Best Management Practices” or BMP’s like rain gardens or grit chambers.  However, thus far the dialog surrounding precision conservation has largely been terrestrial.  ciBioBase is bringing precision conservation to lakes through its merge trips function (Figure 4).

As ciBioBase account managers our users can compile trips from subscribers within their  organization to create a highly precise map of bottom and vegetation (Figure 4).  This division of labor describes the essence of this blog’s title whereby the collective efforts or intelligence of the many are more powerful than any one individual.  No one person is willing or able to track how the lake is changing from day to day as runoff from an increasingly common 4-in rain comes streaming (literally) in, but a dozen active citizens might.  The result is a near real-time data feed on changes in lake conditions that will greatly inform how the lake responds to environmental change, where to target conservation efforts, and whether implemented management policies are producing their desired effects.
Figure 4. Multiple citizens in the same organization can work together by merging trips, thereby creating the most accurate bottom and plant map on the face of the planet!

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