UF collaborates with conservation foundation on coastal solutions

In Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure and Environment, Featured, News, Research & Innovation

SCCF and CCS logos superimposed over a photograph of a Florida marsh
Local experts to collaborate with University of Florida to protect paradise

PROTECTING PARADISE: So excited to see what comes out of this new program between University of Florida and SCCF 🌊

Posted by Jessica Alpern on Thursday, April 15, 2021

Cutting-edge data collection and analysis combine to sustain Florida’s coastal communities

Florida coastal communities need clean water to preserve residential lifestyles, tourism, fishing, and a host of other activities in the Sunshine State. Recognizing the importance of water quality as a significant component of South Florida’s current and future economy and quality of life for its citizens, the University of Florida’s newly established Center for Coastal Solutions (CCS) and Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) have entered into a strategic collaboration to address coastal water quality hazards in order to strengthen the resiliency and sustainability of this unique coastal area in Florida.

SCCF delivers 50+ years of forward-thinking conservation strategies

Founded in 1967, SCCF's mission is to protect and care for southwest Florida's coastal ecosystems through focusing on water quality research, policy and advocacy, sea turtles and shorebirds, native landscaping, habitat and wildlife management, and environmental education. The foundation’s marine laboratory conducts long-and short-term research in the waters and watersheds of Charlotte Harbor, the Caloosahatchee, and the Gulf of Mexico. The lab is an active member in the National Association of Marine Laboratories, and the Organization of Biological Field Stations. It is also a data provider to the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System.

The lab’s research uses an instrument array composed of eight near real-time sensors deployed throughout the Caloosahatchee Estuary and Pine Island Sound. Known as RECON, which stands for River Estuary Coastal Observing Network, its unique set of sensors captures data with enormous depth that allows scientists and water managers to better study water quality issues and identify solutions. “Nowhere else in the state is such high-resolution, high-quality, real-time data on coastal water quality available,” said Christine Angelini, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the UF Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure & Environment and director of the University of Florida’s Center for Coastal Solutions (UF-CCS). RECON’s data collection capabilities paired with UF data analytics capacity are a perfect fit for a collaboration between SCCF and CCS.

UF CCS brings advanced research and AI analytics to the alliance

CCS is an interdisciplinary center at the UF Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, where its mission is to predict and prevent negative environmental, health and economic impacts to coastal communities through collaboration with local agencies and organizations, using cutting-edge technology to mitigate water quality hazards and enhance coastal resiliency.

With leadership and subject experts from over 14 colleges across the University of Florida, CCS is the latest center of excellence aiming to bolster the preservation and restoration of coastal communities in Florida and beyond. With government, industry and community partners, the CCS is rapidly gaining foothold in helping these agencies and organizations in combating the effects of climate change and human hazards that are advancing at an alarming speed.

Data analytics will help coastal communities withstand environmental and climate hazards

Leading a new multi-sector flagship initiative, the CCS has formed a Comprehensive Coastal Observing Network (CompCON) in close coordination with SCCF to monitor, model, and deliver data products immediately useful for informing decisions related to addressing coastal hazards. The network also works with other local stakeholders, including Lee County, the City of Cape Coral, the Coastal Heartland National Estuary Partnership (supported by the Environmental Protection Agency), the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and others. CompCON meets quarterly as a team and biweekly in seven focused working groups, involving over 40 members from multiple sectors comprised of businesses, conservation organizations and universities. These working groups are actively identifying critical research needs and sharing data, analytical techniques, modeling capabilities and policy platforms. 

This summer, SCCF’s RECON will serve as the base for this UF-CCS pilot project that will put the Southwest Florida regional estuary in the forefront of international research into advanced monitoring of the health of coastal waters, lands, and air. “Our team of more than 25 faculty looked into estuaries across the state of Florida to serve as test beds to pilot our Comprehensive Coastal Observing Network (CompCON) and very soon honed into the Caloosahatchee River-Charlotte Harbor Estuary system because of the unique technical capabilities offered by RECON,” said Angelini. During this pilot phase, CompCON and RECON will be specifically focused on water quality challenges that are impacting the economy and coastal environment in Charlotte Harbor in southwest Florida.

Over the next few years, CompCON will be refined and expanded in scale to produce cost-effective, technologically advanced approaches for: (1) real-time, AI-assisted, high resolution monitoring of coastal waters, lands, air and people; (2) forecasting near-term and multi-decade changes to the coastal zone in this region, and (3) enabling decision-makers to explore various management scenarios.

Proactive hazard forecasting, which will appear similar to today’s weather forecasts available on smartphones, will be powered by UF’s AI supercomputer, the fastest in higher education thanks to the university’s $70-million partnership with NVIDIA, along with comprehensive expertise in applied AI, computer science and environmental engineering.

“Ultimately, CompCON seeks to envision, build and continually advance the coastal monitoring and modeling systems of the future, technologies that will deliver information to decision makers, stakeholders and the public at the scales, in the formats, and with the level of certainty required to achieve proactive solutions to addressing water quality and other hazards at the coast,” Angelini said.

"Collaborating with UF-CSS is a great opportunity for us to increase the awareness and value of RECON and the water quality research our Marine Lab is doing," said SCCF CEO Ryan Orgera. "And, our entire region's coastal ecosystems will benefit from our pilot participation in CompCON by advancing ways in which science can inform critical policy, which in turn will boost our tourism-based economy and the quality of life of residents and visitors alike."

A unique coastal ecosystem shapes Florida’s environment and economy

The coastal ecosystem is of critical importance to the State of Florida.

  • More than three-quarters (76.5%) of Florida’s 21.6 million citizens live in coastal counties.
  • Florida’s coral reefs provide millions of dollars in protection to buildings and the local economy every year—almost $600 million to the peninsula and over $75 million to the Florida Keys every year.
  • The 2.2 million acres of seagrass beds surrounding the Florida coast provide homes for 40,000 fish per acre. Seagrasses also trap sediments, stabilize the seafloor, improve water clarity and store carbon.
  • Mangroves are unique trees, able to extract the fresh water they need from saltwater. Florida’s mangroves create entire coastal ecosystems, trapping sediment, cycling organic material and storing carbon.

The economic health of the state depends on a robust ecosystem.

  • Florida’s tourists love visiting the state’s beaches and waterways, where 131.4 million travelers spent $96.5 billion and supported more than 1.6 million local jobs in the state in 2019.
  • Florida is the third most populous state in the U.S., due in large part to the coastal environment that attracts more than 900 new home buyers each day.
  • Coastal Florida employs 6.2 million people annually, earning a total of $302.8 billion. This equates to almost $760 billion in gross domestic product.
  • More than 200,000 Floridians make their living from fishing, which provides more than $8 billion in annual state income.

Today, the water and the overall coastal ecosystem in Florida is threatened by a wide variety of anthropogenic activities.

  • Agriculture, residential landscape runoff and septic tanks all contribute nutrient pollutants that make their way into Florida’s waterways and estuaries, contributing to blue, green and brown algal blooms that are hazardous to marine life and the coastal ecosystem as a whole.
  • Carbon pollution contributes to ocean acidification, resulting in decimation of coral reefs and sea grasses that are so important to Florida’s fishing industry.
  • Of Florida’s 825 miles of beaches, 485 miles are experiencing active erosion, endangering residences for Floridians and tourists alike.
  • Manatees have inhabited Florida coastlines for 50 million years, but they, along with sea turtles and dolphins, are in danger from red tide intrusions from the sea.

Water quality forecasting, provided by the work being done in the CompCON program, as well as the RECON technology is a key to helping communities , legislators and policy makers plan for the resilient and sustainable future of Florida’s coastal ecosystems.