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USF studies how water moves in Tampa Bay

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Riding the R / V WT HOGARTH — The research vessel drove off downtown St. Petersburg. The back deck was loaded with crouched concrete trapezoids.

The blocks, painted blue and labeled “USF” and “FDEP”, were basically anchors and cost £ 2,500 each. Inside each was a small sensor for $ 18,000.

Bob Weisberg, a physics and oceanographer at the University of South Florida, stood on the deck with a swarm of students and colleagues. They wore orange vests and helmets and walked carefully around the trapezoid.

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78 feet or more R / VWT HogarthThe bay slipped quietly, reflecting the warm Tuesday morning sun in May.

Immediately, researchers deliver the sensor to the bottom of the bay, where they sit for months to measure water velocities. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection helps pay for work.

Scientists need velocity data to better understand the aspects of the bay that Weissberg believes are underestimated, that is, how the bay moves.

Many supporters and scientists are worried about the nutrients that pollute the bay from sewage, fertilizers and other effluents. But Weissberg said people aren’t thinking The same is true for the currents and tides that push the pollution away.

“Where is this going?” He asked rhetorically. “Everything else flows from the circulation.”

Bob Weisberg, a physical oceanographer at the University of South Florida, stands on the top floor of the R / VWT Hoggers research vessel on May 3. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

An estuary is more like a highway than a stagnant bathtub. The water moves constantly. The tides and winds push the ocean up, and freshwater flows out of rivers such as Hillsboro and collides with Brinnie Bay.

The importance of circulation became apparent last year as scientists struggled to track the impact of 215 million gallons of wastewater emissions from the assets of an old Piny Point fertilizer plant. A model made many years ago by Weissberg and his students showed that pollution could have spread throughout Tampa Bay.

Where did those pollutants eventually become a problem? They may have helped feed the red tide flowers that plagued the area until last summer.

Weissberg was confident in the pre-Piney Point model, but his team always wanted more data to test it.Previously, he mainly verified the accuracy of the model. For observations from the observatory under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Related: Inside an effort to close Piny Point and keep Tampa Bay safe
The R / V WT Hogarth research vessel, full of researchers at the USF University of Marine Sciences, was placed near the drop point of the ocean circulation sensor on May 3.
The R / V WT Hogarth research vessel, full of researchers at the USF University of Marine Sciences, was placed near the drop point of the ocean circulation sensor on May 3. [ COURTESY OF BEN MEISTER | Courtesy of Ben Meister ]
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Piny Point has proven to be a science booster despite the region’s environmental crisis. It highlights the importance of consistent research and provides a unique opportunity to study the consequences of wastewater discharge.

After the disaster, USF researchers succeeded in proposing to the Environmental Protection Agency to install four current monitors in a shallow area outside the bay’s main shipping channels. The team will also deploy sensors to track water quality indicators such as salt and pH levels.

Related: What we know about the impact of Piny Points on Tampa Bay

Approximately $ 395,000 will help cover the first year of equipment purchase and deployment, according to Jay-Ro, a physics oceanographer and head of operations for Weissberg’s lab.

“Piney points are the reason for this funding,” Weissberg said frankly. The research cruise was his last before his retirement.

Thomas Frazer, Dean of the USF College of Marine Science, said scientists “always respond to certain environmental hazards.” He said Piney Point showed where data collection and monitoring could be “enhanced.”

Ocean current sensors are being prepared for deployment on the deck of the R / VWT Hogarth research vessel. Sensors help sharpen models that track the circulation of water through Tampa Bay.
Ocean current sensors are being prepared for deployment on the deck of the R / VWT Hogarth research vessel. Sensors help sharpen models that track the circulation of water through Tampa Bay. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The Hogarth It shook for hours between four Coast Guard towers (raised platforms covered with metal spire) that researchers chose to deploy monitors.

The crew used a winch to lift the concrete trapezoid from the deck onto the water. They slowly lowered the underwater blocks, freeing each from the winch.

A trio of divers jumped off the deck, swam underneath, unhooked the harness from the concrete, and measured the depth of each sensor — 11-23 feet.

USF physical oceanographer Jay Lo (left) stops at Tampa Bay and diving safety officer Ben Meister (center) prepares to jump off the deck of the R / VWT Hoggers research vessel on May 3. I am.
USF physical oceanographer Jay Lo (left) stops at Tampa Bay and diving safety officer Ben Meister (center) prepares to jump off the deck of the R / VWT Hoggers research vessel on May 3. I am. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Once deployed, the technology should work without much maintenance. Every hour, the monitor sends a series of acoustic pings once a second for 6 minutes, according to Law. Those pings climb the water column before reflecting sediments and plankton debris floating in the stream. Ping returns at various pitches — a phenomenon known as the Doppler effect.

“It’s like when I heard the train pass by,” Law explained. “The pitch will change.”

Related: It may take 3 years or more to clean up and close the piny points

The monitor uses this pitch variation to calculate the velocity of the ocean current. Approximately four months later, researchers will remove a memory card full of data, Law said. They compare their observations with their model and improve it as needed.

Jay Law, a physics and oceanographer at the University of South Florida, is on the left, and Matt McNamee, an undergraduate student at the USF, will inspect the equipment and perform depth measurements while deploying ocean circulation sensors in Tampa Bay.
Jay Law, a physics and oceanographer at the University of South Florida, is on the left, and Matt McNamee, an undergraduate student at the USF, will inspect the equipment and perform depth measurements while deploying ocean circulation sensors in Tampa Bay. [ COURTESY OF BEN MEISTER | Courtesy of Ben Meister ]

Using a model before the storm surge, Weisberg studied the storm surge and predicted the movement of Redtide, a naturally occurring toxic alga that could feed on nutrients that contaminate humans. He once helped police determine if the body washed up on the shore could have drifted from a nearby marina.

He said additional data should increase the reliability of the model and provide a clearer answer to how water moves in different parts of the bay. But he hopes that surprising questions will also surface.

He said that the life of science taught him the basic principles: the more you learn, the more you understand how much you still don’t know.

•••

Check out the model

Visit ocgweb.marine.usf.edu to see the USF Ocean Circulation Lab’s models, including Red Tide’s predictions.

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