GIS system to monitor how clean Europe's coasts are

January 12, 2005

Brussels, 11 Jan 2005

While clean-up teams survey the damage and lost lives caused by the Asian tsunami over Christmas, attention will soon turn to the environmental damage to the region's coasts. How polluted, for instance, will the waters off India's southern coast become? An EU project has come up with a system for assessing coastal water quality in Europe, but the tool's developers say it has a wide range of uses.

Blue Flag beaches must comply with the EU's Bathing Water Directive and Waste Water Directive. © Blue Flag Campaign

Blue Flag beaches must comply with the EU's Bathing Water Directive and Waste Water Directive.

© Blue Flag Campaign

Like anywhere in the world, Europe's coastlines face potential exposure to pollution. The EU-backed project called I-MARQ is finalising a prototype geographical information system (GIS) which aims to deliver real-time data on coastal water quality. This information can, in turn, be used to help decision-makers take appropriate action against contamination.

The three-year project, funded by the Union's Information Society Technologies (IST) programme, has shown that it can estimate and forecast several important factors affecting water quality. These variables include the amount of suspended sediment in water (often accompanied by waste), water temperature, land runoff that washes pollution into the sea, salinity, dissolved oxygen, nitrate levels, chlorophyll (algae) and microbial risk.

The 11 partners in the project set out, in 2001, to find a better way to integrate and use coastal data from a growing number of sensor networks in Europe and around the world. From the outset, the team of Belgian, Italian, British, French and German researchers saw the challenge would be to produce an accessible and scalable tool which is capable of integrating huge datasets from multiple sources with multiple end uses.

For this, I-MARQ used something called 'data fusion'. Dr Jonathan Williams, CEO of Marinetech South, one of the project's UK partners, told IST Results that this technique allows different types of data – ranging from that picked up by buoys or hand-held instruments, to data obtained from satellite images – to be used in estimating water quality. "In light of the new European Bathing Water Directive, such a system is paramount, since public administrations need to be able to forecast water quality with greater accuracy so that action can be taken to ensure… water quality remains above a certain level at all times," he stressed.

Blue flagged

The team say that the 'Information System for Marine Aquatic Resource Quality' (I-MARQ) could be used for compliance monitoring of coastal and estuarine waters. For example, a national water quality agency, using I-MARQ's GIS, could pick up abnormal fluctuation in dissolved oxygen levels in an estuary. From this, local management teams could assess the runoff data and, once confirming the system's findings, the inspection team could hone in on what, or who, is responsible for it.

I-MARQ, which cost nearly €3.5 million, is made up of two main sub-systems. The first is a 'meta-information system', which is like an exchange centre for the data before going into the GIS system, and is fully scaleable and can be adjusted to improve water quality data as time goes by. The second is the 'fusion engine' which updates the GIS and information on water quality before being configured to supply a variety of end-users.

"The system can be used by a range of users, such as beach-side hotels to predict bathing water quality and diving schools to forecast underwater visibility," says Williams. Tourism in coastal areas is demanding ever-increasing environmental quality and requires daily and seasonal information on coastal environment quality and stress, the team's website notes.

I-MARQ is currently validating its system and will test run it in the Solent estuary off southern England and at two locations on the Cote D'Azur in France. The project has also been contacted by the UK's Environment Agency and the Portuguese Instituto da Água (INAG), which are planning to try out a cut-down version of the system. Other potential users could be waiting in Asia and where coastal areas are affected by natural disasters.

DG Research
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