Students enrolled in the Ocean Research College Academy (ORCA) at Everett Community College, an early college program for high school juniors and seniors, are maintaining a piece of equipment the state didn’t have the staff time for.
The device, about a yard long, is attached to a piece of concrete in about 50 feet of water off Port of Everett property on the northern shore of Mukilteo. It was permanently installed in November with the agreement that the students would clean and maintain it.
The $30,000 device measures water conditions every 15 minutes and feeds them to a Web site. The students will use the data for short-term projects and plan to build a long-term picture of the influence of human activity on local waterways, said Ardi Kveven, director of the ORCA program.
The state has six other similar devices, called moorings, anchored in Western Washington waters, officials said. They measure temperature, salinity, conductivity, pressure and, most importantly, oxygen levels.
In three of the cases, it’s a situation similar to the one with the ORCA students that allows the work to be done: Other groups collaborating with the state.
“The mooring project has been chronically understaffed” said Marissa Jones, a marine technician for the state Department of Ecology. “It’s only been possible with our collaborative efforts.”
The devices aren’t deployed in areas already known to have water quality problems or where the water is relatively free from human influence, Jones said. They’re used in borderline areas that could be at risk, she said.
The Whidbey Basin, which stretches inside Whidbey Island from the southern tip of the island to the Skagit River, is one of those areas, Kveven said.
It’s known that south Puget Sound and the Hood Canal are in bad shape in terms of low oxygen levels, she said.
“But creeping up on the watch list is Whidbey Basin,” Kveven said.
For four years, as many as 50 students a year in the ORCA program had already been going out on boats once a month to monitor several regular sites in Possession Sound by dropping a hand-held device into the water.
The frequent data that comes from the moored device is even better, Kveven said.
“What all of the scientific community is seeing is that collecting data once a month isn’t enough,” she said. Getting information “more frequently, more often gives you a more complete picture.”
Based on data in hand, students go out with a hypothesis about a particular aspect of the water, collect information and see how it fits with their idea.
For instance, Anthony Whitmire, 16, a junior at Everett High School, is working with others on a hypothesis about how the contours of the floor of Possession Sound affect the distribution of sediment from the Snohomish River.
“I jumped at the chance (to be in the program) mainly for the experience of getting out and doing field science,” Whitmire said. “I have a passion for science and always loved it.”
The students get college credit for the program, giving them a head start on their higher education.
For about a year now, the students have been sharing their information from the monthly boat trips with the scientific community at conferences, Kveven said.
Now they’ll have more to share still. The ORCA program is interdisciplinary, allowing students to apply their methods in marine science to other subjects as well.
“The opportunity is very exciting for our students to see the immediate effects of floods, phytoplankton blooms and other events as they happen,” Kveven said.
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information from the marine monitoring device recently installed in Mukilteo is available to the public at http://tinyurl.com/MukilteoMooring.
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