National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Wallops Flight Facility

Coastal Research Initiative


The coastal oceans and estuaries bordering the United States provide tremendous living and non-living resources to our society, they modify our weather and climate, function as buffer-zones for national security, have exceptional recreational and commercial value, and are ecologically rich environments supporting a diversity of scientific, medical, and educational pursuits. Our coastal oceans and estuaries are undergoing profound alterations due to changes in climate and a rapidly expanding human population. Roughly half of the U.S. population resides within 150 km of the coast, and these communities are growing three times faster than communities elsewhere in the nation. Consequently, the coastal zone is experiencing increased commercial, recreational, and domestic (e.g., living space and effluent load) pressures in parallel with decreased capacities to meet these demands.

Our growing dependence on coastal and estuarine resources and increased susceptibility to the health and safety hazards of the coastal zone (e.g., floods, severe weather, chemical and biological toxins) impart a great urgency to developing a comprehensive observational program and coastal information distribution system. In response to this need, the National Oceanographic Partnership Program (NOPP) (NOPP is an innovative program made up of fourteen collaborating Federal agencies that provides leadership and coordination of national oceanographic research and education programs and was established by Congress in Fiscal Year 1997 and has been endorsed by the Executive Branch) has developed the Integrated and Sustained Ocean Observing System (ISOOS) as a framework through which federal, state, and locally supported programs can contribute to a unified effort at improving observing and predictions of critical processes in the coastal zone. The central function of the ISOOS is to acquire and disseminate data and data-products on marine and estuarine environments in response to the needs of the government, industry, science, education, and the public. The ISOOS will thus function in a manner similar to the National Weather Service, which provides meteorological data and data products for weather nowcasts and forecasts. An important difference, however, is that issues relevant to meteorological observations and prediction are nowhere near as multidimensional as those involved in coastal zone processes.

Of relevance to NASA’s role in obtaining coastal land and ocean observations from space, is that many of the national needs for satellite-based observations will require a significant level of effort to obtain the required observations necessary for Calibration/Validation, algorithm development, and development of future coastal, space-based sensors. Satellite data from coastal regions have land-ocean transition issues. Additionally, the short space-time scales of the relevant coastal processes require more frequent and higher resolution data sets. Also, in contrast to open ocean region—where NASA has historically excelled—where optical properties are dominated by known optical properties of water and the well-resolved optical properties of living particulates, the bio-optics of the coastal zone are exceedingly complex due to the myriad of additional non-living optically-active components contributed by river input, sediment resuspension, and atmospheric deposition. This is further complicated by aerosols from airsheds influenced by terrestrial influx from agricultural, industrial and urban sources.

Due to the profound complexity of coastal systems, the ISOOS is envisioned as a joint federation of regional observational programs unified through a single, national infrastructure. Requirements for implementing and designing this observational network are presently being developed through the National Office for Integrated and Sustained Ocean Observing and Predicting through a congressional mandate (ISOOS, 2002). The network is envisioned to consist of overlapping regional components supported through state and national partnerships involving a variety of Federal agencies. The Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has developed a scientific and technological capacity to observe coastal ocean processes in a unique and integrated manner. These established and developing capabilities offer NASA an opportunity to contribute a critical, core component to the ISOOS network in an under-developed coastal area of the United States: the Mid-Atlantic Region, which encompasses the coastal and near-shore waters from Cape May, New Jersey to Cape Fear, North Carolina. This NASA/GSFC Coastal Research Initiative unifies the diverse research activities of the Goddard Space Flight Center’s Earth Science Directorate through their complementary relevance to critical Mid-Atlantic and national coastal zone issues and seeks to establish the GSFC as a center of excellence supporting collaborative research on and observations of the coastal zone.

GSFC’s Wallops Coastal Research Initiative

NASA has made a significant investment in developing a large-scale global Earth Observing System (EOS) of satellites to initiate a new era of integrated global observations for monitoring components of the earth’s systems in order to understand—through observation—how the earth’s various systems operate, how these systems interact with each other, and how they play a role in determining regional changes in the environment and climate. The EOS data sets are global in nature and have varying degrees of resolution, ranging from 30 m to 5 deg. The major focus of the observations has been to collect data on a global basis. Because of the complications due to large changes in land versus ocean reflectance, aerosol concentrations and other factors at the coastal boundary, the capability of these EOS sensors are diminished in coastal regions—compared with other regions—the region that contains most of our nations ocean resources.

In order to address these concerns, NASA should begin to focus its efforts on the sensitive and important coastal regions in order to: support necessary Calibration/Validation activities, develop coastal algorithms for EOS sensors, carry out in situ observations from a suite of ocean platforms (moorings, autonomous vehicles, ships-of-opportunity, research vessels) in order to obtain data required to develop the next generation of coastal ocean satellite sensors, and develop secondary coastal ocean products such as those outlined in Table 1.

Secondary Data Product Primary Input Variables
Phytoplankton Primary Production Chlorophyll a
Dissolved Organic Matter Colored Dissolved Organic Matter
Particulate Organic Matter Reflectance
Phytoplankton Physiology Fluorescence/Fluorescence Line Height (FLH)
Phytoplankton Taxonomy Reflectance
Air-Sea Gas Exchange Scatterometer
Table 1. A list of planned and potential secondary satellite products that will need extensive algorithm development for application to coastal regions.

In addition to supporting NASA’s remote sensing effort for applications to U.S. Coastal Zones, research is also needed to develop technologies for supporting observations to monitor the coastal regions. Coastal regions are an environmental resource for the U.S., they serve as a natural defensive boarder, they are important recreational regions, and they provide jobs, living space and food to a significant segment of the population. Changes in the geology, ecology, circulation, climate, and environment in these regions can significantly alter and affect the lives of populations that reside there. Monitoring of the coastal environment is crucial for addressing many of the issues that this region faces. Pollution, beach shore erosion, hypoxia, noxious and toxic algal blooms, declines in fisheries, changes in ecosystem, changes in climate forcing, eutrophication, changes in fluvial and airshed inputs all impact the health and state of these regions. NASA historically has lead in development of new technologies and in instrument miniaturization. These strengths are now required to develop suites of in situ, aircraft and new satellite technologies to monitor the coastal zone.

The NASA/GSFC is nationally and internationally recognized as a center of excellence for the development of cutting-edge remote sensing technologies that have been used to address coastal and open-ocean science issues for over 25 years. However, what is perhaps much less appreciated, is that the NASA/GSFC has also supported and developed a coastal ocean research facility at the Wallops Flight Facility, the Observational Science Branch, which has and is addressing all levels of the triad for the coastal environmental issues listed in Figure 2. Beyond their observational pursuits, the OSB is actively involved in resolving process-oriented relationships linking Forcings to Consequences. These activities include (1) the development of a coupled, coastal biogeochemical model, (2) construction of coastal and oceanic phytoplankton primary productivity models, (3) laboratory and field research on phytoplankton physiology, (4) research on the development of beneficial and harmful algal blooms, (5) investigations on rain and wind effects on air-sea gas exchange coefficients, (6) development of autonomous ocean sensors and platforms, to name a few. A more comprehensive list and description of activities are provided in subsequent sections of this document. These activities are unified through the common goal of conducting scientific research supporting the informed stewardship of our coastal zone resources in the interests of conservation, technology, education, and industry and for the benefit our nations current and future society.

NASA/GSFC has the physical facilities, and technical and scientific support required to implement a more focused coastal research center and should do so by furthering support and development of the observational and science capabilities at WFF, and by encouraging other GSFC scientists to use the WFF for developing their coastal research interests. We envision this facility not as a stand-alone research facility, but as an asset to the research community of the nation as a whole, as a regional field observational laboratory for developing future coastal satellite capabilities, and as a potential NASA supported node to the planned federal backbone of the U.S. regional ocean observing system that is presently being developed through the ISOOS. As with the National Office for Integrated and Sustained Ocean Observing and Predicting, we recognize that the complexity of coastal systems requires the combined resources and efforts of multiple institutions. The expertise of the OSB, in line with the central charter of NASA, is to develop observational, modeling and predicting capabilities to better understand earth system processes. This focus provides a unique capability for integrated observations and modeling that can function as the core component of a coastal zone research center. This focus also requires that central activities of the NASA/GSFC Coastal Research Initiative are the development of new remote sensing technologies, calibration/validation support necessary to validate the resultant remote sensing products, development of coastal remote satellite data archives, coastal modeling of land-ocean-atmosphere processes, and development of new ocean sensors and platforms.

The central thrust of the NASA/GSFC Coastal Research Initiative is thus the continuation and extension of an active engagement in oceanographic research activities, including in situ, airborne, satellite technologies and measurements, and development of ocean-atmosphere-land modeling capabilities. The thrust is focused on supporting NASA’s remote sensing science needs (Cal/Val, algorithm development, remote sensor development and testing, etc) and on supporting the development of a regional node of the federal ocean observing system that is outline in ISOOS (2002).

At the level of specific research activities, the immediate action items that have been identified by the ISOOS that are directly related to OSB present or planned activities include:

  • Enhance existing network of federal moorings in the EEZ to improve forecasts of weather, surface waves and currents and to quantify changes in bio-optical properties.
  • Enhance aircraft remote sensing for ecosystem assessments, for more timely detection of coastal erosion and changes in ocean color and shallow water bathymetry
  • Periodically produce maps of marine habitats of the areal extent of coral reefs, sea grass beds, kelp beds, mangrove forests, marsh grasses, soft and hard bottom substrates, and shallow water bathymetry.
  • Enhance shore-based measurements harmful algae.
  • Develop standardized sensor packages for voluntary observing ships, ships of opportunity, autonomous glider platforms.
  • Develop process-oriented, observation-driven models of important coastal processes for the nowcast and forecast of episodic events and disseminate these results to the user community for decision making and information of the public.
  • Implement networks of high frequency radar as part of regional observing systems for coastal currents.In the sections that follow, the individual research thrusts of each of the GSFC science investigators are outlined. These activities all contribute to supporting the ESE’s focus of understanding the Earth System while also supporting the ISOOS goals that are aimed at improving predictions of climate change and its effects, mitigating the effects of natural hazards, improving the safety and efficiency of marine operations, improve national security, reducing public health risks, protecting and restoring marine ecosystems, and sustaining marine resources.The central goals for coastal science activities at GSFC include:
  • addressing the pertinent Earth Science Enterprise questions outlined in the GSFC strategic plan,
  • conducting applied research in the coastal zone in order to support satellite remote sensing Cal/Val activities, develop satellite product algorithms, collect data required to develop the next generation of NASA satellites targeted at resolving the coastal ocean at the scales required by the ISOOS implementation plan, support development of in situ instruments and platforms for autonomous ocean observations, and development of coupled, high-resolution, coastal circulation and biogeochemical models,
  • obtaining timely remote sensed data to support coastal monitoring and assessment activities, such as coastal erosion, habitat health and coral reef mapping,
  • developing new technologies that provide useful real-time and near real-time information for user communities to support effective decision-making concerning Coastal Zone issues,
  • providing educational outreach opportunities by structuring programs for K-12 students and teachers in on-site and off-site educational exposures to Coastal Zone science and research, by hosting and mentoring summer- and full-time high school, undergraduate, graduate students and Post-Docs, and by establishing a NASA Fellowship Program dedicated to Coastal Zone research.In the following sections, we first expand upon the outreach activities that will be a central component of the Wallops Coastal Research Initiative and then provide detailed information on the current and future research activities of the NASA/GSFC researchers as they pertain to the development of a coastal research center.

    Educational and Institutional Outreach

    Outreach is vital to the success of the NASA/GSFC Coastal Research Initiative. A number of educational experiences (student internships and fellowships) and collaborations (graduate student and post-doctoral research projects) are a presnent and active part of NASA’s coastal research efforts. Collaborations with research groups outside NASA (EPA, NOAA, ONR, DOE, various universities and private research institutions) are also an active and integral part of what NASA science investigators support. These collaborations and educational opportunities must continue to be developed as a key part of NASA’s Coastal Science Initiative.

    As an example of the level of educational activities supported within the Observational Science Branch, this summer the branch will actively support 3 high school and 5 undergraduate summer interns as part of our on-going effort to support NASA/GSFC’s summer educational programs. A few students also participate over the course of the academic year as student interns. Additionally, several science investigators hold positions on graduate student committees. Also, during the summer of 2002, OSB is supporting the Goddard Coastal Research Graduate Fellowship Program for students currently enrolled in Earth sciences, physical or biological oceanography, and biological or environmental science disciplines. In the summer of 2002, 6 such students will work on a variety of science projects that are being conducted at WFF. The summer program will be repeated as the opportunity arises.

    Critical Issues in the Coastal Zone

    One characteristic of the coastal zone that makes it particularly challenging from an observational and modeling perspective is that many of the environmental phenomenon of interest are episodic in nature. Resolving causative relationships between forcing factors and consequences and developing nowcasting and forecasting capabilities thus requires a commitment to long-term monitoring programs embellished with focused process-oriented investigations. The importance of sustained observations in the coastal zone has long been recognized, is central to the design of ISOOS, and requires regional centers for coastal zone research. With respect to the Mid-Atlantic Region, GSFC’s Wallops Flight Facility is an ideal location for such a center.

    The fundamental paradigm guiding the development of a sustained coastal zone, application-oriented observational center can be conceptualized as a triad of inter-related components: Forcings, Consequences, and Observations (Figure 1). The ‘Consequences’ component represents the particular phenomenon of social or economic interest, the ‘Forcings’ component represents the physical, chemical, and/or biological factors directly controlling the extent and frequency of the Consequences, and the ‘Observations’ component represents those environmental characteristics measured either directly or remotely that provide information on changes in the Forcing factors. The bi-directional arrows in Figure 1 signify the functional and operational relations between components. Operationally, a triad is formed by first recognizing a Consequence and then making Observations that lead to an understanding of underlying Forcings (i.e., Consequences Observations Forcings). Functionally, the environmental Forcings directly control the Consequences (i.e., Forcings Consequences) and, through their identification, lead to new Observational technologies that permit nowcasts and forecasts of the Consequences (i.e., Forcing Observations Consequences). The function of a Regional Ocean Observing Center (ROOC), such as OSB at WFF, is thus to (1) provide sustained observations facilitating data and data product distribution systems (e.g., ISOOS, CO-DAAC, CoastWatch), (2) support research programs focused on developing process-oriented relationships between components of a given triad, and (3) to engender new technologies leading to improved observations linking environmental Forcings to Consequences.

    As an operational definition, the U.S. coastal zone can be considered as all estuarine and marine waters extending offshore 200 miles to the edge of the Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ). Within this boundary, a myriad of science issues exist—ranging from relatively simple to complex—that have a direct social and/or economic significance. In 1995, the National Science and Technology Council identified 46 high-priority research needs for the coastal zone, many of which possessed strong regional specificity and importance. This daunting list can be simplified into 5 primary categories of interest: Public Health, Living Marine Resources, Ecosystem Health, National Security, and the Physical Environment (Figure 2). Within each of these categories, a variety of specific issues (i.e., Consequences) can be identified and associated with specific environmental Forcings (Figure 2). These Forcings can, in turn, be associated with a variety of current and developing Observational capabilities (Figure 3), many of which are resident at GSFC’s Observational Science Branch (OSB) at WFF. In addition, the OSB, in collaboration with UCLA, Scripps, Rutgers and JPL, is developing a Regional Earth Modeling System (REMS) for the U.S. West, East and Gulf Coasts in order to resolve many of the coastal zone processes required for making the necessary Predictions that will become possible with knowledge gained from the Consequences Observations Forcings triad.

    Many of the Consequences identified in Figure 2 are of national interest and must be integrated nationally through the suite of observations conducted at regional, ocean observing centers, while other Consequences will be specific to isolated regional observing centers—for instance the extend of hypoxia associated within the Chesapeake Bay. The Wallops Flight Facility is in close proximity to a diverse suite of coastal environments, each with its own specific issues of societal importance. To the west of the WFF is the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States. The shores of the Chesapeake and its tributaries are home to a large human population, which places tremendous pressure on the bay for recreation, commerce, and effluent processing. Some of the many Consequences of concern in the bay region include changes in shallow water bathymetry (a critical issue for navigation and distributions of submerged vegetation), eutrophication (including excessive algal blooms, harmful algal blooms, and deep-water hypoxia), and invasions of non-native species (which can disrupt entire marine food webs and devastate commercial fisheries). To the east, between WFF and the Atlantic Ocean are a complex system of Barrier Islands that support valuable commercial fisheries, are a tremendous source of recreational revenue for Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware shore communities, function as important nurseries for juvenile fish and shellfish, and provide critical habitats for permanent and migratory birds and wildlife. Storm surges, flooding, and beach erosion are a few of Consequences of particular concern to the Barrier Island area.

    Consequences Forcings
    Public Health
    Chemical contamination of seafood
    Drinking water contamination
    Exposure to human/biological                 pathogensLiving Marine Resources
    Changed abundance/type of                 commercial fisheries
    Altered aquaculture production
    Loss of wildlife/recruitment habitat
    Loss of substrates for submerged                 vegetationEcosystem Health
    Introduced species
    Harmful algal blooms
    Nutrient loading/stoichiometry
    Altered hydrologic cyclesPhysical Environment
    Changes in coastal optics
    Changes in currents
    Altered navigational routesNational Security
    Severe storms
    Sea level rise
    Shoreline changes
    Coastal flooding
    Episodic storms & extreme weather
    Sediment inputs & deposition
    Non-native species introductions
    Physical restructuring of environment
    Drainage basin alterations
    River & groundwater changes
    Climatological changes in heat and         momentum (e.g., winds, heat flux)
    Climatological changes in coastal         circulation & currents
    Input of human pathogens
    Point-source & broad chemical         contamination
    Figure 2. The 5 primary categories of societal and economically significant coastal zone. Consequences (left box), with a limited set of specific examples provided for each. These Consequences are governed by environmental forcing factors, such as those identified in the box on the right.

    At a larger scale, the Mid-Atlantic region is an important contributor to US ocean margin carbon sequestration and is the site of substantial air-sea gas and particle exchange (e.g., CO2 fluxes across the air-sea boundary, atmospheric nutrient deposition to marine waters). The economic importance of this region and its dependence on healthy marine environments was clearly experienced during the recent outbreak of Phiesteria in North Carolina. This single episode was estimated to cost local economies over $100 million as a result of declined seafood consumption, recreational fishing, and tourism, despite the fact that Pfiesteria cannot harm human health through seafood consumption (in other words, the simple perception of a threat cost over $100 million!). With the ever-heightening pressures placed on the Mid-Atlantic coastal zone, the frequency of environmental disruptions will increase and, consequently, opportunities for explosions of non-native, nuisance, or toxic species will be more frequent. The economic and social costs of such occurrences and other coastal zone issues can be significantly reduced by understanding the controlling Forcing factors involved and establishing an Observational framework supporting the detection and prediction of such events. This is the primary motivation for developing the ISOOS and, together with NASA’s requirements for developing better coastal remote sensing capabilities, a driving motivation for establishing the GSFC’s WFF as a premier center for coastal zone research in the Mid-Atlantic region.