Environmental Science

Environmental Science and CS

Everywhere in the world, people depend upon a healthy environment. Monitoring our oceans, forests, farms, rivers, and even our cities is critical to understanding how to preserve our world and make the most of our natural resources. Additionally, understanding the behavior and health of the organisms that inhabit these space is crucial in our role as caretakers of the planet.

Computer scientists have been playing an active role in these tasks, working with environmental scientists, oceanographers, hydrologists, and urban planners. For example, our undergraduates have been deploying sensors along the river in Amherst to monitor contaminants in the water. To the right, undergraduates Antony Partensky and Jeffrey Cleveland deploy a buoy that uses acoustics to communicate with underwater sensors on the Quabbin Reservoir.

In another project, we have tagged wood and snapper turtles with small computers, radios, and GPS devices. Together with environmental scientists from UMass, Prof. Mark Corner deploys sensors on the backs of wood turtles (Clemmys insculpta). The goal is to track the turtle's movements to ensure the land set aside for protecting their habitat is sufficiently large.

The turtles are found throughput the northeast, living along streams and woodlands. Its numbers are dwindling through loss of habitat and highway mortality, but conservation efforts to study the creatures in their natural habitat have been hindered by a lack of tracking data. Researchers currently track turtles manually using radio telemetry and re practically limited to recording a location every two to three days per animal. In order to more accurately understand how these turtles behave and use their habitat, Mark is developing a new tracking system to collect more frequent and detailed data.

Engineering a sensor suitable for the back of a turtle highlights many challenges. The mounted sensor contains a GPS receiver and processor and must be small and lightweight. Power consumption is a key concern, since a typical GPS receiver will completely drain a small battery in two hours. Luckily, the cold-blooded turtles need to sun themselves, so a small solar panel can recharge the battery. Still, programming the devices requires careful consideration of varying energy availability and demand.