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Space to sea

A Memorial University-led team is using Canada’s satellites to map our oceans’ resources

By Mandy Cook

A Memorial University professor of oceanography and marine ecology says his research group’s multidisciplinary expertise and integrated approach are enhancing global capacity in marine benthic habitat mapping.

Dr. Patrick Gagnon, head of the Department of Ocean Sciences, Faculty of Science, and his collaborators are conducting multidisciplinary research that should position Memorial and Canada at the forefront of satellite-based, Earth-observation approaches to create a national framework and a highly qualified workforce for the synoptic study and prediction of one of the country’s most important ocean resources.

The Canadian Space Agency is investing $310,000 in the project, titled Satellite EO-based Approaches to the Creation of a Framework and Qualified Workforce for Synoptic Study and Prediction of One of Canada’s Most Important Ocean Resources. Dr. Gagnon is principal investigator.

A pair of wolfish in a kelp (Alaria esculenta) forest at a depth of approximately five meters in Flat Rock Cove, Flat Rock, N.L.
A pair of wolfish in a kelp (Alaria esculenta) forest at a depth of approximately five meters in Flat Rock Cove, Flat Rock, N.L.
Photo: Dr. Patrick Gagnon

Key ocean resource

For nearly two decades, Dr. Gagnon and his students have studied the drivers of changes in the populations of bottom ocean organisms, including kelp.

Kelp is one of Canada’s most biodiverse and ecologically and economically important ocean resources.

These large brown seaweeds form compact aggregations called “forests” in shallow rocky coastal areas.

The forests provide key habitat to a number of invertebrates, fish and other seaweed species while contributing significantly to carbon capture and sequestration.

Dr. Patrick Gagnon walks on a carpet of rockweeds at low tide along the shore of Rocky Harbour, looking for kelp debris in preparation for drone surveying.
Dr. Patrick Gagnon walks on a carpet of rockweeds at low tide along the shore of Rocky Harbour, looking for kelp debris in preparation for drone surveying.
Photo: Dr. Patrick Gagnon

Dr. Gagnon says much of the kelp surveying work is done with traditional scuba diving techniques and aerial drones, which can be limiting.

“Satellites and the various sensors they carry can dramatically increase the spatial and temporal windows of observations needed to explore a variety of oceans-related questions,” he said.

The funding will allow Dr. Gagnon and his group to further develop a comprehensive suite of satellite-based, Earth observation approaches to map and predict the trajectory these sensitive habitats will take in a globally changing ocean.

Gathering expertise

The research group assembles expertise in the areas of marine remote sensing; geographic information systems; computer science, including artificial intelligence; and teaching and education from Dr. Gagnon in the Department of Ocean Sciences, Dr. Lourdes Peña-Castillo in the Departments of Computer Science and Biology, and Dr. Keith Power in the Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, at Memorial University; Dr. Blair Bridger at the College of the North Atlantic; and Dr. Timothy Webster at the Nova Scotia Community College.

“In terms of teaching, we will train students to apply artificial intelligence methods to Earth observation data which will be a new skill for our students,” said Dr. Peña-Castillo. “In terms of research, we will generate advance kelp forest detection capabilities that will allow us to assess the impact of climate change in these ecosystems.”

Ocean sciences research students making notes of site characteristics while operating a GPS signal boosting antenna in support of a drone operation.
Ocean sciences research students making notes of site characteristics while operating a GPS signal boosting antenna in support of a drone operation.
Photo: Dr. Patrick Gagnon

The team will fulfil eight research objectives that intersect between multiple natural science disciplines and educational development.

“As faculty we continually learn as we go and we take pride in communicating our knowledge and experiences to help our students develop as scientists and stewards,” said Dr. Gagnon. “This is why our team is particularly looking forward to being involved in this project and teach or learn from one another.”

Project deliverables include an integrated suite of learning modules for remote sensing- and Earth observation-based marine habitat mapping; a remote sensing-Earth observation-centred community of practitioners to engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning; kelp forest detection models based on self-supervised deep learning from Earth observation-data; and advanced visualization tools for satellite data interpretation.

The transition between a kelp bed and green sea green urchin barrens at a depth of approximately five meters in Bay Bulls, N.L.
The transition between a kelp forest and green sea urchin barrens at a depth of approximately five meters in Bay Bulls, N.L.
Photo: Dr. Patrick Gagnon

The main test and study sites will be in Newfoundland and Labrador, with complementary validation work in Nova Scotia.

“Beyond natural sciences, a core objective of the project is to develop a suite of educational tools that can be used to create fun and stimulating learning environments in which high school and university students learn about oceans and how high-tech tools like satellites and their sensors can help study and protect the oceans,” said Dr. Gagnon.

Aligning priorities

The project is funded under the Canadian Space Agency’s Research Opportunities in Satellite Earth Observation Program.

The funding provides a prime opportunity to build on recent research Dr. Gagnon carried out in his lab.

Dr. Gagnon getting out of the ocean after a dive to acquire ground truth data in support of drone and satellite image analysis. He is wearing a wet suit and scuba gear.
Dr. Patrick Gagnon getting out of the ocean after a dive to acquire ground truth data in support of drone and satellite image analysis.
Photo: Mark Bailey

That work was conducted in partnership with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and showed the advantages and limitations of combining information about the seafloor and the physical ocean environment with different types of data acquired with remote sensors for the mapping of benthic organisms, including kelp.

“Our group is very excited to propose and test innovative technological changes focusing on effective approaches to Canada’s marine resources monitoring that are sustainable, globally competitive, societally acceptable and resilient to change,” he said.

A pile of kelp washed onshore after a wave storm in Cook’s Harbour, N.L.
A pile of kelp washed onshore after a wave storm in Cook’s Harbour, N.L.
Photo: Dr. Patrick Gagnon

The project will involve multiple highly qualified personnel, including at least five undergraduate and two graduate research assistants, two master of science students and one doctoral student.

These highly qualified personnel will engage in different, yet interrelated, research modules that will foster collaborations with academic, government and industry partners, providing a rich and stimulating training environment.

Dr. Gagnon says this type of project is important for Memorial University, Canada and abroad.

“We are training the next generation of ocean professionals to develop and maintain marine research activities and remain competitive at an international scale.”


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