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Why does Casco Bay’s water look so clear?

Peering over the side of the R/V Joseph E. Payne, Staff Scientist Mike Doan could see schools of small fish swimming in the water below, while the red hood of a lion’s mane jellyfish floated by on the other side of our Baykeeper boat. What caught Mike’s eye, however, was not the sight of marine life, but rather the fact that his view was unobstructed: for this time of year, the waters of Casco Bay are exceptionally clear.

There are many factors that can affect the clarity of the water in Casco Bay. One major determinant is the abundance of phytoplankton – the tiny marine plants at the base of the ocean food web. Just like plants on land, phytoplankton contain chlorophyll, the green pigment that enables photosynthesis. When phytoplankton are abundant the Bay is a greenish-blue hue. In their absence, the water is often clear and bluer, reflecting the color of the sky above.

The importance of phytoplankton to the health of Casco Bay and the world at large is difficult to overstate. Globally, phytoplankton are estimated to produce 50 percent of the oxygen in the air we breathe. In addition, phytoplankton are key in the food web as they are grazed on by zooplankton, which in turn are fed on by small fish and progressively larger animals. In short, tiny phytoplankton have an oversized impact, providing foundational support for nearly all marine life.

The spring phytoplankton blooms in 2019 and 2021 each peaked in February and trailed off into March. In contrast to these earlier blooms, the spring blooms of 2018 and 2020 were larger in magnitude, with each peaking in March and carrying over into April. This variability may be typical or a sign of changing conditions in Casco Bay – only more data will tell.

Phytoplankton derive their name from the Greek words “phyto” (plant) and “plankton” (wandering, drifting) because they are unable to swim against the flow of the water and instead drift where currents carry them. As phytoplankton have no choice but literally “to go with the flow,” their activity and abundance fluctuate throughout the year as the characteristics and properties of water quality change with the seasons.

As we reported in March, spring in Casco Bay kicks off with a phytoplankton bloom. Warmer waters, more sunlight from longer days, and increased nutrient availability from melting snow and runoff are among the factors that create ideal conditions for this seasonal boom in phytoplankton activity. The spring bloom declines as phytoplankton deplete the available nutrients from the water and are consumed by zooplankton.

We track phytoplankton blooms in Casco Bay by measuring chlorophyll levels at our Continuous Monitoring Stations. This year, our data suggest the spring phytoplankton bloom occurred early, peaking in February and trailing off into March. Our data show a similar pattern in 2019. These early blooms stand in contrast to the larger spring blooms of 2018 and 2020, both of which peaked in March and carried over into April.

“Science has shown there is variability in the timing, duration, and size of spring phytoplankton blooms, so these ‘early’ blooms we’re seeing in our data may be entirely typical,” says Mike. “At the same time, factors like weather, water temperature, and ocean chemistry have large effects on phytoplankton, so marine scientists are concerned that spring blooms may be sensitive to climate change. Because phytoplankton are at the base of the marine food web, a significant change to the timing of the phytoplankton bloom could have implications for every level of Casco Bay’s ecosystem.”

If climate change is affecting the spring phytoplankton bloom in Casco Bay, we will be among the first to know. While Maine has decades of data that show the temperatures of our coastal waters are increasing and that our seas are rising, identifying trends in seasonal phenomena such as the spring bloom requires a detailed, long-term data set – just like the data we are collecting with our Continuous Monitoring Stations. We can track phytoplankton blooms in addition to some of the factors that impact them, such as water temperature or the quantity of spring runoff.

“We’re still in the beginning stages of this effort,” says Mike. “With five years of data from one station, we’re beginning to get a sense of the seasonal changes we can expect to see in the Bay. As more data accumulates, we may have a deeper understanding of how climate change is contributing to changing conditions in the water. With these scientifically grounded insights, we’ll be better prepared to advocate for the policies and practices that will protect the health of the Bay.”

Mike deploys our Portland Harbor Continuous Monitoring Station

Continuous Monitoring Stations are Game Changer

Mike deploys our Portland Harbor Continuous Monitoring Station
Mike deploys our Portland Harbor Continuous Monitoring Station

More than 700 Friends have contributed $1.5 million to help maintain three stations for a decade.

Casco Bay is invaluable to the economy and quality of life in Maine. Our coastal waters provide us with food, recreation, transportation, inspiration, and economic opportunities.

But Casco Bay is changing and changing quickly.

How is climate change impacting Casco Bay? Is the Bay getting warmer? Are our waters acidifying? How can we continue to protect the health of Casco Bay for generations to come?

Addressing these questions involves collecting water quality data on a frequent basis and for a long time. In 2019, we created the Climate Change and Casco Bay Fund for Technology, Monitoring, and Community Engagement to launch and maintain three Continuous Monitoring Stations around the Bay and communicate changing conditions to the public. This winter we reached our goal of raising $1.5 million, thanks to more than 700 Friends who donated to the Fund, making our plan a reality.

In March, we launched a new station in eastern Casco Bay in Harpswell’s Cundys Harbor. And, as the photo above shows, in May we deployed our new Portland Harbor station. They complement our existing station located at the coastal center of the Bay in Yarmouth, collecting data hourly on how the Bay is changing, 365 days a year.*

“With climate change already impacting the Bay, the launch of these stations is a game changer for us,” says Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell. “Their steady streams of data will strengthen our reporting to the community and bolster our advocacy and stewardship efforts.”

Staff Scientist Mike Doan designed our Continuous Monitoring Stations, affectionately known as our “cages of science.” Oceanographic equipment in the cages collects data on temperature, acidity, dissolved oxygen, carbon dioxide, chlorophyll, dissolved organic matter, turbidity, salinity, and water depth.

“With three stations working at once, the science only gets better from here,” says Mike. “The Portland Harbor location is key because it is in the most heavily used part of the Bay. In eastern Casco Bay, water quality may be influenced by the Kennebec River, and our Harpswell station will track that. Across the board, these stations are deepening our knowledge of what is happening in Casco Bay.”

Data from the stations are available here.

To commemorate the launch of our two new Stations and the completion of the Climate Change and Casco Bay Fund that is making this all possible, please join us for an online Casco Bay Matters event to celebrate! On Wednesday, June 16, from 5:30-6:15 p.m., Staff Scientist Mike Doan will share and compare, for the first time, data from all three Continuous Monitoring Stations.

Mike will be joined by Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell and Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca to discuss how these new stations will enhance our advocacy on behalf of Casco Bay for years to come.

We hope you can join us!

What: Celebrating Data From Our New Continuous Monitoring Stations — A Casco Bay Matters Event

When: Wednesday, June 16, from 5:30-6:15 p.m.

Please register to attend this online event.

Register Now

 

 *We remain grateful that the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership has supported the launch and maintenance of our initial station.

Join us: new stations, a celebration, and data!

As spring settles on Casco Bay, ospreys return to their nests, and alewives leave the sea and swim upriver to spawn in freshwater.

The arrival of spring has always brought seasonal shifts to Casco Bay, but today climate change and human influences are impacting our coastal waters at a scale and pace we do not fully understand. That is why we are expanding our array of Continuous Monitoring Stations to monitor changing conditions in three regions of Casco Bay, every hour of every day, 365 days a year.

In March, we launched a new Continuous Monitoring Station in Harpswell’s Cundys Harbor to track conditions unique to the embayments and coves of eastern Casco Bay. Today, we launched our Portland Harbor Station to monitor water quality in the Bay’s busiest and most populated region. These two new Stations join our original Continuous Monitoring Station located at the coastal center of the Bay off Yarmouth.

To commemorate the launch of our two new Stations and the completion of the Climate Change and Casco Bay Fund that is making this all possible, please join us for an online Casco Bay Matters event to celebrateOn Wednesday, June 16, from 5:30-6:15 p.m., Staff Scientist Mike Doan will share and compare, for the first time, data from all three Continuous Monitoring Stations.

Register Now

Mike will be joined by Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell and Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca to discuss how these new stations will enhance our advocacy on behalf of Casco Bay for years to come.

We hope you can join us!

What: Celebrating Data From Our New Continuous Monitoring Stations — A Casco Bay Matters Event

When: Wednesday, June 16, from 5:30-6:15 p.m.

Please register to attend this online event.

Register Now

Good news for Casco Bay!

We have great news to share: we reached the $1.5 million goal for our Climate Change and Casco Bay Fund for Technology, Monitoring, and Community Engagement!

We launched the Fund to be used over the next decade to establish and maintain three oceanographic Continuous Monitoring Stations to collect data on how the Bay is changing. Communicating those changing conditions to our community is paramount for advocating for policies and actions needed to adapt and address the impacts of climate change.

Already, the Fund is being put to use. Staff Scientist Mike Doan has just launched a brand new Continuous Monitoring Station in Cundys Harbor, Harpswell. The launch of a third station in Portland Harbor is imminent and will make a splash in the coming weeks. These two new stations join our existing station off Yarmouth in collecting data on how the Bay is changing, every hour of every day, all year long.

To mark this milestone, we wanted to share with you this short video documenting the launch of the Yarmouth and Harpswell stations.

Having three continuous monitoring stations is a game changer for us. Together, these stations will convey conditions found across the Bay, from east to west. This wealth of data will strengthen our science and advocacy to protect the health of the Bay for years to come.

While we reached our original fundraising goal, Friends like you can still donate to the Climate Change and Casco Bay Fund. Additional support will allow us to continue to maintain and operate our stations beyond the next decade. If you are inspired by our work, you can donate to the Fund here.

Donate to the Climate Change and Casco Bay Fund

 

Celebrate with us

Join us on Wednesday, June 16, from 5:30-6:15 p.m., for an online event to share data from all three of our Continuous Monitoring Stations and to celebrate the ways the Climate Change and Casco Bay Fund will enhance our efforts to improve and protect the health of the Bay for years to come.

Staff Scientist Mike Doan will share and compare, for the first time, data from all three continuous monitoring stations. Register here.

Register Now

We hope you join us!

Celebrating Data From Our New Continuous Monitoring Stations — A Casco Bay Matters Event

We are hosting an online event to share data from all three of our Continuous Monitoring Stations and to celebrate the ways the Climate Change and Casco Bay Fund will enhance our efforts to improve and protect the health of the Bay for years to come.

On Wednesday, June 16, from 5:30-6:15 p.m., Staff Scientist Mike Doan will share and compare, for the first time, data from all three continuous monitoring stations.

He will be joined by Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell and Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca to talk about how these new data sets are informing our work. Following a year of unprecedented challenge, we will take the time to commemorate our collective work to keep Casco Bay blue.

We hope you join us!

Register Now

An annual spring awakening in the Bay

Our top 10 moments of 2020

As this very odd year comes to a close, let’s celebrate the large and small ways our community helped us protect the health of Casco Bay in 2020. Here are our top ten for the year:

1.) On December 2, the Maine Climate Council released its four-year Climate Action Plan, “Maine Won’t Wait.” We are heartened that the plan sets a roadmap for achieving carbon neutrality in Maine by 2045 and includes important mitigation measures to help coastal communities adapt to looming changes.

2.) Our volunteer Water Reporters were chosen as CommUNITY Champions. More than 240 volunteers are helping us keep watch over the health of the Bay.

3.) Gulf of Maine Poet Gary Lawless wrote the poem, “For Casco Bay, For Us,” in honor of our 30th anniversary. You can read the poem here and hear Gary read it at our Celebrating Water event in July, hosted by Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell.

4.) The South Portland City Council passed a groundbreaking fertilizer ordinance to promote soil health and to protect Casco Bay from nitrogen pollution.

5.) In October, Staff Scientist Mike Doan and Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca shared what they saw on the Bay this field season during What Casco Bay is Telling Us: A Casco Bay Matters Event.  Ivy also hosted a Casco Bay Matters event earlier this year about the Maine Climate Council.

6.) Knack Factory made this short documentary about our work in honor of our 30th anniversary. If you liked that film, watch this behind the scenes montage about how it was made!

7.) We were delighted that Royal River Conservation Trust selected Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell and Friends of Casco Bay as recipients of their Conservation Champion Award.

8.) On Facebook, this huge lion’s mane jellyfish and this beautiful rainbow were our two most shared images from this year.

9.) We launched the public phase of our $1.5 million Climate Change and Casco Bay Fund. We are now less than $15,000 from crossing the finish line! And we will soon be launching two more continuous monitoring stations, thanks to the Fund!

10.) While we couldn’t celebrate our 30th anniversary in person, we were honored to have these community partners reflect on our success over the past three decades. We also took a trip down memory lane by scrolling through this timeline of our biggest victories and milestones.

We look forward to keeping you updated in the New Year. Thank you for being a Friend of Casco Bay.

Warming Waters Are Hot Topic

As the purple line for 2020 shows, temperatures measured at our Continuous Monitoring Station in Yarmouth, Maine, are setting records. Our staff, board, and volunteers are using data from the station in conversations with community members and decision makers to explore what we need to do to address and adapt to changes that are happening.

 

Day after day, we watched temperature records being set. This year has been hotter than usual. Out of the first 243 days of this year, January through August, 2020,  132 days exhibited a daily average temperature higher than established for that day in any of the prior four years, 2016 – 2019.

“While warm water temperatures may have been great for swimming in the Bay,” says Staff Scientist Mike Doan, “there are significant downsides to warming water. Less oxygen, more invasive species, changes in the ocean food web, and the growth of nuisance and harmful algal blooms are all associated with warming temperatures.”

In addition to hourly data collected at the station, Friends of Casco Bay’s staff monitor another 22 sites around the Bay as part of our seasonal spot-checks. Those sites, too, have been extremely warm. Our offshore site in Broad Sound saw temperatures near 22°C [almost 72°F], and the upper New Meadows River had temperatures over 25°C [nearly 80°F].

Other researchers have noted similarly high temperatures offshore in the Gulf of Maine this year. In August, NOAA satellites measured an average sea surface temperature of 68.93°F, nearly reaching the record set in 2012.

These data are critical as we continue our advocacy work with the Maine Climate Council at the state level and Portland and South Portland’s One Climate Future initiative at the local level, to address and mitigate the impacts of looming changes.

“What we have been seeing this year reaffirms for me the urgency of our collective work to document change, address the root causes of climate change, and prepare for its consequences at community, regional, state, and national levels,” says Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca.

What warming waters could mean for Casco Bay

 

This year has been one of the warmest on record. Why is that bad for the health of Casco Bay? Check out this short video as Staff Scientist Mike Doan takes a quick dive into our Continuous Monitoring Station’s data to share one of the biggest reasons we should be concerned about warming waters.

As always, you can always find our most recent Continuous Monitoring Station data on our website.

In case you missed them, here are the first three videos of Mike’s Field Notes:

 

Donate to Climate Change and Casco Bay Fund

Friends of Casco Bay created the Climate Change and Casco Bay Fund to be used over the next ten years to understand how Casco Bay is being affected by climate change. We are launching and maintaining three oceanographic Continuous Monitoring Stations at three coastal sites around the Bay to collect data on water quality conditions. Communicating those changing conditions to our community is paramount for advocating for policies and actions needed to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. You can read all about this work and the fund to support it here