Explore the seashore without taking a day off from work

Northeast beach of Nahant, Mass. at low tide. Image via Brian Helmuth.

North­east beach of Nahant, Mass. at low tide. Image via Brian Helmuth.

Every now and then I’ll get word of a fac­ulty or stu­dent project that feels a bit like get­ting a sur­prise cup­cake deliv­ered to my email inbox. Not only is it totally sweet, it’s also got some kind of icing on top that makes it per­fect for iNSolution. Alan Mislove’s Twitter map was one, as was Lisa Feldman Barrett’s sci­ence of emo­tion haunted house. Today’s sur­prise cup­cake comes from Brian Helmuth’s lab at the Marine Sci­ence Center.

Hel­muth uses math­e­mat­ical and com­pu­ta­tional models to fore­cast where and when climate-​​change related impacts will show up in the marine envi­ron­ment, as well as how severe they will be. In order to do this, his team needs to col­lect oodles of real-​​time, location-​​based data to under­stand spe­cific habi­tats and species. Working in the inter­tidal zones of places like Oregon, Panama, South Car­olina, and China, just to name a few, Hel­muth and his team have deployed devices which they call  “robo­mus­sels” all around the global sea­coast. These little babies record data like sea level changes, water and air tem­per­a­ture, and solar radi­a­tion, all of which the team com­bines to paint a real­istic and timely pic­ture of the local environment.

Another piece of the team’s work is based on obser­va­tional data: counting the number of indi­vid­uals of a cer­tain flora or fauna species located on a par­tic­ular boulder on the shores of Palermo, Italy for example. With dozens of research sites around the world, one won­ders how the guy keeps up. Well, turns out robo­mus­sells aren’t the only mind-​​blowing tech­nology Hel­muth uses to keep tabs on these places. He’s also set up Gigapan cam­eras at many of the loca­tions which allows him and his team to look very closely at a coast­line thou­sands of miles away. And this, friends, is the cupcake.

What began as a research tool hap­pens to double as a phe­nom­enal work of inter­ac­tive, dig­ital art of sorts. You can explore the shores of Nahant, Mass. where the Marine Sci­ence Center lives, clicking on hidden trea­sures in the pic­tures like a beau­tiful bed of Asco­phyllum nodosum (aka, rock­weed) or a G-​​Force logger recording the direc­tion and force of water move­ment at high tide. You can search for sloths in the forests of Panama, wander a river­bank in the Nether­lands, or take in a sunset in the Shenan­doah Valley.

These “vir­tual tours” and many more now live on Helmuth’s lab web­site, thanks to the efforts of senior lab tech­ni­cian Francis Choi, along with a couple inter­ac­tive maps noting the loca­tions of var­ious devices being used by Hel­muth and his col­leagues at the MSC and in Oregon.

Hel­muth has plans to deploy the awe­some­ness at local k-​​12 schools, giving kids the chance to explore weather, cli­mate, data col­lec­tion, and analysis in a hands-​​on manner.

Just to give you a little taste of things, here’s the tour of Nahant: