Spaceborne Sensors Track Marine Debris Circulation in the Gulf of Mexico

Using geostrophic velocity of currents calculated from sea surface height data, we performed a 60-day backtracking analysis of marine debris for each day of January 2010. The top image shows initial placement of marine debris particles near the coast of Padre Island National Seashore, Texas, during the analysis. The bottom image indicates likely source areas of marine debris based on the backtracking analysis. Source: Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research.

Using geostrophic velocity of currents calculated from sea surface height data, we performed a 60-day backtracking analysis of marine debris for each day of January 2010. The top image shows initial placement of marine debris particles near the coast of Padre Island National Seashore, Texas, during the analysis. The bottom image indicates likely source areas of marine debris based on the backtracking analysis. Source: Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research.

Team Location: NASA Stennis Space Center

Authors: Ross Reahard, Brandie Mitchell, Aaron Albin, Candis Mallett, Shelby Barrett, Lucas Lee, Blaise Pezold, Chris Brooks

Advisors/Science Mentors: Joe Spruce, Dr. Kenton Ross, Dr. Robert Leben, Neal Parry, William Botts

Abstract: The goal of this project is to apply satellite data of surface circulation in the Gulf of Mexico to aid in the monitoring of marine debris dispersal and the regulation of marine debris practices. Marine debris is a persistent problem for coastal areas throughout the world. In the Gulf of Mexico, the Loop Current flows north through the Yucatan Channel, loops east, then south, exiting through the Florida Straits. Clockwise-rotating areas of warm water, known as eddies, periodically separate from the Loop Current. These eddies have the potential to trap and transport debris onto shores, such as the Padre Island National Seashore. The Padre Island National Seashore is a 68-mile-long barrier island beach in southeastern Texas, and is the longest undeveloped beach in the world. This pristine beach can accumulate up to 1 ton of marine debris per linear mile. This project uses sea surface height and height anomaly data created using NASA radar altimeter satellites TOPEX/Poseidon, Jason 1, and Jason 2; as well as European altimeter satellites ERS-1, ERS-2, and ENVISAT. It also uses MODIS sea surface temperature (SST) data to aid in monitoring the Loop Current. The sea surface height and height anomaly data is processed to calculate geostrophic velocities and to predict particle paths. This research will provide NOAA’s Marine Debris Program and the Padre Island National Seashore with a better understanding of how the Loop Current and surface circulation patterns disperse marine debris to coastal areas. A methodology to monitor Gulf of Mexico surface circulation and to predict particle paths by using satellite altimeter data will be provided to partnering agencies. The project will provide maps of debris trajectories and geostrophic currents that demonstrate the usefulness of satellite altimetry data to monitor oceanographic processes that affect the distribution of marine debris.

Video transcript available here.