Stevens Wins NSF Grant for International, Multidisciplinary Partnership to Study the Amazon River

Rivers around the world release fresh water into the ocean, playing a vital role in ocean dynamics. The Amazon River in South America is by far the largest river in the world in terms of waterflow. Dr. Michael Bruno, Dean of the Charles V. Schaefer, Jr. School of Engineering and Science at Stevens Institute of Technology and an expert on ocean observation systems and coastal ocean dynamics, has been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant through the Pan-American Advanced Studies Institute Program to lead an international partnership of universities dedicated to the goal of an observing and modeling system on the Amazon River, with a particular focus on outflow. A unique gathering of US and Latin American universities at a two-week intensive workshop in July 2013 will lay the groundwork for a sustained exchange of scientific and engineering knowledge across various regions and disciplines while providing students with extraordinary opportunities for advanced study. Participants will investigate the remarkable physical oceanographic, hydrodynamic, sediment transport, and coastal sedimentation processes that influence the ecosystems characteristic of the Amazon fluvial-coast-shelf region.

Dr. Michael Bruno

“The Amazon River accounts for 18% of the freshwater that flows into the world’s oceans, and significant changes would likely have far-reaching consequences,” says Dr. Bruno. “The workshop next year is a critical first step toward a multi-year research and education collaboration that establishes sustained observation and forecast systems in the Amazon region.”

The Amazon River outflow is far-reaching in a literal and figurative sense. The region of discharge stretches out into the ocean, covering an area more than twice the size of the state of Texas for several months each year. This output has vital, complex effects on the ocean, spreading nutrients far beyond the continental shelf and driving carbon cycling in the tropical ocean.

Human impact on the Amazon River is minor, although there is increasing concern about the short and long-term consequences of human activity in and near similar regions around the world. Increases in coastal populations and changes in land-use practices in coastal catchments and floodplains have led to rapid changes in sediment supplies and increases in nutrient, pollutant and pathogen loadings to coastal waters. These impacts pose serious risks to human health and the capacity of ecosystems to support products and services critical to human populations. Climate change, including factors such as runoff from melting glaciers, is likely to exacerbate the risk.

Because there is potential for change in systems that play such a vital role in global ocean dynamics, researchers have outlined the need for methods of gathering baseline information and the establishment of capabilities to monitor changes in the years ahead. The relatively undisturbed state of the Amazon region presents a remarkable opportunity for modeling and predicting changes that would reverberate around the world. Furthermore, lessons learned in the Amazon River system can be extrapolated to other river systems, including those occurring in human-altered environments and those that have remained - like the Amazon - largely pristine.

Consideration on development of a monitoring system for the Amazon River has been driven by the innovative work at Stevens with the New York and New Jersey coastline. In 1997, under Dr. Bruno’s leadership, the Center for Maritime Systems (CMS) at Stevens began deploying internet-connected measurement devices in the New York Harbor. Under the guidance of Dr. Bruno and Dr. Alan Blumberg, the Center for Maritime Systems developed the New York Harbor Observing and Prediction System (NYHOPS) and the Stevens Storm Surge Warning System (SSWS). NYHOPS assesses ocean, weather, environmental, and vessel traffic conditions through the New York Harbor region, as well as contributing an advanced understanding of ocean physics, while the Stevens SSWS passes real-time water level data through sophisticated algorithms in order to predict surge levels and warn of an imminent flooding event. Stevens, which overlooks the Hudson River near New York Harbor, has become an invaluable resource for the study, protection, and improvement of the region's busy waterways, with New York, New Jersey, and the Federal Government using tools developed at Stevens for short-term storm observation and prediction as well as longer term studies.

The goal of Dr. Bruno’s current project is to develop similar capabilities in the Amazon region, while educating a new generation of students on the dynamics and ecology of an important ecosystem. The region presents interesting challenges, such as limited access to power and long term maintenance. However, according to Dr. Bruno, “We, as an engineering community, know how to do this. It is a matter of getting started.”

Dr. Bruno's research and teaching interests include ocean observation systems, maritime security, and coastal ocean dynamics. He is the author of more than 100 technical publications in various aspects of the field. Prior to assuming the duties of Dean, Dr. Bruno was the Director of the Center for Maritime Systems and Davidson Laboratory at Stevens from 1989 to 2007. His involvement in ocean observation system design and operation includes international efforts, in particular via his work as the Co-Chair of the International Workshop Steering Committee for the GEO Coastal Zone Community of Practice. Dr. Bruno has capitalized on the unique geographic location of Stevens Institute of Technology and continually attracted federal and international attention, inter-academic collaboration, and superb faculty to the school through his ability to implement innovative real-world solutions as well as his enthusiasm for education and public awareness.

Dr. Bruno has received a multitude of honors and distinctions, including Fellow, ASCE, 2006, Fellow, Explorers Club, 2002, Fulbright Award, 1996, and ONR Young Investigator Award, 1991. He currently serves as the Chairman of the Marine Board, under the auspices of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and the National Research Council (NRC).

Learn more about maritime research at Stevens by visiting the Center for Maritime Systems or reading the Maritime Systems issue of Nexus, the School of Science and Engineering Research Magazine. Start your own maritime journey at Stevens by visiting the Department of Civil, Environmental and Ocean Engineering, or visit Undergraduate Admissions or Graduate Admissions to apply.