CSIRO has deployed special sensors on Darumbal Sea Country in the Southern Great Barrier Reef to track sediment run-off.

The reef is now part of CSIRO's AquaWatch Australia Mission, pioneering a ‘water quality weather service’ using advanced sensors and satellite data. 

Dr Alex Held, CSIRO's AquaWatch Mission Lead, believes this initiative can guide decisions to safeguard the reef, which contributes $5.2 billion annually to Australia's economy and supports over 64,000 jobs.

“We are testing our systems for monitoring the flow of sediment and dissolved organic carbon – an indicator of the carbon exchange between land and ocean – from the Fitzroy River out into Keppel Bay towards the southern region of the reef,” Dr Held said. 

“Too much sediment can be a problem for coastal areas surrounding the river outlet because it blocks sunlight from reaching the seafloor, restricting the growth of marine plant life like seagrass. 

“This then impacts the food availability for biodiversity in the area, including the reef’s colourful array of marine wildlife. 

“Dissolved organic carbon blocks light that phytoplankton in the ocean need for photosynthesis, a process that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere much like plants do. “

The project also detects higher chlorophyll levels, signalling potential harmful algal blooms, which can devastate marine life. 

Dr Nagur Cherukuru, a senior CSIRO researcher, highlighted the use of modelling and artificial intelligence (AI) to predict sediment flows, focusing on river areas requiring intervention. 

The AI combines AquaWatch sensor data with factors like ocean currents, wind, and tides for more accurate forecasts.

Like a weather report, this data aids water managers in making informed decisions, from routine planning to flood scenarios when sediment volumes surge into the sea.

Initially shared with research partners and Traditional Custodians, the ultimate goal of AquaWatch is to offer national water quality monitoring and forecasts to all Australians via an app or integration with existing weather reports.