GPS Tracking Being Used to Study Harvesting of Renewable Tidal Energy

29 May 2019

GPS-tagged seabirds called razorbills were used in a recent study to track the Irish Sea’s currents. A team of biologists compared the resting bird’s movements on the water surface with a mathematical model laying out the currents. They found the birds offered them good information on the direction and speed of the water flow.

The researchers believe similar research using data they received from the resting seabirds can help locate locations for harvesting renewable tidal energy.

The seabird’s GPS tracking data could help the researchers get closer to being able to harness the energy in the shifting tides.

After tracking razorbills for four years, Matt Cooper and his Bangor University colleagues as well as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the U.K. now have more knowledge on the bird’s behavior. For example, they learned the razorbills will sit on the water’s surface at night for long stretches as they’re being tossed around by the sea’s energy.

Cooper said that gave them an idea to re-use the data and see if the birds were drifting with the tidal current. They used the data from their original study and applied it in a different research area to test a hypothesis.

The biologists, who normally would use expense, high-tech radar systems and buoys, attached GPS tracking tags on the birds, noting their location every 100 seconds for up to five days at a time. There were 49 razorbills tagged from Puffin Island colony.

When the researchers collected the data provided and compared the data with a mathematical model of part of the Irish Sea’s currents, they found a lot of the birds provided them with good information on the speed and direction of the flow of water on the surface.

Once they’d come up with this hypothesis that seabirds could provide this information, the team sifted through the data, stripping out times when the birds were flying. The current in this part of the Irish Sea can move at 1 meter or more per second (3.3 feet per second) — faster than razorbills can swim — so the researchers could determine when the current was carrying the birds along.

While the authors admit it’s not a perfect solution, since the birds won’t stay put like the buoys might, they still hope the razorbills might pinpoint viable areas for harvesting renewable, tidal energy later on down the road.


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