This year's project looks at the Channel Islands' most populous residents: the pinnipeds, creatures better known as sea lions, seals, and walruses. They get their name from the Latin words pinna (feather or wing) and pedes (feet). Though the animals seem awkward on land as they scoot around using their flippers, in the ocean, where Ballard's team observes them closely, they can "fly" through the water at speeds up to 25 miles (40 kilometers) per hour.
Not only do students get a scuba-masked view of the Channel Islands' sea lions, but also the animals' habitat and surrounding waters as they will be scrutinized from the air and outer space using satellites and a brand-new NASA technology created specifically for Jasonthe UAV's (Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles).
The UAVs look like model airplanes as they fly over the land and sea, but they are loaded with sensors that relay detailed information, such as colors, temperatures of the ocean and densities of floating seaweed, to orbiting satellites.
It is a misconception that UAVs are just fancy airplane toys, said Patrick Coronado, engineer and scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland who developed UAVs.. "They are very expensive and complex systems, mainly because they have to think for themselves,"
Tiny Plane, Big Picture
Coronado said the small planes provide the detail to the "big picture" that remote satellites capture. Together, the technologies create what scientists call "ground truth" that blends several different types of information to create a precise measurement and observation.
He said that a detailed study of the Channel Islands is a unique opportunity.
"It has many of the ingredients that make a diverse ecosystem possible, such as cold and warm water mixing, causing rich nutrient upwelling. It is also a place where there is little human interaction, and therefore the region can be studied in its more natural state," he said.
Yet, the Channel Islands have been a home to people for at least 13,000 years and supported a mariner culture known as the Chumash. At one time, the Chumash had developed a complex society of about 150 towns and invented an economic system using beads as a form of currency.
Now the language of the Chumash and most of its history has been lost, said Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, a Chumash storyteller who is working with the JASON Project.
She said that the project helps people of all ages understand a basic lesson for all time: "One of the most precious things that the Chumash people lost is their land. Land is forever. Each generation should watch out for the next. Don't let go of your heritage."
For 14 years, the single goal of the JASON Project has been to teach millions of students the fact that Earth is our home, our host, and our heritage.
"It's wonderful to be back on the Central Coast and share its rich maritime history with students," said Ballard, an alumnus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the campus has a view of the sensitive Channel Islands National Park.
"We will take the abundance of biological diversity Santa Barbara offers and make it come alive for students so they will learn the importance of protecting these invaluable natural and cultural resources."
The National Geographic Society is a founding national corporate sponsor of the JASON Project and helps develop student texts and offers professional development workshops for teachers.
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