Study of how COVID tourism decline affects Belize’s coastal waters earns NASA grant

Dr. Robert Griffin

Dr. Robert Griffin got a NASA Rapid Response grant to study Belize’s coastal water quality.

Michael Mercier / UAH

A study to investigate how a COVID-19 related decline in tourism might reduce human impacts that affect coastal water quality in Belize earned a one year, $50,000 NASA Rapid Response grant for the associate dean of the College of Science at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System.

The coastal area of Belize includes the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere. Coral reef and marine habitat, and the tourism they attract, are huge sources of revenue for the country.

Dr. Robert Griffin, an atmospheric and Earth science professor, was working on a NASA project to study the reef’s health when COVID-19 created the water quality research opportunity. Under the grant, Griffin and his team are studying how decreased tourism impacts urban and agricultural point and nonpoint sources of water pollutants.

“We are partnering with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Belize to go out and collect water quality samples of predefined areas off the coast of Belize,” Dr. Griffin says. “These will be analyzed in a lab in Belize for nutrient and sediment loads, and we will use the field data to calibrate the satellite data we are collecting.”

The study is a great example of using combined methods and a space-to-ground approach to data collection, he says.

“This aligns with our larger Belize study, which is focused on coral reef health in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage barrier reef site,” Dr. Griffin says.

But this study focuses on how water quality has, is, and will change as a result of COVID-19 related lockdowns in Belize, he says.

“The normally very substantial tourism industry was shut down, but agricultural activities continued so the idea is to see contributions each of those sources have to water quality in this area – which, of course, has implications for reef health.”

It’s a unique opportunity to see how much tourism contributes to water pollution and runoff when compared to other industries, says Dr. Griffin.

“Mostly we’re focusing on nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous in the water, which are indicative of larger processes of non-point source pollution,” he says. “Because we have a natural experiment with the shutdown, we are able to isolate what some of those sources are and estimate their contributions to overall water quality.”

The study’s findings will help Belize’s Department of the Environment understand the impacts of different types of land use on overall water quality in the Belize lagoon and provide a baseline for understanding how these impacts might impact coral reef and marine habitat health.

Dr. Emil Cherrington, a research scientist at UAH’s Earth System Science Center (ESSC) is working with Dr. Griffin, leveraging ESSC’s resources and the Department of Atmospheric and Earth Science to conduct the land cover portion of the research.

Dr. Deepak Mishra, a University of Georgia professor of geography and a researcher at its Center for Integrative Conservation Research, has been collaborating wth his team to focus on remote sensing of water quality. Nicole Auil-Gomez from the Wildlife Conservation Society and her team are focusing on data collection.

“Grants like these are critical to opportunistic data collection during events like this,” Dr. Griffin says. “Thanks to the NASA Rapid Response and Novel Research in Earth Science program and Dr. Laura Lorenzoni, as well as the NASA Biological Diversity and Ecological Forecasting program led by Dr. Woody Turner.”



Dr. Robert Griffin

Jim Steele