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Environmental monitoring describes the processes and activities that need to take place to characterise and monitor the quality of the environment. Environmental monitoring is used in the preparation of environmental impact assessments, as well as in many circumstances in which human activities carry a risk of harmful effects on the natural environment. All monitoring strategies and programmes have reasons and justifications which are often designed to establish the current status of an environment or to establish trends in environmental parameters. In all cases the results of monitoring will be reviewed, analysed statistically and published. The design of a monitoring programme must therefore have regard to the final use of the data before monitoring starts.


Design of Environmental monitoring programmes

Monitoring is of little use without a clear and unambiguous definition of the reasons for the monitoring and the objectives that it will satisfy. Almost all monitoring (except perhaps remote sensing) is in some part invasive of the environment under study and extensive and poorly planned monitoring carries a risk of damage to the environment. This may be a critical consideration in wilderness areas or when monitoring very rare organisms or those that are averse to human presence. Some monitoring techniques, such a gill netting fish to estimate populations, can be very damaging, at least to the local population and can also degrade public trust in scientists carrying out the monitoring.

Almost all mainstream environmentalism monitoring projects form part of an overall monitoring strategy or research field, and these field and strategies are themselves derived from the high levels objectives or aspirations of an organisation. Unless individual monitoring projects fit into a wider strategic framework, the results are unlikely to be published and the environmental understanding produced by the monitoring will be lost.[1][2]


see also Freshwater environmental quality parameters



The range of chemical parameters that have the potential to affect any ecosystem is very large and in all monitoring programmes it is necessary to target a suite of parameters based on local knowledge and past practice for an initial review. The list can be expanded or reduced based on developing knowledge and the outcome of the initial surveys.

Freshwater environments have been extensively studied for many years and there is a robust understanding of the interactions between chemistry and the environment across much of the world. However, as new materials are developed and new pressures come to bear, revisions to monitoring programmes will be required. In the last 20 years acid rain, synthetic hormone analogues, halogenated hydrocarbons, greenhouse gases and many others have required changes to monitoring strategies.


In ecological monitoring, the monitoring strategy and effort is directed at the plants and animals in the environment under review and is specific to each individual study.

However in more generalised environmental monitoring,cz its very dangerous many animals act as robust indicators of the quality of the environment that they are experiencing or have experienced in the recent past.[3] One of the most familiar examples is the monitoring of numbers of Salmonid fish such as Brown trout or Salmon in river systems and lakes to detect slow trends in adverse environmental effects. The steep decline in salmonid fish populations was one of the early indications of the problem that later became known as acid rain.

In recent years much more attention has been given to a more holistic approach in which the ecosystem health is assessed and used as the monitoring[4] tool itself. It is this approach that underpins the monitoring protocols of the Water Framework Directive in the European Union.


Bacteria and viruses are the most commonly monitored groups of microbiological organisms monitored and even these are only of great relevance if the aquatic environment where subsequent use as drinking water is involved or where water contact recreation such as swimming or canoeing is practised.

Although pathogens are the primary focus of attention, the principal monitoring effort is almost always directed at much more common indicator species such as Escherichia coli‎ supplemented by overall coliform bacteria counts. The rational behind this monitoring strategy is that most human pathogens originate from other humans via the sewage stream. Many sewage treatment plants have no sterilisation final stage and therefore discharge an effluent which, although having a clean appearance, still contains many millions of bacteria per litre, the majority of which are relatively harmless coliform bacteria. Counting the number of harmless (or less harmful) sewage bacteria allows a judgement to be made about the probability of significant numbers of pathogenic bacteria or viruses being present. Where E. coli or coliform levels exceed pre-set trigger values, more intensive monitoring including specific monitoring for pathogenic species is then initiated.


Monitoring strategies can produce misleading answers when relaying on counts of species or presence or absence of particular organisms if there is no regard to population size. Understanding the populations dynamics of an organism being monitored is critical.

As an example if presence or absence of a particular organism within a 10 km square is the measure adopted by a monitoring strategy, then a reduction of population from 10,000 per square to 10 per square will go unnoticed despite the very significant impact experienced by the organism.

Monitoring programmes

All scientifically reliable environmental monitoring is performed in line with a published programme. The programme may include the overall objectives of the organisation, references to the specific strategies that helps deliver the objective and details of specific projects or tasks within those strategies. However the key feature of any programme is the listing of what is being monitored and how that monitoring is to take place and the time-scale over which it should all happen. Typically, and often as an appendix, a monitoring programme with provide a table of locations, dates and sampling methods that are proposed and which, if undertaken in full, will deliver the published monitoring programme.

There are a number of commercial software packages which can assist with the implementation of the programme, monitor its progress and flag up inconsistencies or omissions but none of these can provide the key building block which is the programme itself.

Sampling methods

There are a wide range of sampling methods which depend on the type of environment, the material being sampled and the subsequent analysis of the sample.

At its simplest a sample can be filling a clean bottle with river water and submitting it for conventional chemical analysis. At the more complex end, sample data may be produced by complex electronic sensing devices taking sub-samples over fixed or variable time periods.

Grab samples

Grab samples are samples taken of a homogeneous material, usually water, in a single vessel. Filling a clean bottle with river water is a very common example. Grab samples provide a good snap-shot view of the quality of the sampled environment at the point of sampling and at the time of sampling. Without additional monitoring, the results cannot be extrapolated to other times or to other parts of the river, lake or ground-water.

In order to enable grab samples or rivers to be treated as representative, repeat transverse and longitudinal transect surveys taken at different times of day and times of year are required to establish that the grab-sample location is as representative as is reasonably possible. For large rivers such surveys should also have regard to the depth of the sample and how to best manage the sampling locations at times of flood and drought.

In lakes grab samples are relatively simple to take using depth samplers which can be lowered to a pre-determined depth and then closed trapping a fixed volume of water from the required depth. In all but the shallowest lakes, there are major changes in the chemical composition of lake water at different depths, especially during the summer months when many lakes stratify into a warm, well oxygenated upper layer (epilimnion) and a cool de-oxygenated lower layer (hypolimnion).

In the open seas marine environment grab samples can establish a wide range of base-line parameters such as salinity and a range of cation and anion concentrations. However, where changing conditions are an issue such as near river or sewage discharges, close to the effects of volcanism or close to areas of freshwater input from melting ice, a grab sample can only give a very partial answer when taken on its own.

Semi-continuous monitoring and continuous

There are a wide range of specialist sampling equipment available that can be programmed to take samples at fixed or variable time intervals or in response to an external trigger. For example a sampler can be programmed to start take samples of a river at 8 minute intervals when the rainfall intensity rises above 1 mm / hour. The trigger in this case may be a remote rain gauge communicating with the sampler by using cell phone or meteor burst[5] technology. Samplers can also take individual discrete samples at each sampling occasion or bulk up samples into composite so that in the course of one day, such a sampler might produce 12 composite sample each composed of 6 sub-samples taken at 20 minute intervals.

Continuous or quasi-continuous monitoring involves having an automated analytical facility close to the environment being monitored so that results can, if required, be viewed in real time. Such systems are often established to protect important water supplies such as in the River Dee regulation system but may also be part of an overall monitoring strategy on large strategic rivers where early warning of potential problems is essential. Such systems routinely provide data on parameters such as pH, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, turbidity and colour but it is also possible to operate gas liquid chromatography with mass spectrometry technologies (GLC/MS) to examine a wide range of potential organic pollutants. In all examples of automated bank-side analysis there is a requirement for water to be pumped from the river into the monitoring station. Choosing a location for the pump inlet is equally as critical as deciding on the location for a river grab sample. The design of the pump and pipework also requires careful design to avoid artefacts being introduced through the action of pumping the water. Dissolved oxygen concentration is difficult to sustain through a pumped system and GLC/MS facilities can detect micro-organic contaminants from the pipework and glands.

Remote surveillance

Although on-site data collection using electronic measuring equipment is common-place, many monitoring programmes also use remote surveillance and remote access to data in real time. This requires the on-site monitoring equipment to be connected to a base station via either a telemetry network,land-line, cell phone network or other telemetry system such as Meteor burst. The advantage of remote surveillance is that many data feeds can come into a single base station for storing and analysis. It also enable trigger levels or alert levels to be said for individual monitoring sites and/or parameters so that immediate action can be initiated if a trigger level is exceeded. The use of remote surveillance also allows for the installation of very discrete monitoring equipment which can often be buried, camouflaged or tethered at depth in a lake or river with only a short whip aerial protruding. Use of such equipment tends to reduce vandalism and theft when monitoring in locations easily accessible by the public.

Remote sensing

Environmental remote sensing uses aircraft or satellites to monitor the environment using multi-channel sensors.

There are two kinds of remote sensing. Passive sensors detect natural radiation that is emitted or reflected by the object or surrounding area being observed. Reflected sunlight is the most common source of radiation measured by passive sensors and in environmental remote sensing, the sensors used are tuned to specific wavelengths from far infra-red through visible light frequencies through to far ultra violet. The volumes of data that can be collected are very large and require dedicated computational support . The output of data analysis from remote sensing are false colour images which differentiate small differences in the radiation characteristics of the environment being monitored. With a skilful operator choosing specific channels it is possible to amplify differences which are imperceptible to the human eye. In particular it is possible to discriminate subtle changes in chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b concentrations in plants and show areas of an environment with slightly different nutrient regimes.

Active remote sensing emits energy and uses a passive sensor to detect and measure the radiation that is reflected or backscattered from the target. LIDAR is often used to acquire information about the topography of an area, especially when the area is large and manual surveying would be prohibitively expensive or difficult.

Remote sensing makes it possible to collect data on dangerous or inaccessible areas. Remote sensing applications include monitoring deforestation in areas such as the Amazon Basin, the effects of climate change on glaciers and Arctic and Antarctic regions, and depth sounding of coastal and ocean depths.

Orbital platforms collect and transmit data from different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, which in conjunction with larger scale aerial or ground-based sensing and analysis, provides information to monitor trends such as El Niño and other natural long and short term phenomena. Other uses include different areas of the earth sciences such as natural resource management, land use planning and conservation.[6]


The use of living organisms as monitoring tools has many advantages. Organisms living in the environment under study are constantly exposed to the physical, biological and chemical influences of that environment. Organisms that have a tendency to accumulate chemical species can often accumulate significant quantities of material from very low concentrations in the environment. Mosses have been used by many investigators to monitor heavy metal concentrations because of their tendency to selectively adsorb heavy metals.[7][8]

Similarly, eels have been used to study halogenated organic chemicals, as these are adsorbed into the fatty deposits within the eel.[9]

Other sampling methods

Ecological sampling requires careful planning to be representative and as non invasive as possible. For grasslands and other low growing habitats the use of a quadrat - a 1 metre square frame - is often used with the numbers and types of organisms growing within each quadrat area counted [10]

Sediments and soils require specialist sampling tools to ensure that the material recovered is representative. Such samplers are frequently designed to recover a specified volume of material and may also be designed to recover the sediment or soil living biota as well [11] such as the Ekman grab sampler.

Data interpretations

The interpretation of environmental data produced from a well designed monitoring programme is a large and complex topic addressed by many publications. Regrettably it is sometimes the case that scientists approach the analysis of results with a pre-conceived outcome in mind and use or misuse statistics to demonstrate that their own particular point of view is correct. This can be clearly seen in the debate about global warming controversy where, for example supporters argue that CO2 levels have increased by 25% over the last one hundred years whilst opponents argue that CO2 level have only risen by one percentage point from 3 to 4.

Many other scientific debates have less clear-cut positions, but statistics remains a tool that is equally easy to use or to misuse to demonstrate the lessons learnt from environmental monitoring

Environmental quality indices

Since the start of science based environmental monitoring, a number of quality indices have been devised to help classify and clarify the meaning of the considerable volumes of data involved. Stating that a river stretch is in "Class B" is likely to be much more informative than stating that this river stretch has a mean BOD of 4.2, a mean dissolved oxygen of 85%, etc. In the UK the Environment Agency uses a system called GQA - General Quality Assessment which classifies rivers into six quality bands—a, b, c, d, e and f—based on chemical criteria[12] and on biological criteria.[13]


  1. ^ United Nations Environment Programme. Mineral Resources Forum. "General guideline for an environmental monitoring programme."
  2. ^ Stribling J. B. & Davie S.R., "Design of an environmental monitoring programme for the Lake Allatoona/Upper Etowah river watershed." Proceedings of the 2005 Georgia Water Resources Conference, April 25-27, 2005.
  3. ^ Hart, C.W.; Fuller, Samuel F.J. (1974). Pollution Ecology of Freshwater Invertebrates. New York: Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-328450-3.  
  4. ^ Wrona, F. J.; Cash, K. J., 1996, "The ecosystem approach to environmental assessment: moving from theory to practice." Journal of Aquatic Ecosystem Health. Kluwer Academic Publishers, ISSN 0925-1014.
  5. ^ Shaw, Elizabeth M. (1984). "Book reviews: 'Proceedings of the International Symposium on Hydrometeorology' edited by A.I. Johnson & R.A. Clark". Hydrological Sciences Journal 29 (4): 462-463. ISSN 0262-6667.  
  6. ^ Short, Nicholas M., Sr. "Remote Sensing Tutorial." U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Greenbelt, MD. 2009-09-23.
  7. ^ Pott, U. & Turpin, D. H. (1998). "Assessment of Atmospheric Heavy Metals by Moss Monitoring with Isothecium Stoloniferum Brid. in the Fraser Valley, B.C., Canada." Water, Air, & Soil Pollution. Vol. 101, Nos. 1-4, January 1998, ISSN 0049-6979.
  8. ^ Bragazzaa, Marchesinia, Alberb, Bonettic, Lorenzonic, Achillid, Buffonid, De Marcoe, Franchif, Pisonf, Giaquintag, Palmierih Spezzano (2000). "Monitoring of heavy metal deposition in Northern Italy by moss analysis." Environmental Pollution, Vol. 108, No. 2, pp 201-208.
  9. ^ C. Belpaire and G. Goemans, "Eels: contaminant cocktails pinpointing environmental contamination." ICES J. Mar. Sci. 64: 1423-1436.
  10. ^ Offwell Woodland & Wildlife Trust. Devon, UK. "Ecological Sampling Methods." Accessed 2009-10-21.
  11. ^ Csuros, Csaba; Csuros, Maria (2002). Environmental sampling and analysis for metals. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press. p. 219. ISBN 9781566705721.  
  12. ^ Environment Agency, UK. GQA summary data 2007
  13. ^ Environment Agency. General quality assessment of rivers - biology


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