Coconut floating on the sea

Going coconuts for citizen science

What do you do if you’re a team of geoscientists studying the behaviour of a commercially-important local river, but you don’t have the budget to buy fancy equipment? When Thom Bogaard and Rolf Hut of Delft University of Technology were faced with a similar problem, they came up with a simple solution, they enlisted the help of local students in making their own equipment: citizen science at its best.


Lacking access to expensive equipment, Bogaard and Hut have enlisted the help of locals in studying the water quality of the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar. They have been looking specifically at how the river “moves, mixes, how it might disperse and dilute pollution if faced with such a problem.” The duo attaches coconuts to colored balloons and a bicycle light (for visibility in the dark), before dropping them into the river. Local students posted along bridges then take note of when the drifters pass them by.


Why coconuts?

Here’s where the scientific thinking comes in: while making their own drifters, it was important to choose objects that would not be affected by the velocity of the wind. Coconuts were perfect because their density is almost the same density as that of water, meaning that the coconuts travel submerged just beneath the surface. Any movement is therefore driven by the water current only, rather than the wind. The team of scientists also came up with some other DIY devices, such as a waterproof plastic box containing a GPS tracker, data card and cell transmitter.


The benefit, of course, is not just conducting research with low-cost equipment. It is also a training of sorts for the dozens of local students involved in the project through “tinkering for data”, as Hut proudly describes it.

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