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Note to Editors: In the public interest and in accordance with FAA regulations, the USGS is announcing this low-level airborne project. Your assistance informing the local communities is appreciated.

WOODBINE, NJ – Starting around July 8 and lasting up to a month, a helicopter towing a large hoop from a cable will begin making low-level flights over Delaware Bay and nearby regions in Delaware and New Jersey as part of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Next Generation Water Observing System project in the Delaware River Basin.  

USGS scientists and researchers from the University of Delaware will use the data to improve understanding of groundwater salinity and below-ground geology.  Rising sea level, increasing frequency and intensity of coastal storms and increasing demand for groundwater have amplified the risk of saltwater impacting water supplies in the region.  

The data from this survey will serve as a benchmark against which future changes in groundwater salinity in the Delaware Bay region can be compared. 

The helicopter will fly along pre-planned flight paths relatively low to the ground at 100-200 feet above the surface. A sensor that resembles a large hula-hoop will be towed beneath the helicopter to measure tiny electromagnetic signals that can be used to map features below Earth’s surface. Flight lines will be separated by about 1/3 mile near shore and just under two miles crossing over Delaware Bay, so the helicopter system will be visible from any location for a short period of time. Several flight lines will follow nearby river paths to map the extent of saline water upstream. 

The USGS study will be conducted by the specialty airborne geophysical survey company SkyTEM ApS, under a USGS contract with Woolpert. The helicopter will be operated by experienced pilots from Livewire Aviation who are specially trained for the low-level flying required for geophysical surveys. The company works with the FAA to ensure flights are safe and in accordance with U.S. law. Surveys do not occur directly above populated areas. 

Once complete, USGS scientists will review and process the delivered geophysical data, which should be made public within a year. The processed datasets will be used together with existing measurements to better understand groundwater salinity across the study area. 

USGS-led studies have recently used this type of aerial survey to inform groundwater investigations around the country, including in California, Colorado, Wisconsin and over multiple states covering the lower Mississippi River Valley aquifer system. By using cutting-edge airborne geophysical technology, USGS scientists efficiently obtain critical information about groundwater resources over large areas, without the need for intensive ground-based work. 

Map shows the July 2022 airborne geophysical survey planned over and near Delaware Bay.
This map shows the airborne geophysical survey planned over and near Delaware Bay. Surveys will not occur directly over populated areas. Planned flight lines and survey progress can be found online.
Helicopter with large hoop hanging below, technician on snowy ground for scale
A low-flying helicopter towing a geophysical device collects scientific data on groundwater and geology. (Credit: USGS)

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