Science Wednesday: Ready for Takeoff

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While I’ve come to expect extra scrutiny when flying, I was momentarily flustered when the pilot needed to know my weight so he could compute his preflight plans. (155 pounds.)

This morning I joined Eric Vance, EPA’s chief photographer, EPA scientist Steve Klein,  and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pilot V. Ray Bentley aboard a four-seat, single-engine plane for a flight over the Willamette River Valley in western Oregon.

arial view of winding riverThe landscape we flew over is the subject of the Willamette Ecosystem Services Project (WESP), an ambitious, large-scale, integrated, and multi-disciplinary research effort to quantify the benefits people derive from the environment. The study also focuses on exploring how human activities stress those benefits. The overall goal is to provide decision makers, stakeholders, and others across the Willamette River Valley with rigorous scientific information they can use to assess current conditions and plan for the future of their community.

All told, the Willamette River Valley Ecosystem includes some 7.5 million acres. To get a better picture of what’s happening across such a large area, it helps to get a bird’s eye view.

Time to fly.

arial view over trees and winding riverOur flight took us over the Willamette River as it winds from Corvallis to the suburbs of Eugene, a diverse and productive landscape. Over the drone of the engine and intermittent blasts of cool air that roared into cockpit when Eric opened his window to take pictures, Steve explained what he was seeing from a scientist’s perspective: how the flow and course of the river has been shaped by human forces, the patterns and types of forest and other natural habitats, what types of crops where growing in the large agricultural fields below, and the shifting boundaries between agriculture, forest, and what he referred to as “the built environment” (homes, roads, and industry, including the massive paper mill we could not only see, but smell—a thick, burnt-syrup kind of aroma).

My flight was just one of the many excellent experiences I’ve had this week visiting with scientists in EPA’s Western Ecology Division. I’ve learned about research projects as diverse as the 7.5-million-acre WESP, to plans to investigate the potential environmental impacts of things as tiny as those used in nanotechnology.

It’s been a great week and I’ll have lots to think about on the flight back to Washington. I won’t even flinch if the pilot asks me how much I weigh.

About the Author: Aaron Ferster is the chief science writer in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He is the Science Wednesday editor, and a regular contributor.