Science Wednesday: The Changing Environment – What Does It All Mean?

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The state of the nation’s environment is changing. Sometimes the changes are obvious and sometimes they are subtle. When does it matter and why should we care?

One of the more visible and memorable events of the early environmental movement was when the Cuyahoga River, which runs through the heart of my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire in 1969. Some say that it was this event that prompted President Nixon to sign the Clean Water Act into law and create the Environmental Protection Agency.

The River that once burned now runs through a lively and bustling downtown area to Lake Erie. This is not to say that the water quality in the river and lake are now pristine, but that the improvements over time are so profound that it’s noticeable to the naked eye.

Even here in Washington, D.C., there are ways to observe environmental progress. I am lucky enough to garden in the city—a rare treat in the concrete jungle. Over the years I’ve observed changes in the insects and birds that visit our garden. Last spring my bachelor buttons were swarming with bees. This year, however, there weren’t as many.

What should I make of these changes in nature’s pollinators and natural pest management? What should our garden, city, and country do? Are the changes even relevant and is it appropriate for me to draw any conclusions? After all, I’ve only observed these changes while in pursuit of some other goal, such as watering my tomatoes, or driving through downtown Cleveland to catch a ball game.

If you find yourself wondering about the changing state of the nation’s environment and what it all means, there is one place you can go to find objective, scientifically sound information: EPA’s Report on the Environment.

EPA released its Report on the Environment (ROE) in May 2008 and has been updating it online ever since. It’s here that you can find information on the nation’s bird populations, stream water quality, air quality, and much more.

The ROE uses environmental indicators to present the status (i.e. condition) of and trends in (i.e., are things improving or not) for 85 different measurable areas of our nation’s environment in land, water, air, human health and ecosystems.

Check out the interactive Web site to see for yourself and tell us what you want to know about the nation’s changing environment.

About the author: Madalene Stevens joined EPA in 2001 and works on EPA’s Report on the Environment.

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