Ecosystems research

It All Starts with Science: Answering Questions about Mining in Bristol Bay, Alaska

Reposted from “EPA Connect, the official blog of EPA’s leadership

By Lek Kadeli

Considering the scope of resources in Bristol Bay—a 37.5 million average annual run of sockeye salmon; $480 million in ecosystem-generated economic activity in 2009; 14,000 full- and part-time jobs from that activity; and 11 billion tons in potential copper and gold deposit—it is no wonder there was significant interest in an EPA science assessment to understand how wild salmon and water resources in the Bristol Bay watershed might be impacted by large-scale mining operations. The public comment periods generated 230,000 responses on the first draft of the assessment, and 890,000 on the second.

This week, after reviewing all those comments and formal peer review by 12 scientists with expertise in mine engineering, fisheries biology, aquatic biology, aquatic toxicology, hydrology, wildlife ecology, and Alaska Native cultures, EPA released its final report, “An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska.”

 

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Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Don’t Take Your Ecosystem to a Doctor

By Alexandra Soderlund

When not interning at EPA, Alexandra Soderlund studies at the University of New South Wales.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Glenn Suter II, who’s been an EPA scientist since 1998. Recently, his paper “A Critique of Ecosystem Health Concepts and Indexes” was listed in the all time top 100 papers of the scientific journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

The whole idea of the paper is that the metaphor of ecosystem health doesn’t make a lot of sense, because ecosystems are not organisms and therefore they don’t have health. I’m currently completing a Bachelor of Science/Arts degree, and at first I thought “metaphors? That belongs in the Arts part of that one English class I took, not in Science.”

But science actually abounds in metaphors; ecosystem health is just one of them. Often they are so ingrained in the way we speak about a subject that we don’t notice when we use them.

That’s where people like Dr. Suter come in.

Frustrated by the aimless use of the phrase ‘ecosystem health,’ he set pen to paper in 1993 and wrote this article, which is still making waves today. Last year Dr. Suter witnessed a disagreement about this 20-year-old paper between members of a review panel. When he wrote it, he wanted people to think rigorously about the supposed “health” of an ecosystem, and consequently the debate shifted (though it still rages on).

For someone like me, who sees a future career in science communication, this makes a lot of sense. We need to evaluate the language and tools we use to explain concepts and engage with others to make sure they’re the best and most appropriate. This may mean using different terms for different audiences. As a scientific tool, the metaphor of ecosystem health isn’t all that useful because it doesn’t give us measurable goals and results. However, it is still useful for communicating with the public.

Amusingly, Dr. Suter actually considered a career in the health field.  Having “always been interested in living things,” he contemplated becoming a doctor, he says. But the growing environmental movement swept him up (like it does many of us) into an illustrious career in toxicology, ecological epidemiology and risk assessment.

Dr. Suter still enjoys writing conceptual papers, and once a week can be found discussing the finer points of assessment theory with a colleague after hours over a glass of wine. “Writing is the way I think through a problem,” he says. “I often don’t know how it’s going to end up; it’s a bit like writing a novel.”

About the Author: When not interning at the EPA, Alexandra Soderlund studies at the University of New South Wales (NSW) in Sydney, Australia. She is majoring in media/ technology and genetics, and is also the online coordinator for the NSW branch of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Scientists at Work: Paul Mayer, Ph.D.

Dr Paul MayerEPA ecologist Paul Mayer, Ph.D. works in EPA’s Groundwater and Ecosystem Restoration division where he studies riparian zones (the area along rivers and streams where the habitats are influenced by both the land and water) and stream restoration. Dr. Mayer has also worked as a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

How does your science matter?

My research examines ecosystem restoration projects—looking at how such efforts also restore various kinds of “ecosystem functions,” such as absorbing nutrients and preventing erosion. More specifically, my colleagues and I have been looking at stream restoration in urban and agricultural ecosystems. Stream restoration uses various approaches to reconstruct or redesign streams that have been heavily impacted by urbanization, agricultural practices, or past land use.

With stream restoration, we’re looking at nutrient uptake (2 pp, 276K), especially nitrogen. Excess nitrogen is one of the ecological stressors that EPA is most interested in because it can cause human health and ecological problems. High levels of nitrate nitrogen in drinking water prevent your body from taking in oxygen efficiently. My work is helping us learn how to “supercharge ecosystems” and enhance their ability to process excess nitrogen.

When did you first know you wanted to pursue science?

I knew I wanted to be a scientist when I was five years-old. My earliest memory is standing in the front yard of my house with my mom and being fascinated by all the birds flying around us. I asked her what kind of birds they were. I knew then, even though I didn’t yet know what a scientist was, that I wanted to know more about the world around me.

Keep reading the interview with Dr. Paul Mayer by clicking here.

Read more Scientists at Work profiles.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Japanese Tsunami Debris and Potential Invasions In Western North America

By Chris Janousek, Melanie Frazier, Henry Lee II

"Floating dock washes up on the Oregon coast."

A large floating dock from Japan recently washed up on the Oregon coast, bringing a host of non-native species with it.

When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan’s coast on March 11, 2011 it resulted in the loss of nearly 20,000 lives and billions of dollars in damage.  One result of this devastation was an estimated 25 million tons of debris, much of which was swept into the Pacific Ocean as the tsunami receded.  The refuse that did not sink formed a floating field that scientists predicted would arrive on the North American coastline in 2013.

One surprising early arrival was a large floating dock that washed ashore June 5, 2012 on Agate Beach, about five miles north of our EPA research lab in Newport, Oregon.

Seaweed and Invertebrates

Invertebrates and seaweeds flourished on the side of the floating dock.

The dock, about the size of four large rental trucks (roughly 20 meters long and six meters wide), was covered with organisms not native to North America, including sea stars, barnacles, mussels, amphipods, and algae.

One organism of particular concern was a ruffled kelp, Undaria pinnatifida.  The species, also known as ‘wakame,’ is a seaweed used in Japanese soups and salads, and is also classified as one of the world’s top 100 worst invasive species by the Global Invasive Species DatabaseUndaria has not become established in the Pacific Northwest, but has invaded coastal waters in California.

Invasive species are one part of EPA’s effort to understand threats to natural ecosystems.  Along with partners from the U.S. Geological Survey, we are building an “Atlas of Nonindigenous Marine Species in the North Pacific” to catalog marine and estuarine invaders in the U.S., Canada, and Asia.

The Atlas will help risk managers assess the likelihood of new invasions by geographic location and species.  This type of information will be an invaluable resource for monitoring the arrival of invasive species from Japan or other parts of the world.

While the dock represents an unusual threat to the outer coast and estuarine ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest, the degree of risk depends to a large extent on the specific Japanese species transported and whether they have already invaded the U.S. west coast.

Biologist shows Japanese kelp

An Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist shows a sample of a Japanese kelp.

Most marine invaders are introduced into new areas of the world’s coastline by ballast water discharged from ships or by transport on boat hulls.  The Japanese dock demonstrates that debris from last year’s tsunami may be a significant additional way for non-native species to arrive in North America during the next couple years.

About the authors: Ecologists Chris Janousek, Ph.D., Melanie Frazier, Ph.D., and Henry Lee II, Ph.D., study the current status and stressors of coastal ecosystems. All three work at EPA’s Western Ecology Division laboratory in Newport, Oregon.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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