U.S. Geological Survey

Visualizing Our Waters

By Dustin Renwick

“Data mining” conjures images of someone clanking away with a pick-axe at a mountain of 1s and 0s. But the sentiment isn’t far off. Heaps of data are useless without understanding the relevance and context within the larger picture.

Graphic showing swirling water with  words "Visualizing Nutrients" belowNutrient pollution is one the most expensive problems associated with aquatic environments. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus in water affects human health and the sustainability of ecosystems. Green water means increased risks for harmful algal blooms, hypoxia, and other nutrient-related water quality issues.

To help provide a clearer picture of this problem, 29 teams are now developing and testing affordable, real-time technologies for measuring nitrogen and phosphorus in water as part of our Nutrient Sensor Challenge. Yet those sensors will produce more data, ever increasing our need to make the numbers understandable to a larger audience beyond the scientists who study the measurements.

Today, with the U.S. Geological Survey and Blue Legacy International (a nonprofit focused on water), EPA launched Visualizing Nutrients. This innovation competition includes $15,000 in cash prizes.

We want talented designers, coders, data scientists, sensor experts, and anyone interested in complex problems to analyze and organize existing nitrogen and phosphorus water pollution data.

The best submissions will transform publicly available, open government data sets into dynamic visual representations that reveal insights, trends, and relationships. First Place will take home $10,000 and a People’s Choice Award will win $5,000.

Visit the competition website to submit a solution. The deadline is 11:59 p.m. on June 8, 2015.

This is one of many efforts by the broader Challenging Nutrients Coalition to bring innovative ideas and solutions to bear on the problem of nutrient pollution. The group consists of federal agencies, universities, and nonprofits.

About the Author: Dustin Renwick works in conjunction with the Innovation Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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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Organizing the Ocean

coastal scene

The Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard is the first such system for marine ecosystems.

By Marguerite Huber

Do you like things alphabetized? In chronological order? Color coded? If so, you probably love organization. You probably have a place and category for every aspect of your life.

Well researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NatureServe, the U.S. Geological Survey, and EPA have taken organization to the next level. For more than a decade they have been working to organize the first classification standard for describing coastal and marine ecosystems.

This classification standard, called the Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard (CMECS), offers a simple framework and common terminology for describing ecosystems—from coastal estuaries all the way down to the depths of the ocean. It provides a consistent way to collect, organize, analyze, report, and share coastal marine ecological data, which is especially useful for coastal resource managers and planners, engineers, and researchers from government, academia, and industry. The Federal Geographic Data Committee has already adopted CMECS as the national standard.

Organization at its finest, CMECS is basically a structure of classification, with the helpful addition of an extensive dictionary of terms and definitions that describe ecological features for the geological, physical, biological, and chemical components of the environment.

Using CMECS, you first classify the ecosystem into two settings, which can be used together or separately. The Biogeographic Setting covers ecoregions defined by climate, geology, and evolutionary history. The second, Aquatic Setting, divides the watery territory into oceans, estuaries and lakes, deep and shallow waters, and submerged and intertidal environments.

For both of these settings, there are four components that describe different aspects of the ecosystem, which are outlined in CMECS’s Catalog of Units. The water column component describes characteristics of, you guessed it, the water column, including water temperature, salinity, and more. The geoform component includes characteristics of the coast or seafloor’s landscape. The substrate component characterizes the non-living materials that form the seafloor (like sand) or that provide a surface for biota (like a buoy that has mussels growing on it). And finally, the biotic component classifies the living organisms in the ecosystem.

A benefit of CMECS’s structure of settings and components is that users can apply CMECS to best suit their needs.  It can be used for detailed descriptions of small areas for experimental work, for mapping the characteristics of an entire regional ecosystem, and for everything in between.  People reading scientific papers, interpreting maps, or analyzing large data sets can have clear and easily available definitions to understand the work and to compare results.

Additionally, it will be much easier to share data because CMECS allows everyone to use the same units and the same terminology. It is much easier to share and compare data when you’re using the same definitions and the same units!

Overall, with the use and application of CMECS, we will be able to improve our knowledge of marine ecosystems, while satisfying organizers everywhere.

About the authorMarguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

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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Something to Be Thankful For

By Kathleen Stewart

Kathleen Stewart examines a stove.

Kathleen Stewart examines a stove.

On Thanksgiving, stuffed with turkey and pie, I can summon just enough creativity to be thankful for the usual stuff—a roof over my head, food on the table, and my family’s health and happiness. I don’t tend to remember to be thankful for the modern conveniences that make all of the above possible.

This year, I am officially giving thanks for my natural gas heater. Whenever a slip of chill creeps into my drafty old house, warm nights are just a flip of a switch away. With heat so instantaneously available, it’s easy to forget that 3 billion people worldwide rely on wood, dung, charcoal, coal, and biomass (fuel derived from organic matter, usually plants) to cook for their families and warm their homes.

Even on the Navajo Nation, where high voltage transmission lines crisscross the land to bring electricity to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, approximately 60% of families use coal, coke, or wood to heat their homes. About 30% of families use coal as their primary heating fuel.

In 2010, researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and Dine College (the Navajo Nation’s institute of higher education) surveyed 137 homes in the Navajo town of Shiprock, NM. In this town, with average December/January lows of 19 degrees Fahrenheit, the researchers found that 77% of the homes used stoves primarily for heating, and 25% of families burned coal for heat in stoves that were not specifically designed for coal. They also found that 26% of the stoves were ten or more years old.

Navajo town of Shiprock, NM

Navajo town of Shiprock, NM

The researchers noted that many of the stoves were improperly vented, with visible cracks in the chimneys, or no chimney at all.

The indoor smoke poses serious health risks, particularly for children and the elderly, but there is no easy solution. There are no EPA certified coal stoves, and most newer coal stoves are designed to burn cleaner-burning anthracite coal, not the types (bituminous and subbituminous) available—cheap or free—on the Navajo Nation. With a median household income of $20,000 and limited existing infrastructure, gas and electricity are generally too costly.

That’s why we and our EPA colleagues have teamed up with partners at Dine College to identify and research heating options that will reduce exposure to coal smoke from home heating on the Navajo Nation. The end result will help provide stakeholders with an understanding of the best alternatives to reduce health and environmental impacts from home heating—alternatives that are technically, economically, and culturally feasible.

Last night I fell asleep curled around my home’s heater vent after the kids went to bed. I crave being warm like a snail craves its shell. In fact, I am actually allergic to being cold. Look that allergy up and then be thankful for two new things this Thanksgiving.

Learn more about EPA research and programs on how to heat your home while minimizing the health impacts:

 

About the Author: Environmental scientist Kathleen Stewart helps concerned communities understand risks from indoor and outdoor air pollution. For this project, she is working with Agency research scientist Paul Solomon, who has extensive experience developing ways to measure particulate matter in the air, and to better understand the relationships between air pollution sources and exposure risks.

 

 

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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Challenging Nutrients: EPA and Partners Launch New Ideation Prize

Effects from excess nutrients in American waterways cost the country more than $2 billion each year.

Activities of daily modern life add small amounts of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus to our lakes, rivers and estuaries, either directly or indirectly.

We all contribute to the widespread problem. Runoff from our suburban lawns, city streets and rural fields is just one of many ways we introduce more nutrients into the environment.

The partnership for this challenge currently includes: - White House Office of Science and Technology Policy - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - U.S. Department of Agriculture - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  - U.S. Geological Survey - Tulane University - Everglades Foundation

The partnership for this challenge currently includes:
– White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
– U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
– U.S. Department of Agriculture
– National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
– U.S. Geological Survey
– Tulane University
– Everglades Foundation

These excess nutrients end up in our waterways and fuel algae growth that exceeds healthy ecosystem limits. In turn, algal blooms can contaminate drinking water, kill aquatic species and negatively affect water-based recreation and tourism.

A partnership of federal agencies and stakeholders has announced a new prize competition to collect innovative ideas for addressing nutrient overloads.

The challenge aims to identify next-generation solutions from across the world that can help with excess nutrient reduction, mediation and elimination. The total payout will be $15,000, with no award smaller than $5,000. Proposals can range from completely developed ideas to exploratory research projects.

Ideas will be judged on a range of criteria, including technical feasibility and strategic plans for user adoption. Additionally, the challenge entries will inform the partnership members’ broader commitment and vision to find new ways to approach this decades-long problem.

Submit your idea today!

About the Author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

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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