Science Wednesday: Ready for Takeoff

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

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.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.