Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Life Outdoors Inspires Career Teaching Environmental Science

I was born and raised in Northern NH – I mean north, as in, north of the notches. I was raised in the small towns of Milan and Dummer, graduated from Berlin High School, spent seven years working through post-secondary education to attain my Masters degree and am now living and working back in the North Country. I am fortunate to be associated with the NH EPSCoR Ecosystems + Society network because “Ecosystems + Society” pretty much describes the life that I want to lead. It is deeply important to me to protect our ecosystems (particularly those in Northern NH) AND to be a positive contributor to my society! 

My name is Rachel and the North Country is very important to me for many reasons. One main reason originates from my Father’s choice of profession. He is a self-employed logger and since he was 16 years old, he has put in many long days working with his John Deer cable skidder and a Husqvarna chainsaw as his only company. We have also worked away at his business as a family doing over a hundred cords of firewood a year for many years! Where most families have marked their children’s growth with professionally done family and school photos, my parent’s photo albums of the 80’s and 90’s have pictures of my sister, brother, and I sitting in the skidder with blankets and teddy bears in tow, using our Snow & Nealley axes (which were a Christmas gift one year) to clear boundary lines, and backing our one-ton dump truck up to a pile of firewood about to be split and loaded. 


Now, you might be thinking that this childhood sounds a little, shall we say, rugged. Do not worry! Growing up we also managed to find plenty of time to hike and bike, hunt, fish, and camp – we worked hard and played hard together, as a family. One theme throughout the pictures of my child and early adulthood (whether we were doing firewood or fishing) is that we are all smiling! I think one reason for this is that my parents were constantly taking moments to teach us something new. We would take time to do a nature walk at lunch to look at lady slippers in June, or to save a yellow spotted newt or frog from the woodpile, or learn how to tell the difference between a red maple leaf and a sugar maple leaf. My Father was also constantly doing things to teach us about ecosystems and the importance of preserving them. He would re-route an entire skid trail to avoid a ground-nesting bird. If he saw a tree that was marked for cutting that had signs of nesting flying squirrels, he’d wait until these had fledged before cutting that particular tree. When his skidder work involved crossing a stream, he spent significant time setting up bridges to decrease as much potential runoff as he could. PLUS, when he did these things, he brought our attention to them. He would tell us how he loved his job, but that he loved the woods too and wanted to be able to do his job for a long time by conserving the forest in the process.

 As a result of my upbringing, I have spent a substantial amount of time outside throughout my entire life. My parents have given me an incredible appreciation for our natural world, which has followed me through my college and professional careers. I was recently hired as an assistant professor at White Mountains Community College (WMCC) in Berlin, NH – this is literally one of two dream jobs of mine! I have worked as a member of the adjunct faculty at both WMCC and Plymouth State University and I am so excited to be teaching full time starting this fall! One thing that I am most excited about is to incorporate my love for the North Country outdoors into my teaching. Because of the way I was raised and the many opportunities that I’ve had since high school, I have an incredible network of loggers, foresters, wildlife and fisheries biologists, and many other professors that I can access to give my students opportunities for learning outside of the classroom. This, coupled with the opportunity to collaborate with members of the EPSCoR team to increase research opportunities for my students, results in a dream job. I am so excited to be living, working, and contributing to conservation in Northern New Hampshire!

Posted by Rachel E. D. Whitaker, Spatial Information Technology and Environmental Science Department, White Mountains Community College, Berlin NH

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Clean water: It’s everyone’s responsibility to reduce pollution and properly manage New Hampshire’s land areas to protect our water resources.

The 1972 Clean Water Act has been largely successful in cleaning up pollution from industrial activities and sewage treatment plants that dump wastewater directly into our streams and rivers through discharge pipes or “point sources”.  Now we are faced with an even larger more diffuse and difficult to manage pollution problem: “non-point pollution”.  

As water moves either across the land surface or into the groundwater and makes its way to a stream or river, it flows through what we call a watershed.   A watershed is the land area that acts like a funnel and delivers rainwater and snowmelt to a particular location along a stream, river or lake system. When water moves through the watershed it can pick up various diffuse sources of pollution or “non-point pollution” along the way.  Septic systems, leaky sanitary sewer lines, pet and livestock waste, fertilizers, pesticides, road salt and leaks from automobiles are all examples of non-point pollution that can be found in many areas across the state.

By making simple changes, promoting smart growth and proper land use planning, you can reduce the amount of non-point pollution in our environment. If each and every one of us did one small thing, together we can have a big impact.  You can use less use less fertilizer and pesticides (remember more is not better), apply less salt in a more efficient way on your driveway and ask road agents to do the same, maintain your septic system if you have one and fix leaks from your automobile. You could also install a rain garden to naturally filter runoff from your roof and driveway, minimize the pavement on your property and if you own waterfront properly make sure there is natural vegetation along the riverbank or shore-front. If we all do our part to reduce non-point sources of pollution, together we can ensure that future generations will have enough clean water to drink and to use for boating, fishing and other recreational activities that are vital to the NH economy. 

We all need clean water and we all live in a watershed that drains to a local river or water body.  If we work together, we can reduce the pollution in our environment and keep our water clean.  We have cleaned up pollution in the past.  The Ohio River no longer catches on fire and the Merrimack River no longer changes color on a daily basis from factory dyes.  History reminds us that we can tackle complex problems and if we come together, we can solve today’s largest water quality problem: non-point pollution.

Posted by Michelle Daley, Research Scientist, University of New Hampshire, Department of Natural Resources and the Environment

Monday, June 10, 2013

Mapping brings power to the scientists (and everyone else too!)

When is the last time you made a map on a computer?

If you are in the field of geographic information systems (GIS), you use a computer to make maps every day. In fact, up until recently, GIS users constituted the majority of people in the world who had 1) sufficient technical skills and 2) access to software which allowed them to create maps of our world using computers. GIS has long played a critical role in community planning and natural resource management, and has more recently taken off in the fields of marketing and disaster mitigation (to name just a few).

A GIS map of unfragmented lands in Hampton, NH

Even if you are not a GIS user, can you still make a map?    

Definitely. The world of computer mapping has changed dramatically over the past few years, and many new technologies have emerged which make the creation and sharing of maps more straightforward and much less expensive. Instead of software that takes years to master, and thousands of dollars to purchase, anyone can make maps on their computers using largely free, often fairly simple, software and websites. If you want to learn more about how to make your own maps, UNH Cooperative Extension provides opportunities to improve your mapping skills by taking a workshop or by taking time to learn on your own.

Google map of Dog poop in the school yard in Nashua, NH

How does mapping relate to science?

GIS and other computer-based mapping is used by scientists in a wide variety of disciplines to store their data, analyze their research and present results to scientists and non-scientist alike. Maps are great ways to communicate, providing both a visual way for people to understand scientific data and a geographic context in which people can begin to understand how results relate to their corner of the world. While poorly-designed maps can be found far and wide, well-designed maps can both beautifully summarize an entire research project and, at the exact same time, serve as the catalyst for a entirely new study. If a simple picture is worth a thousand words, just imagine how many words it would take to replace a good map. The right map at the right time can change the world.

GIS map of lake chlorophyll concentrations
from Shane Bradt's dissertation research

How are NH EPSCoR scientists using maps?

The NH EPSCoR Ecosystems and Society Project is a comprehensive, researched-based effort to better understand the interaction between land use, climate, ecosystems and society.  From the moose-filled bogs of Coös County to the eelgrass beds of Great Bay, a tremendous amount of data are being collected on range of natural resources including forests, soil, rivers and snowpack. Advanced GIS mapping is used throughout the Ecosystems and Society Project by scientists to share and analyze results. In the near future, user-friendly interactive online maps will be released through the project's Data Discovery Center to allow anyone to explore and access results from several of the project's most interesting research topics.

How do I learn more?

For starters, keep following this blog!  Check back often to hear the latest from our researchers. You can also use the NHEPSCoR websiteFacebook page and Twitter feed to keep up with the latest news on how scientists are using maps to gain new understanding of the importance of NH's natural resources.

Posted by Shane Bradt, Extension Specialist in Geospatial Technologies, UNH Cooperative Extension

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

What is an Ecosystem Model?

If I say the words “model” or “modeling” to most people their first thought is probably good looking people, fashion, or maybe the movie Zoolander.  However, when scientists talk about modeling they are talking about something totally different so I am writing this blog post to explain what ecological modeling is and why we use them.  

A model, in the most general sense, is something used to represent something else.  Like a model airplane is a miniature representation of an actual airplane.  An ecosystem model is a representation of an ecosystem that is made up of mathematical expressions contained in a computer program.  Our goal when we build ecosystem models is to better understand how they function.  

I am new to ecosystem modeling and I wasn’t so sure I would like it at first.  I became an ecologist because I love doing field work.  I love the outdoors and I am happiest at my job when I am in my waders standing in the middle of a river collecting some samples.  However, no matter how much field work I and my colleagues do we can only take so many samples and measure so many things.  This means that when we have results they only represent certain points in space and certain points in time.  One of the best things about having and using an ecosystem model is that it helps us to fill in the holes between those points, both in time and in space.  

One of the things I’ve realized by learning to develop and use ecosystem models is the deep level of understanding we must have of a system and a process to be able to describe it in mathematical functions.  Ecosystems are natural complex systems and so it is difficult to describe and predict their behavior.  As a scientist, I am really enjoying this challenge.  Once we have developed a model, we check the results it gives us, or its output, with as much real world data as we can to make sure it is working properly.  We call this process model validation.  After the model has passed this test we can use the model to test hypotheses and look at future scenarios.  

Ecosystem models are not crystal balls and they cannot tell us for sure what the future holds but they are the best tool we have to estimate what the future might look like under certain conditions and to evaluate the effect of a disturbance without actually disturbing the ecosystem.  With an ecosystem model we can say, given our best knowledge of our ecosystems, how our water quality will be affected if we double the population of NH, or there are more frequent big rain storms in the future, or we double the amount of land used for agriculture.  We can also see how an ecosystem recovers if a stress is reduced or removed.  

For the ecosystem and society project, we are using models of both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems to see how climate change and land development in NH will affect these ecosystems and the services they provide for us.  By producing maps of water quality under different scenarios we are making the future consequences of our current decisions a bit more real.  We are providing this information to the public and policy makers so they may make more informed decisions regarding the management of our natural resources and land. 

Posted by Madeleine Mineau, Research Scientist, Earth Systems Research Center, University of New Hampshire