Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What Will the Future Look Like?

From assembling a shopping list for a weekend party to building a house or growing a business, there are dozens reasons to want to know what the future will bring. Yet, uncertainties abound. People forget to RSVP; paperwork gets held up; construction is delayed due to weather. Under normal circumstances, we predict the future by thinking about the past, whether recalling our own experiences or drawing on the lessons of others. But how do we plan when the world itself is changing? As our society grapples with the social, economic, and environmental changes of the 21st century, more creative approaches are required.

Planning natural resource use in New Hampshire is no exception. To try to tackle this problem, my collaborators and I use a variety of tools to develop educated guesses about how New Hampshire's changing landscapes will affect quality of life for New Hampshire residents. Computer simulations are essential, but no computer can predict how human behavior will change. To answer that question, our team arranges conversations with a broad variety of New Hampshire residents. By talking to people today, we hope to develop narratives about alternative futures: different stories of how land use might change in the century ahead.

The ways that human activities will shape New Hampshire landscapes depend not only on the state's economic growth and movement of people into or out of the state, but also on individual values and goals. Some prioritize conservation and tourism. Others want to ensure local food production to maximize resilience to global disturbances and minimize fuel consumption associated with transporting food over long distances. Still others focus on ways to increase energy independence through expanded use of biomass, wind, and hydroelectric sources of power. All of these visions have merit, but the question remains open of how the 6 million acres of New Hampshire will be allocated over the century ahead: choices must be made about the degree to which each piece of land will be used for food production, energy production, housing, manufacturing, recreation, conservation, or other purposes we might not now foresee.

Credit: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Wikimedia CommonsCredit:

In addition to the diversity of values shaping land use change, we must also consider ways that the future many people hope for could be made more or less possible by a range of external economic, political, and environmental factors. For instance, although some conservationists and some entrepreneurs may hope for higher density urban centers to attract businesses and reduce the impact of suburban sprawl, this style of development would require a sea change in municipal zoning policies in most New Hampshire communities. Similarly, expansion of the ranges of plant pests and diseases due to climate change could limit both conservation and food production, while the decline of winter sports could reduce the number of tourism-related jobs and ultimately limit resources available for growth. On the other hand, at the continental scale, people might choose to relocate from areas of the United States strongly affected by droughts and heat waves to cooler and moister states, including New Hampshire, and the resulting population increase could stimulate growth and development.

As our team works to develop plausible alternative scenarios for future land use in New Hampshire, we hope to incorporate both human desires and external constraints into our narratives.  We hold open discussions with groups representing the diversity of New Hampshire residents, including developers, planners, and conservationists, as well as representatives of state agencies and a variety of businesses likely to shape and/or be affected by future changes in land use.  In these discussions, we ask participants to respond not only to the question of what they hope the future of New Hampshire will be like, but also what they expect and what they imagine might happen as a result of external drivers.  Through these questions, we tap into not only their values, but also their expertise.

The narratives we develop will serve as input for computer simulations, which in turn will provide a basis for decision-making by businesses, organizations, government agencies, and individuals, including many of the groups whose perspectives we are soliciting.  Just as importantly, our questions about what the future could look like and our simulations of how alternative futures could affect ecosystem services serve as a starting point for discussions about how we as New Hampshire residents can shape the future of the state.  By having these conversations now, we help to ensure that the New Hampshire landscape in the century ahead will continue to provide for the needs of safe, beautiful, vibrant communities, including clean water, affordable energy, and beautiful surroundings.

Posted by Alexandra Thorn, Post-Doctoral Research Associate, Earth Systems Research Center, University of New Hampshire

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Cutting edge environmental monitoring comes to New Hampshire

Sensors have become an integral part of our daily lives, from thermometers to networks of wireless humidity sensors used to monitor fire danger in remote forests.  Sensor technology is advancing rapidly, becoming easier to use and to maintain, allowing us to push the boundaries of scientific research.  Recently, this has become international news with the sensor technology on the Rover now deployed on the surface of Mars.  This technology is advancing rapidly in the ecological sciences and is now allowing us to measure parameters in soils and rivers as accurately as we can in the laboratory.  At the same time, the technology for wireless communications and solar power has also advanced and become more affordable enabling us to connect sensors directly to our research labs and monitor the environment in remote areas in real-time.

One of the key ecological questions facing New Hampshire is, "What impacts are land use and climate change having on ecosystems throughout the state?"  To help answer this, we have been developing and maintaining a state-wide network of soil and water sensors as part of the New Hampshire EPSCoR program.  The sensors network will be capable of delivering fine time scale data, which will enable a better linkage between responses in headwater systems and the impacts on the larger river drainage networks.  It is our aim to link soil processes to water chemistry parameters by co-locating terrestrial and aquatic sensor sites wherever possible.  The data we gather will provide modelers with resources needed to develop scenarios for future change, which can be used by teachers, interested citizens, or environmental managers wanting to learn more about watershed systems in New Hampshire.

A sensor network is designed to transmit the data from an array of sensors to a data repository on a computer server.  In the case of both our soil and aquatic sensor networks, various sensor nodes are deployed and are connected to a datalogger that stores the data and is programmed to tell the sensors when to collect data.  This system is powered either by hard-wired electricity or by batteries that are charged by solar panels.  The data is then transmitted by cell phone modems back to NH EPSCoR’s data server.

Soils Sensors 

With our complex soil sensor system, we have an array of sensors that examines how soil properties and processes change as climate in the region changes by monitoring soil carbon (C) at multiple sites across the state. At each one of our sites we have six chambers which automatically detect the CO2 being respired by soil microbes using an infrared gas analyzer.  Paired with each chamber we have three soil sensors installed at the soil surface and fifteen and thirty centimeters below the surface, which detect temperature, moisture content and electrical conductivity.  We collect basic weather data at each site as well, such as air temperature and precipitation amounts.  By understanding how extreme weather events affect soil properties and processes as well as stream chemistry, we can predict the likely effects of climate change on soils and water quality in the coming decades. 

Aquatic Sensors

The aquatic side of the sensors network is comprised of two main instruments: (1) The EXO2 by YSI is a multi-parameter water chemistry instrument, with interchangeable sensors capable of measuring pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, turbidity, fluorescent dissolved organic matter (fDOM – a surrogate for dissolved organic carbon), and (2) the Specific Ultra-Violet Nitrate Analyzer (SUNA) by Satlantic, which measures nitrate concentration.  We are also collecting river flow data to help determine patterns with weather events and climate change. The sensors sample the selected stream and river sites every 15 minutes. Data on this time scale will give researchers a detailed look into how streams respond to differing types of land use or management, as well as changes with storm events.

EXO2 multi-parameter sonde, by YSI

Specific Ultra-Violet Nitrate Analyzer (SUNA), by Satlantic

Sensor and communication technology has advanced rapidly in this field, where this kind of work could not have been done this way 10 years ago. In the case of one of the sensors, the SUNA can detect nitrate almost as low as we can back in the lab and is a significant advancement from previous sensors that had detection limits several times higher. It is also relatively maintenance free. A wiper keeps things from collecting in the sample path and a copper guard keeps microbes in check. The wireless communications are so good that we now can communicate with all of our sensors even in remote areas of the White Mountains. This is an exciting time in our field and the quantity and quality of the data we produce will help push our understanding of our environment. In our next post we’ll let you know what the challenges we face when installing the sensors.

Sensors suite ready for deployment

Posted by Jody Potter, Analytical Instrumentation Scientist III; Brian Godbois, Senior Laboratory Technician; Lisle Snyder, Laboratory Technician II
Natural Resources & the Environment, University of New Hampshire

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Science Education Gets Real at Sanborn Regional

Bridging New Hampshire's science education gap through project-based learning

"Science is dirty!" "It’s too hard!" "We don't have the tools we need!" Sound familiar? These were a few of the comments by sophomores from Sanborn Regional High School working at local Powwow Pond as part of an intense semester long project.
Sarah Sallade, a 10th grade Life Science teacher at Sanborn, says that such complaints naturally arise when students experience what it's like to be out in the field collecting their own data – sans the spoon feeding of information they are accustomed to. “In real life, doing research is messy, you don't always have all of the information or funding for the most advanced resources, and sometimes you have to improvise,” says Sallade, who holds master’s degrees in both natural resources and education from UNH. “This project is interesting because it's a different approach," says Sallade.

And she would know. Her master's research involved carbon cycling of forests of the northeastern U.S. From 2006-2012, Sarah primarily worked to translate terrestrial carbon cycle research into hands-on educational and student research activities for K-12 classrooms.  In collaboration with the international Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) education program, she traveled locally and globally to train teachers and teacher-trainers on the Carbon Cycle project materials. The Globe Carbon Cycle project at UNH is funded by NASA and NSF to develop hands-on, primary and secondary school-based science activities. She is now a practicing GLOBE teacher at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH.

The ecology project at Powwow Pond focused on the impaired and nutrient overloaded body of water in Kingston. It combined three sophomore classes: Biology, Government and Economics, and English. Students worked with property owners, the Powwow Pond Council (PPC), and the Kingston Conservation Commission (KCC) to study the different laws and regulations that govern environmental protection. They also wrote educational flyers on topics such as fertilizer usage and impacts of storm water.

“It gets our students out in the community and working on a project that impacts them or their neighbors," observes Sanborn Regional High School Principal Brian Stack. And the project involved much more than that. It started with a dedicated group of teachers who worked as a team in collaboration with the KCC and the PPC to design, coordinate and map out the semester-long activities that would result in a set of solutions the students could implement to help the pond.

Evelyn Nathan of KCC and Diane Coll of PPC started by gaining permission for 180 students to access several private properties around the lake where the students took measurements and samples of soil and water, drew diagrams and photo documented the area. Teachers then recruited local experts to come to the school and present. Suzanne Petersen, the Lamprey River Advisory Committee outreach coordinator, worked with the Department of Environmental Services watershed model in the biology lab: affording students the chance to explore how the land surrounding streams, rivers and lakes acts as a drainage basin or watershed. Michelle Daley, a research scientist from the Department of Natural Resources at UNH, met with students and talked about her career as a scientist studying water quality and the differences between point and non-point source pollution.

Sallade says bridging the gap between the scientific community and the K-12 education community is important because the general public often misunderstands science as a discipline. “Many people do not understand that what we know to be true today is based upon multiple lines of evidence that have been peer reviewed and confirmed by many in the scientific community,” says Sallade. While sometimes there are major shifts in scientific thinking, generally science theories build slowly over time as we gather more evidence. “It’s critically important that this process and understanding of science not only be taught to students but also experienced by them so when they become voting citizens they are able to make informed decisions.”
The culmination of the project ended back at Powwow Pond where students spent a day spread out over five properties, where they built infiltration trenches, rain gardens and vegetative buffers that would soak up the water and pollutants and lessen the impact of excess nutrients during future storms and floods.
When asked what she was working on, sophomore Gillian Crane says, "We're filling these trenches with gravel and they are going to act as filters for all the stuff that runs off the road, instead of it going directly into the pond."

Evelyn Nathan, chair of the Conservation Commission in Kingston, put the matter frankly: "We know there is a problem with the pond. One of our goals is to try and use more organic solutions and come at this from a different angle. The students are part of that effort and they are doing an awesome job!"

Posted by Evelyn Jones, Communications Coordinator, NH EPSCoR