ABOVE: WWU's David Shull on the frozen Bering Sea, as part of his research into how global climate change is affecting the Bering Sea fishery, one of the world's richest commercial fisheries. For more, see below.
WWU faculty, students investigate global warming's effect on the Siberian Arctic
Andrew Bunn, assistant professor at Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment, is a primary investigator in a new initiative at the Woods Hole Research Center known as the Polaris Project, which will train future leaders in arctic research and education, and inform the public, both of which are essential given the rapid and profound changes under way in the Arctic in response to global warming.
This work, led by Associate Scientist Max Holmes at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, is being supported by a $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation, which was recently announced.
The Polaris Project includes a field course and research experience for undergraduate students in the Siberian Arctic, several new arctic-focused undergraduate courses taught by project co-primary investigators (PIs) at their home institutions, the opportunity for those co-PIs to initiate research programs in the Siberian Arctic, and a wide range of outreach activities.
“The Polaris Project will allow us to take students to one of the most remote and alluring places in the world to do some really important science. We have a responsibility to understand the dramatic changes taking place in the Arctic and to train and inspire the next generation of arctic researchers,” Bunn said.
All project participants, both students and faculty, will visit kindergarten through grade 12 classrooms to convey the excitement of polar research. Materials related to the project will be featured in the GoNorth curriculum, which is used in thousands of schools worldwide. The guiding scientific theme will be the transport and transformations of carbon and nutrients as they move with water from terrestrial uplands to the Arctic Ocean.
“The Arctic is central to the global climate change issue, and Russia has by far the largest share of the Arctic. Yet few Western scientists, much less students, ever get the chance to work in the Russian Arctic. This project will be a unique collaboration among students, educators, and scientists from distinct cultures working together to address a critically important scientific challenge,” Holmes said.
The initiation of the Polaris Project comes during the International Polar Year (IPY). The IPY is a large scientific program focused on the Arctic and the Antarctic from March 2007 to March 2009, organized through the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The Polaris Project will emphasize several of the IPY priorities outlined by the National Research Council and the National Science Foundation, including attracting and developing the next generation of polar researchers, promoting diversity and involving arctic indigenous communities, integrating research and education, creating innovative undergraduate science and education resources, providing authentic research experiences for undergraduates, and collaborating with other IPY projects in the United States and internationally.
Bunn came to Western from a post-doctoral program at Woods Hole Research Center. He received an undergraduate degree from The Evergreen State College, a master’s degree from Duke University and a Ph.D. from Montana State University.
WWU professor seeks climate-change answers in the rings of the bristlecone pine, the world's longest-lived organisms
One of the keys to understanding our quickly changing global climate is to know how fast climate has changed in the past – answers locked within the rings of the world’s longest-lived organisms, the bristlecone pine.
Andrew Bunn, an assistant professor in Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment, is researching the pines – which can live to be up to 5,000 years old – in their natural habitat atop California’s White Mountains, near the Nevada-California border.
“These trees live very high up – at about 11,000 feet – in areas that are only free of snow for a few months a year, so even just getting to the study sites is quite a challenge,” Bunn said.
Because of their longevity, core samples taken from these trees are extremely useful in reconstructing the temperature and climate data for periods long before modern data began to be tabulated.
“We try to coerce these trees into being living thermometers and rain gauges. It’s not always easy, but what we’re doing is trying to find the ‘natural range’ for the climate. How much warmer is it now than it was 1,000 years ago? These trees can tell us,” he said.
Bunn is working together with a team of paleoclimatologists from the University of Arizona as well as undergraduate students from WWU. Justin Lewis, a WWU senior from Poulsbo majoring in Environmental Science, has traveled with Bunn to the White Mountains to work with the bristlecone pines and to conduct research for his senior thesis.
“With the support of Andy I chose to take both a research-assistant position – helping with the Andy's bristlecone research – and focus my final quarters at Huxley on an undergraduate thesis refining and expanding my own bristlecone project,” Lewis said. “I received a grant from the University of Arizona to support my travel expenses to three different bristlecone sites with some of the best dendroclimatologists in the world. It’s been an incredible experience.”
Huxley Professor Studying Salmon-Habitat Restoration in Sweden
Like much of the Pacific Northwest, Sweden's extraction of its timber resources has been a boon for its economy, but has imperiled many of its native fish populations because of habitat loss; reversing the environmental damage on these key watersheds caused by more than a hundred years of intensive logging is the goal of a research project involving Western Washington University assistant professor James Helfield.
Helfield began working on the project on the Vindel and Pite rivers in Northern Sweden in 2002 as a postdoctoral researcher. He left Sweden in June 2005 to join the faculty at WWU's Huxley College of the Environment, but has continued to crunch the data obtained by more than two years of field work, and will return in September 2008 to continue the project.
"Before the development of roads, Sweden's timber industry relied on rivers and streams to float raw logs from the forest to mills on the coast. To facilitate log driving, the Swedes altered their rivers significantly by removing large boulders and woody debris, lining the banks with stone and wood structures and, in some cases, digging entirely new, straight channels - and none of these things are good for salmon," he said.
This "channelization" of the rivers caused a loss of biodiversity in the fish and aquatic insect communities that live in the streams, as well as in the riparian plant communities that border the waterways. All these factors resulted in a long-term drop in numbers in two signal species, the Atlantic salmon and Sweden's sea-run brown trout.
The project, funded by the European Union and carried out by Sweden's Umea University in conjunction with a number of local watershed groups, aims to restore the stream channels to their native state and improve habitat, and in doing so boost the fish populations to levels that would support a more viable commercial and recreational fishery.
Helfield said the habitat-restoration work he has done in Sweden has many parallels to restoration projects in the Pacific Northwest, both in terms of goals and results.
"It's very relatable to what many groups such as NSEA (the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association) are doing locally. Typically, restoration projects are funded to do the initial work, but funding is usually scarce for monitoring after the work has been completed. The great thing about the work in Sweden is that we have that monitoring aspect in place as well, so we're able to look at various techniques and see how effective they are, which is information that local groups might find useful," he said. "Conversely, there has been a lot of great work on stream ecology and salmon habitat dynamics done here in the Pacific Northwest, and we've been able to apply some of that experience and expertise to restoring the Swedish rivers."
Huxley students to study impact of Centralia floods
Western Washington University’s Institute for Global and Community Resilience
, an organization within the Huxley College of the Environment, has received a $2,500 Quick Response grant from the Natural Hazard Center to research the effects of 2008's Centralia River flood on the area’s businesses.
The IGCR works with citizens, experts, and business and civic leaders to understand the characteristics of disaster risk. A team of about 10 students from the Huxley College of the Environment, led by Research Associate Rebekah Green and Assistant Professor Scott Miles, will spend at least the next three months working with the Chehalis-Centralia Chamber of Commerce to study how businesses recover in the wake of this natural disaster; Green said she hopes to extend the project’s duration with more grants this spring.
Green, who just returned from the affected area, said that while the town is still suffering from the effects of the flooding, its community members remain resilient.
“Many of the businesses we talked to sent out word that they just couldn’t open, let alone serve their clients,” she said. “Following the flooding, those same clients showed up, with shovels in hand, to help that business owner dig out and clean up. There’s an amazing level of support there.”
The team from Huxley will evaluate the business community’s pre-disaster planning to find how it helped mitigate the damage caused by the flooding or, conversely, what businesses could have done differently, and will work on a map of the area showing the level of damage to businesses.
“This is going to be an amazing opportunity for the students,” Green said. “Working on theories and concepts from a textbook is one thing; working with the people going through a disaster is going to give them a level of experience they never would have gotten otherwise.”
Lessons on the Riverbank
By Mary Lane Gallagher
Her feet planted in sodden feltsoled boots, Rosie Cullinane sweeps her fishing rod over her head, orange line arcing above the creek rushing high and loud with snowmelt.
Cullinane won’t be graded on whether she catches a fish on today’s field trip with her class, “The Art, Science and Ethics of Flyfishing,” but she is eager to see if the casting techniques she learned on the lawn in front of Old Main will tempt a rainbow trout onto her hook.
“You have to take a look around,” explains Cullinane. “You have to get to know your environment before you dive right in.”
The 46-year-old Fairhaven College student maneuvers her hand-tied elkhair caddis toward a spot she hopes a trout might rest: hovering in an eddy away from the creek’s fastest current.
Three weeks into the summer class taught by Leo Bodensteiner, associate professor of Environmental Sciences, Cullinane and the other students have been schooled in the art of casting and fly tying, the science of identifying insects and fish, and the ethics of watershed stewardship.
“What we’re learning is really ecology through the window of fly-fishing,” Cullinane says. “They’re teaching us to fly-fish, but they’re also teaching us to be stewards of the river.”
In the five years Bodensteiner and summer session lecturer Steve Meyer have offered the class at Western, it has drawn students from majors throughout campus, Bodensteiner says. About half come from Huxley College of the Environment, and the junior-level course offers some important hands-on illustrations of scientific concepts like hydrology, watershed dynamics and aquatic food chains.
But Bodensteiner and Meyer aren’t just looking for another way to teach scientific fundamentals.
“We’re looking to make conservationists,” Bodensteiner says. “If people don’t take an interest in streams, (streams) just go away. We want them to love streams.”
Historically, Bodensteiner says, fishers and hunters have been strong advocates for conservation. But as more people live in cities, fewer of us are spending time in the wilderness, he says.
Out of sight, out of mind, he worries.
“Even if you don’t need the stream to provide fishing opportunities,” Bodensteiner says, “you still need the stream.”
Which is why the four-week course is big on science but just as big on lore. When students aren’t listening to lectures on entomology, tying flies all the while, they’re watching films like “A River Runs Through It” to tempt them with the romance and beauty of the sport.
Their final project is an oral report on a fly-fishing river, delivered around a campfire along the banks of the Upper Skagit, where the class winds up with a three-day fishing trip. Students learn about a river’s ecology and history and what kinds of fish are found there.
By the end of the trip, Meyer says, students have learned about more than a dozen places waiting for them to explore with their fishing gear and new skills. He hopes it’s as inspiring as showing a Warren Miller movie in October to a bunch of skiers and snowboarders.
Cullinane hopes the end of her fly-fishing class is really a beginning.
“I’m so hooked on this,” she says, the orange fly-fishing line pooling at her feet. “I can see myself doing this for a lifetime.”
Besides, she says, “I do want to catch a fish one day.”
WWU Grad Student Studying Dynamics of Grizzly/Salmon Relationship in Alaska
ABOVE: WWU grad student Ian Gill observes McNeil River's brown bears in their native environment as part of his study on bear/salmon dynamics.
Western Washington University graduate student Ian Gill spent his summer researching the predator-prey dynamic between grizzy bears and the chum salmon up close and personal in the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary on Alaska’s Cook Inlet, in an effort to understand the factors affecting the success of individual bears, how they learn, and how this interaction affects the health of both populations.
Gill, a native of Wrangell, Alaska, had an unusually experienced field assistant in Larry Aumiller, who was the manager of the game sanctuary for 30 years before retiring in 2005. Together, Gill and Aumiller spent 374 hours – about 12 hours a day, every day, for almost five weeks – observing grizzlies feeding at McNeil River Falls. The observation platform, a simple gravel pad on the riverbank, allows unobstructed views of the falls and extremely close observation distances, as the bears would often come within a few feet of the observers.
“This is one of the most pristine wildlife viewing areas in the world,” said Gill. “To even get to the platform, you have to win a permit lottery, and visitors get four days of observation, all while in attendance with an Alaska Fish & Game employee. Because these bears have never been fed, never been shot at or molested in any way, they view observers as neutral entities. Since the program started in 1975, there hasn’t been a single bear attack.”
Gill had plenty of opportunity to test this theory over the summer, with as many as 48 grizzlies at once fishing in the falls next to his gravel pad.
“This is the largest naturally occurring seasonal congregation of brown bears in the world – so it’s an incredible chance to do this kind of research,” he said.
What brings the bears to McNeil River Falls every summer is the regular return of chum salmon to their spawning grounds above the falls. The salmon provide an essential food source for bears before their winter hibernation; in turn the bears exert an important influence on survival rates and spawning success in the fish. As the chum swim upstream through the falls, the bears perch, swim and lie in their path, using a variety of “fishing” techniques to catch their prey. Some squat in the falls and wait for salmon to literally bump into them; others perch on ledges near channels and swat the salmon as they go by; others swim in the water at the base of the falls like skin divers, grabbing prey under water as the salmon wait their turns to proceed upstream.
“Physical factors like river flow play an important role in determining how many fish are caught. We’re also interested in understanding what makes some bears catch more fish than others. How does social dominance play a part in the selection of fishing locations or techniques, and lastly, how do these factors affect the two populations?” said Gill.
Gill and his advisor, WWU Assistant Professor of Environmental Science Jim Helfield, are collating Gill’s data in an effort to start finding some answers to those questions, and both say they hope to seek out grant funding to allow a second summer’s worth of observational data at McNeil River.
WWU Professor Researching Effects of Climate Change on Bering Sea Fishery
Western Washington University faculty member David Shull is researching how climate change and global warming are affecting the Bering Sea, one of the most important commercial fisheries on the planet.
The Bering Sea produces a catch worth $1 billion annually – half of all the seafood taken in the United States each year, according to statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Located at the crucial intersection between the stormy North Pacific and the icebound Arctic Ocean, the Bering Sea’s annual cycle of freeze-and-thaw is the trigger for an explosion of plankton growth every spring, microscopic food that is the building block of the entire food chain, according to Shull, an assistant professor of Environmental Science at WWU’s Huxley College of the Environment.
“Unfortunately, the Bering Sea is changing,” said Shull. “It’s getting warmer, and the all-important sea ice is shrinking and getting thinner.”
On a normal spring, at the edge of the sea ice, warming temperatures combine with increased sunlight to thaw just enough of the ice to produce perfect salinity and water temperatures for the explosion in plankton growth, which then grow and reproduce quickly during the lengthening arctic days. But with warmer temperatures, such as during years when the El Nino current is prevalent, higher water temperatures trigger a later, weaker bloom of the algae.
As a result, the most basic building block of the region’s food chain is largely unavailable at the time when it is needed most, a ripple which spreads far and wide throughout the ecosystem.
“What we’re studying now is what the consequences are to the ecosystem when this happens. We know it affects bottom-dwelling creatures like crabs, and creatures that feed on clams and shellfish such as walruses. We’ve seen a definite impact on these types of species,” he said. “We’ve got to find out more about how the sea’s fish are affected as well. Given how much we rely on this region to produce the food we consume each day, the health of this ecosystem is incredibly important.”
Shull’s project is funded by a four-year, $367,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Last spring marked the first series of data and sample collecting, which is done aboard the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy throughout sites in the Bering Sea. He will embark on the Healy twice this year, for a 40-day cruise in April and May, and a 30-day cruise in June and July.
“Our experiences last year taught us how easy it would be to ‘miss’ one of these important blooms, as well as to monitor its effects, so we’re going twice this year,” he said.
Accompanying Shull is WWU graduate student and Olympia resident Emily Davenport, who is writing her master’s thesis on the accumulation of phosphorus in the sediment on the sea floor.
“Being out on the ship is such an incredible experience. I feel really lucky to be able to work on a project like this in such a fascinating place,” she said.
A gallery of photos from Shull’s research is available at http://onlinefast.org/coppermine/index.php.
WWU Professor to Lead International Effort on Building Sustainable Economies
Western Washington University Associate Professor of Environemtnal Studies Nicholas Zaferatos has been named the principal investigator of the EuroMed Sustainable Communities project, an effort sponsored by the European Union to build sustainable economies across cultural and political boundaries.
“We’re working to revitalize ancient economic trade ties throughout the Mediterranean,” said Zaferatos, an associate professor of Environmental Studies at WWU’s Huxley College of the Environment. “Rural areas that did vigorous trade for thousands of years have seen those trade links evaporate as walls – some literal, some figurative – have been built between Christian and Muslim communities. We want to tear those walls down and help get these communities focused on sustainable economies that benefit all partners.”
The first case study in the project will use olive oil, an ancient commodity long traded throughout the region, as a test-case subject.
“Rural abandonment is a real problem throughout the Mediterranean region. Once-productive land – in this case, centuries-old orchards full of olive trees – are lying fallow and unused, a resource that is just waiting to be used as an economic driver. We need to re-form the links between the communities that collectively relied on olive oil, and formulate a business plan that can jump-start the rural economies once again.”
Zaferatos said the goal is to create micro-economies based on the principles of sustainable development within the olive oil industry, following the fair trade business approach that has been adapted to the global coffee-growing industry.
“The idea is that a higher value should be attainable through direct marketing in the global marketplace, especially when socially conscious consumers are assured that the high quality oil is produced though a cooperation of rural farmers and the proceeds directly support the continuation of their rural communities,” he said. “Right now, a small number of huge companies monopolize the olive-oil industry.”
EuroMed stakeholders will meet for an initial conference at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio conference center in Lake Como, Italy, in March; this will be followed by meetings in Tunisia in early May and Kefalonia, Greece, in late May. Zaferatos said the meetings are aimed at resulting in a viable and sustainable business proposal that can be implemented to start development. The stakeholder group includes non-government organizations and local farming communities from Tunisia, Greece, Italy, Palestine and Jordan. Among the attendees providing technical expertise to the stakeholder group will be fellow WWU faculty members Gigi Berardi-Alloway (Environmental Studies) and James Loucky (Anthropology), as well as researchers from the United Nations University in Amman, Jordan, Hellenic American University in Athens, and the Technical Educational Institute of Patras, Greece.
WWU Students Produce Audit of Local Company’s Sustainability Practices
At a time when many companies are scrambling to cut every possible cost, Bellingham’s Brenthaven, a manufacturer of backpacks, messenger bags and computer cases, is working with students and staff at Western Washington University to drastically reduce its carbon footprint, a project that will almost certainly take away profits from its bottom line.
It just comes down to doing the right thing, says company founder Harvey Stone.
“We really just felt we need to put our money where our mouth is, concerning sustainability, said Stone. “We needed to make a sense of environmental responsibility a companywide effort that reached into every corner of our operation, toward our ultimate goal of ‘Zero Impact.’ And that’s where Western came in.”
A chance conversation between Stone and Brad Smith, dean of Western’s Huxley College of the Environment, got the ball rolling and put Stone in touch with Seth Vidaña of WWU’s Office of Sustainability. As 2008’s fall quarter began, a plan was in place for Vidaña, along with WWU students Jayden Williams and Corey Havens, to conduct a greenhouse-gas inventory and a climate action plan to reduce the company’s impact and help it move forward towards its goal of carbon neutrality, with Huxley serving as the coordinating element between the research team and the company.
Stone said Brenthaven had already been working towards a more vague set of sustainability goals – a recent agreement on packaging with Apple Computers, for example, helped it reduce more than 100,000 cardboard containers per year – but Western’s research brought the big picture more into focus for everyone.
“We had already taken steps to reduce nickel and PVCs from our products, but we needed to go deeper,” he said.
One aspect that became clear early on was that some things Brenthaven does to get its products to far-flung worldwide markets, such as shipping its products overseas, have greenhouse-gas costs that can only be lowered so much – and that these types of costs would need to be negated using the process of Carbon Offsets, which involves paying to invest in “greening” such as waste-to-fuel plants or reforestation.
This type of detective work was what made the project such a challenge, said Vidaña.
“Trying to compute the carbon footprint generated by a pallet of Brenthaven bags sitting in the hold of a freighter making its way across the Pacific Ocean takes a lot of digging, but the students were up for it. They did an incredible job,” he said.
Havens, an Environmental Planning major from Redmond, said it was exciting to see a local company take such an active role in the push towards climate neutrality.
“I really hope businesses across the country start to see the transition to zero impact as a necessity and not an expense,” he said.
Wilson, also a Redmond native and a senior dual-majoring in Economics and Planning and Environmental Policy, said the project was a fascinating exercise in economic and environmental research.
“I think the most important experience I took away from the project was learning to work with busy people with jobs of their own, and get the information you need from them in a timely but polite manner,” Wilson said.
“Western has really taken a leadership role in sustainability research, and hopefully this project will provide some impetus to get more local companies thinking about this topic and, more importantly, using Western to help their companies in this way,” he said.
For more information on sustainability research or the Brenthaven project, contact Vidana at (360) 650-2891 or firstname.lastname@example.org
, or visit www.brenthaven.com.
WWU Students to Focus on Sustainable Urban Renewal in Bellingham
Western Washington University students will soon be taking an active role in helping Bellingham’s downtown revitalization efforts thanks to a new partnership between the University, the City of Bellingham, and the local nonprofit Sustainable Connections.
The partnership has culminated in the formation of the Urban Transitions Studio (UTS), an umbrella organization that will coordinate efforts between the three groups in regards to downtown revitalization and other projects relating to sustainable development planning.
Each year, WWU faculty and project partners will pick a central theme of study for that school year; the initial UTS project will investigate how to bring major retail back to Bellingham’s downtown core, which has been devoid of a major retail anchor since the migration of stores such as JC Penney, The Bon Marche, and Sears to Bellis Fair mall in the 1980s. A corollary project will examine how single-use areas such as the Bellis Fair mall can eventually revert to new, more sustainable community uses, such as urban villages.
“Bellingham’s downtown has rebounded significantly since the immediate years following the exodus to Bellis Fair,” said WWU associate professor of Environmental Studies Nick Zaferatos, one of the instructors in the UTS course sequence. “But its retail is still largely made of smaller specialty shops. This year’s project will look at how large retail anchor businesses might be lured back downtown and what impacts it would have if they came.”
The project seeks to restore Bellingham’s civic center as the community’s premier center of commercial, entertainment, and civic activity, an important step towards making Bellingham a more sustainable community.
"This is a great opportunity to look at ways to foster a vibrant, sustainable downtown and increase living wage jobs," Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike said. "I look forward to the ideas and directions the project will generate."
"Partnerships are essential during these times of constrained resources," he added. "This collaboration is allowing us to participate in an important community project that otherwise would not be possible without additional resources. We are grateful for the creative energy Western Washington University and Sustainable Connections have put into developing it."
Zaferatos said the initial coursework for participating students in the UTS would consist of Planning Studio I, Planning Studio II, Sustainable Design Studio, and Environmental Impact Assessment. Participating WWU faculty include Arunas Oslapas (Engineering Technology), Paul Stangl (Huxley College of the Environment), and Troy Able (Huxley College of the Environment). Future course work could be expanded to include synergies with other WWU colleges such as the College of Business and Economics and its departments of Finance and Marketing.
“There are all kinds of ways to expand this initial service learning concept across campus,” Zaferatos said.
WWU will work closely with its other partners in the UTS, which will provide inroads into valuable data, information, and feedback on the concepts generated on campus.
At the end of each quarter, WWU students will present their ideas and concepts at a public community forum. Final project reports from each class will be compiled as a collection of investigations and made available to the public.
For more information on the Urban Transitions Studio, contact Nicholas Zaferatos, WWU associate professor of Environmental Studies, (360) 650-7660.
WWU's Leo Bodensteiner Receives National Park Service Grant to Study Alpine-Lake Ecosystems
BELLINGHAM – Western Washington University professor Leo Bodensteiner has received a $42,744 grant to study aquatic alpine ecosystems in the North Cascades National Park complex.
The grant allows Bodensteiner to continue his research characterizing baseline conditions in the ecosystems, which includes surveying fish, amphibians, and invertebrates. He is also studying water chemistry characteristics, mapping of the lakes, and human disturbance. The grant is the first National Park Service grant Bodensteiner has received although he previously worked contractually with the National Park Service on lake assessments and restoration efforts. He began his grant-funded research this past summer.
Bodensteiner said the North Cascades National Park complex is an exceptional region to study because of its biodiversity and limited access.
“The biodiversity and extreme topography, including glaciers and snow-fed watersheds, make it well suited for climate change studies on hydrology and ecology,” said Bodensteiner. “The remoteness means complications from human disturbances are minimized.”
Bodensteiner’s research is part of the National Park Service’s larger effort to understand lake disturbances and develop restoration projects in the North Cascades, Mount Rainer and Olympic national parks. Bodensteiner also said the ongoing research in Washington state will allow WWU Environmental Sciences students to participate and gain professional experience in their field of study.
For more information, contact Leo Bodensteiner at (360) 650-7375 or Leo.Bodensteiner@wwu.edu.