“As I see it now, many of the basic components of climate change have been pretty well proven; they are well established, it is happening,” said Dr. David Shull, Associate Professor of Environmental Science at Huxley College of the Environment.
“As a result, it’s my belief that as we move into the future, research surrounding the topic of climate change is going to go in one of two directions. First, it will be about improving prediction; figuring out better, more accurate ways to measure temperature shifts, sea level changes, and a whole host of other data. The second is how change in the climate is affecting the ecosystem. Pick your favorite ecosystem; from forests, to rivers, to the arctic, and ask what will happen if things continue on their current path. Here at Huxley College, we are driving research on both fronts.
With many leading international researchers in the field of climate change, the faculty at Huxley College continue to lead the world in environmental discovery, while also offering unparalleled opportunities to the next generation of graduates. In the case of Dr. Shull, whose research on how climate change is affecting the Bearing Sea, the data he collects while on location aboard a Coast Guard icebreaker is brought back to the classroom in many forms.
“Nearly half of all commercially caught fish come from this region, it’s the world's largest commercial fishery,” Dr. Shull continues. “What I do is look at the organisms living in the mud on the ocean floor. We see how their abundance and distribution relative to ice cover help flush nutrients out of the mud and into the water, fueling the food chain system; from the algae at the bottom, to the walrus and polar bear at the top.”
Dr. Shull points out that he often encounters very motivated students who are interested in careers in marine science; research projects like this give them a great chance to understand what this line of work really entails. While he is only able to offer a few students the opportunity to spend time with him doing field work, even more students get the chance to interact with the data, and core samples, he brings back to the classroom.
Another innovative leader in climate change research at Huxley College is Dr. Andy Bunn, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science. In addition to bringing a team of students to the Siberian Arctic the past two summers to study the effects of climate change on this ecologically vital and sensitive areas, Dr. Bunn is collaborating with scientists at the University of Arizona on a $289,000 grant to work with NASA on a global forestry project.
“Our work in the arctic is very important,” Dr. Bunn elaborated. “Most of the arctic is in the Siberian region of Russia, so over the past two years I’ve been able to take five students there as part of the Polaris Project.”
“We’re there to look at things like the amount of carbon trapped in the permafrost. We try to understand how this carbon moves through frozen wetland, and quantify how old it is - with the thawing of these arctic regions, this carbon is finding its way to our atmosphere where it is a heat-trapping gas.”
With over 40 years of history doing environmental work, Huxley College is one of the oldest colleges in the country to focus on the study of the environment. “We attract some really driven students, and great faculty.” Dr. Bunn continued. “Even though I didn’t go to school here myself, I’ve known about Huxley College for as long as I can remember; as I went on in my research I always had it in the back of my mind that if there was ever a position open here, this would be a great place to be because of all the resources and opportunities.”
In addition to Dr. Shull and Dr. Bunn, many other faculty at Huxley College are also leading researchers in how people interact with the environment; professors like Dr. Scott Miles and his work with disaster resilience, and Dr. John Rybczyk with 15+ years studying coastal systems and their response to rising sea levels.
Dr. Miles, Assistant Professor of Planning and Environmental Policy, was recently awarded a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation (CMMI) Program to study post-disaster infrastructure restoration and the effects on local economic recovery. In addition, Dr. Miles is also the Director of The Resilience Institute at Huxley College, whose goal is to promote resilient human and ecological communities that are less vulnerable to disturbance events, and that are able to recover rapidly following an actual disaster. (Read an article on The Resilience Institute in this e-newsletter.)
In the field of sea level computer modeling, Dr. Rybczyk continues to build on the system that he originated, which in turn is used today by the U.S. Geological Survey. Through the refining of field methods, what first started in the 90’s as a predictor of sea level and how coastal systems can (or can’t) respond to changes, has since evolved to include a variety of additional important variables. Dr. Rybczyk points out Huxley College has amazing output across the board, and that its production, in terms of papers and grants, puts it in an elite class of leading research institutions.
“In the world of climate change research, when you are trying to recognize solutions, it is hard to predict where innovations will come from. What will be the breakthrough?” Dr. Shull wondered. “I don’t know…but whatever it is, wherever it comes from, it will probably be outside the box we’re thinking in now.”
“All I can do is look at where the research is today; continue adding to the knowledge by sharing what I find with my experiments, and maintain my goal as a professor to give students the tools they need to be life-long learners so they can carry climate change research from Huxley College into the future.”
The Elwha River was once one of the most wild and productive rivers in the Northwest, supporting abundant runs of native fish including Coho, sockeye, pink, chum, steelhead and Chinook salmon. But in 1913, the lower Elwha was burdened with the first of two dams which would eventually remove nearly 90% of upstream salmon habitat. Nearly 80 years later, federal legislation mandated removal of the dams in an attempt to restore this ecosystem.
“Congress first approved the process that would lead to removal of the dams in 1992 as part of the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act,” explained Dr. Andy Bach, Huxley College Professor and author whose work has detailed the history of the Elwha River and its dams. “Because of delays ranging from national to local politics, to economics and societal reasons, inflation has raised the cost of removing the dam from about $180 million then, to over $300 million today, delaying the project even further. The recent federal stimulus money however has put the project back on track.”
As the largest single appropriation from among hundreds of Park Service projects nationwide, $54 million of the total $750 million in Department of the Interior stimulus money was allocated to restore the Elwha River. The restoration work on the Elwha represents the largest-ever dam removal project, and the second largest restoration project in national park history next to the revival of the Everglades.
According to the Park Service, the stimulus money is intended to pay for work that needs to be done before the actual dam removal process can begin. These improvements have already begun and include flood protections for properties near the river, and a new filtration system for the nearby residents of Port Angeles to manage the significant increase in water sediment associated with empting the reservoir. Work to remove the two dams (known independently as the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams) is now scheduled to begin in 2011, and the structures should be completely removed by 2013 or 2014.
“As the river adjusts to its new flow regimen, there is going to be a lot of flooding,” added Dr. Bach. “It is going to kill a lot of fish, it is going to kill a lot of wildlife…and the rough ballpark estimate is that it will take 20-30 years for salmon runs to recover and the watershed to start to approach where it was before.”
Dr. Dwight Barry, Elwha Research Consortium Coordinator and professor for the Huxley College of the Peninsulas program, points out however the abundant opportunity for research. “There are a lot of questions to be asked, on a wide diversity of projects ranging from how the nutrients from decaying salmon carcasses will affect even the tiniest pieces of the ecosystem, to even things like how bear distributions will change as a result of the reintroduction of fish to the region.”
While today fish only have access to the first five miles of habitat below the Lower Elwha Dam, the removal will open up the entire 45-mile length of the river. As fish return to the upper areas, marine derived nutrients (which are released from rotting fish carcasses) are expected to increase and distribute throughout the entire ecosystem. In perhaps no other area in recent history have scientists had the ability to study the impacts of reintroducing these marine derived nutrients, while monitoring certain trophic levels, on an ecosystem-wide level.
Additionally, because over 80 percent of the watershed lies within Olympic National Park, and thus is protected from development, the rehabilitation of the Elwha River provides a unique opportunity for researchers. Without many of the man-made influences, the data collected will have fewer variables and hopefully provide more reliable findings. Restoration efforts that succeed in the Elwha River watershed may be able to be applied to other dam removal projects.
“I already use the Elwha as an example in pretty much every class I teach,” Dr. Barry continued, “and many current students, and recent grads, have worked on Elwha Project research. There will be an abundance of data coming out of there when the dams are removed, meaning we will continue to be able to provide Huxley College students with real-life projects and measurements so they can contribute directly to real-life solutions, gaining professional experience as they do it.”
“A few smaller dams have been removed in recent years, but nothing on this scale,” explained Dr. Bach; “it really is a big experiment…the dam removal process will be a muddy, floody mess for a few years as sediment stored in the reservoirs moves down the river. However, we have every reason to believe it will recover over the long run.
Dr. Bach concluded by mentioning that lakes have a naturally limited life cycle, which means scientists can be hard pressed to find evidence of ancient reservoirs on the current landscape. In fact, during the last ice age a gigantic lake occupied the entire Elwha watershed, but today evidence of its existence is well hidden under the modern forest.
“It’s great for everyone to know we’re finally back on track; after a decade of uncertainty, this removal is going to be a reality …and with things like the physical deconstruction, monitoring the river, and the mitigation in the aftermath, there should be a good number of jobs becoming available for Huxley College grads in the next few years.”
Even though WWU is located in Bellingham, a town often associated with its pristine location next to the US/Canada border, Huxley College of the Environment continues to move beyond their physical boundaries. Huxley College is now offering degree programs in Everett; expanding on their long and successful history of off-campus educational programs.
“What we offer at our off-campus locations, like our new program site in Everett, is an outstanding education,” says Dr. Bradley Smith, who has served as the Dean of Huxley College since 1994. “It’s designed to meet the specific needs of students who may be place-bound and unable to be in Bellingham because of family or a job.”
Founded in 1969, Western's Huxley College of the Environment began experimenting with extended education opportunities in 1993 by offering classes on the Olympic and Kitsap Peninsulas. Now with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science, a Bachelor of Arts in Planning and Environmental Policy, and a new Master’s level professional science degree (available in 2010), the program which is known collectively as “Huxley College on the Peninsulas,” has continued to grow throughout the years.
This rapid growth has been accelerated with the start of classes this fall with ten students enrolled in courses on the campus of Everett Community College. Located inside the University Center of North Puget Sound, which has created partnerships with six other colleges and universities to bring bachelor’s and master's degrees to the region, these students brought the total enrollment of the program’s three campuses to twenty-eight. The other two locations that make up the partnership include Peninsula College in Port Angeles and Olympic College in Bremerton.
The instructors who teach within Huxley College on the Peninsulas are all top research scientists, and video conferencing equipment is used in all locations to facilitate the educational process.
“They are Western students, just on community college campuses. They’re learning in classrooms designed to facilitate the educational experience,” added Lois Longwood, Director of Degree and Professional Studies Programs for Extended Education at Western. “Since it is a two-year program, students must have already finished the foundation of their academic curriculum; the prereq’s are pretty beefy to get in.”
“Students who attend a program like this aren’t your typical Western undergraduates anyway,” Longwood continued. “A majority of the students are in their 30’s or 40’s, so classes are traditionally offered during evenings and weekends. We want to meet the needs of these working adults.”
One of the advantages of hosting a program in a regional location is the additional connections and relationships which are built. In the case of Huxley College on the Peninsulas, the research laboratories of Battelle in Sequim, a science and technology enterprise that explores emerging areas of science, has proven to be a vital partner providing both a resource for instructors, financial support, as well as internships for students and employment opportunities for graduates. With the program now expanding into Everett, a partnership with the US Navy is in the development stage. This new partnership also has the potential to provide opportunities for future graduates.
“For over 40 years Huxley College has been producing the environmental problem solvers of the world, and the demand for the caliber of students we produce has never been higher,” Dean Smith concluded. “When you look at the world through the green lens of concern for the environment, the graduates of Huxley College are well positioned to be leaders in the evolving global, green, economy.”
To find out more about Huxley College on the Peninsulas, and their programs in Everett, Port Angeles and Bremerton, visit their webpage for contact information, or read Western's official press release.
“When you think about it, the true definition of a disaster is just a developmental failure - we didn’t build it right in the first place, and through some unforeseen force we have experienced a reaction that we interpret as a ‘disaster’.”
Those words spoken by Dr. Scott Miles illustrate the focus that drives The Resilience Institute at Huxley College of the Environment where he serves as Director. Previously known as the Institute for Global and Community Resilience, in recent years the simplification of its name, and the development of a new mission, highlight their goal to ensure that after a disaster, services and livelihoods recover rapidly, with optimal resource use, and with a reduction in vulnerability.
“The idea of resilience is very common in the environment, and there is a lot we can learn from the topics we study everyday within Huxley College which apply to the maintaining of services after a hazard or disturbance.”
“It’s not just about emergency response,” Dr. Miles continued. “If you think about it in that context alone you don’t have the opportunity to realize all the options available. Sometimes in recovery you have to go slow to go fast; you have to think about what’s important, you have to ask yourself if it is more beneficial to just replace what was there before as rapidly as possible, or do we want to offer improved services. It all takes money, space, resources…so we have to analyze the data to try and discover an answer for sustainable, low impact development - this is what makes the connection with what we are doing in our institute, to the broader education of Huxley College students.”
An example of this type of thinking can be viewed by looking at the aftermath of the magnitude 6.9 earthquake that struck Kobe, Japan in 1995. In its wake, a rebuilding moratorium was extended for up to two years to allow for planning and land negotiations. The goal wasn’t to just replace the buildings that were there before, but to use the opportunity to improve services while taking into account the possibility of future earthquakes or other natural hazards.
“People are probably already familiar with the concept of resilience because it exists across so many different disciplines. But the interesting thing about working in the mind-frame of disasters is that it literally involves every discipline,” Dr. Miles points out. “We have been doing some direct service consulting to determine how a holistic approach helps us be more resilient. The goal is for a disaster to impair us as minimally as possible.”
“It's important to be doing work on the cutting edge…and to do that, you have to go to places where the problems are wicked, and the solutions are even harder to come by.”
One project in particular, which can be described in just this way, is drawing the attention of the Institute. Recently Oxfam (a large international humanitarian aid organization) invited The Resilience Institute to work with their Guatemala office to develop a framework for urban disaster risk reduction. Their goal is to use disaster risk reduction as a tool for robust social, political, and economic community development in Guatemala’s vulnerable squatter settlements.
“We are looking at these particular settlements of squatters in the municipality of Villa Neuva in Guatemala,” said Dr. Rebekah Green, Associate Director of the Resilience Institute. “Through terracing, these communities are building on incredibly steep slopes, some ranging up to 65 degrees or more. When they experience a major storm, or even just their seasonal heavy rains, they have a lot of trouble with landslide damage to their property, and thus their livelihoods.”
In March 2009 representatives from the Resilience Institute traveled to Villa Nueva to conduct household surveys in two settlements (Las Brisas and Unidos 8 de Marzo). The survey questions tried to determine the specific dynamics for each household, including number of people, years of residence, how they obtained the lot, and how they built shelters. The survey also tried to assess the perceived risk of the community to the hazards prone in the area, and strategies they, their community, and local government use to reduce these risks.
Landslides were selected in the survey as the greatest threat in both settlements; however, even though 69 percent of the interviewees believed rain was one of the leading factors in landslide risk, little more than 20 percent had acted on this understanding and attempted to use drainage management measures to mitigate this risk.
“We went down thinking it was all about addressing structural issues to prevent landslides,” Dr Green continued. “But we came to realize that while dealing with concerns like replacing the use of plastic sandbags (which degrade in sunlight) as restraining walls to hold up houses is an issue, it is about a need for cultural change through education and partnering with the community.”
“When we stepped back to ask ourselves what was happening, it was clear that many factors like slope, soil quality, de-vegetation, poor construction, and drainage management could be playing a role in landslide risk. Interestingly, the few drainage systems that were in place were not working well, and we saw that many were clogged with litter like Coke bottles and chip bags. There is lack of a decent infrastructure to deal with waste.”
Dr. Miles continued by pointing out that you have to analyze the governance and policy situation of a region as well; in the case of these communities (as with many other areas around the world), municipalities can operate independent of the government. Thus, the inability to pass something as simple as an ordinance to manage development has to be addressed alongside the “physical” improvements.
“We have a lot of advice and guidance to offer,” concluded Dr. Miles. “We understand what’s happening to a large degree, but not why - we have laid it out very broadly, but to do more we need fundraising, grant writing; we just need people to get involved with their knowledge and collaborate as much as possible.”
“It’s exciting. The more I talk about it, the more I find people who can help.”
Learn more about the Oxfam / Resilience Institute collaboration; visit their webpage to look through a summary of their situation analysis and framework, or read a recent article in The Western Front.
Find out more about Scott Miles $250,000 grant to study the impacts of disasters on infrastructure and economic recovery - Click Here