Agency scientific data pivotal in hurricane monitoring efforts

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst When a hurricane strikes, United States federal agency scientists and engineers are among the first on the scene. Such was the case recently, when Hurricane Irene made its way through the East Coast of the United States. For most residents of the Washington, DC region, the impact was little different than that of a severe thunderstorm. Patios and parking lots were scattered with branches and leaves. A few less sturdy trees fell, all from the pressure of the heavy winds. Hundreds of thousands were left without power in the DC area as were millions more along the east coast. The first pre-emptive warning signs of a hurricane are detected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Weather Service’s hydrology program, which monitors water levels in our nation’s waterways and issues forecasts and warnings to alert surrounding communities of incoming natural disasters. A major component of the hydrology program is a network of 13 River Forecast Centers around the country. These centers provide hydrologic information to meteorologists, policy-makers and water resource managers to inform response efforts in their local communities. These disaster response efforts are coordinated at the federal level by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In advance of Hurricane Irene, United States Geological Survey (USGS) scientists deployed sensors along the eastern seaboard to detect “storm surges,” increases in ocean water levels generated at sea by extreme storms that can have devastating coastal impacts. In total, over 260 emergency sensors that measure storm surge were installed in critical areas from North Carolina to Maine. The data that the sensors produce will help define the depth and duration of overland storm-surge, as well as the time of its arrival and retreat. The storm surge sensors were installed on bridges, piers and other structures likely to weather the impact of a hurricane. Data collected by the sensors will ultimately be used to assess storm damage from winds and flooding, develop better land use and building codes, improve computer modeling used to forecast floods as well as improve public safety protocols. USGS scientists are also assessing landslide potential for areas where Hurricane Irene dumped significant rain. While much media attention focuses on impacts to coastal areas, inland flooding from rivers and streams has taken a major toll, particularly in parts of Vermont, New Hampshire and New Jersey. According to NOAA, more than 60 percent of U.S. hurricane deaths from 1970-1999 occurred inland, with more than half of tropical hurricane deaths related to freshwater flooding. Information on flood management activities within USGS can be found in a recent EcoTone post. The...

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Policy News: June 3

Here are some highlights from the latest Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. COMMERCE: FORMER ENERGY CEO, NRDC COFOUNDER, NOMINATED TO LEAD DEPARTMENT On May 31, President Obama announced his intention to nominate John Bryson to the post of Secretary of the Department of Commerce. Bryson would bring a lengthy resume working on energy and environmental issues to the department that includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Bryson is one of the co-founders of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the United State’s top environmental groups. His credentials include several years as chairman of the California State Water Resources Control Board in the late 1970s and head of the California Public Utilities Commission. Bryson would succeed current Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, whom the president has nominated to serve as ambassador to China.  The president’s transition teams had previously interviewed Bryson for the Energy secretary job before it ultimately went to Steven Chu, according to Democratic officials. Bryson’s nomination requires confirmation by the Senate, where reaction from some Republicans has been highly critical most notably from Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK). NSF: SEN. COBURN RELEASES REPORT CITING WASTE, MISMANAGEMENT IN SCIENCE AGENCY Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), a known conservative fiscal hawk, released a report May 26 that claims to identify $3 billion in “fraud, waste and abuse” at the National Science Foundation (NSF). In the 73 page report, entitled The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope, Sen. Coburn, states, “the consensus surrounding the importance of NSF is precisely why it is essential to increase and enhance oversight over agency expenditures.” In response, a number of scientific organizations, including the Ecological Society of America (ESA), issued “Action Alerts” calling upon Oklahoma constituents to contact Sen. Coburn’s office. Sen. Coburn also called for the elimination of NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economics (SBE) division, questioning whether “these social sciences represent obvious national priorities that deserve a cut of the same pie.” He also charged that some of the work in these and other areas is duplicative of other federal agencies. To view the Coburn report, see: http://coburn.senate.gov/public//index.cfm?a=Files.Serve&File_id=f6cd2052-b088-44c3-b146-5baa5c01552a To view the House Research and Education Subcommittee hearing see: http://science.house.gov/hearing/subcommittee-research-and-science-education-hearing-social-bahavioral-and-economic-science WATER RESOURCES: SCIENTISTS URGE RESEARCH INVESTMENT INTO TOXIC ALGAL BLOOMS On June 1, the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and Environment considered legislation that would expand research into harmful algal blooms that have had numerous adverse environmental impacts, including creating “dead zones,”  in countless waterways. The legislation under review is tentatively titled the Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 2011. The measure,...

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Reduced predator populations lead to algal blooms

Algal blooms are a phenomenon in which algal populations in a marine area proliferate rapidly, creating a water-column shield that blocks sunlight and oxygen. These blooms are usually attributed to rises in nitrogen levels from human agriculture and industrial runoff, which fertilize the algae. But a study in the current issue of Ecological Applications shows that overfishing of top fish predators can also lead to algal blooms. Satellite image of a large algal bloom in the Bering Sea in 1998. After reviewing a year’s worth of data on the Baltic Sea, the authors found that areas with high algal concentrations also had large populations of small fish and small populations of large fish. Specifically, predatory perch and pike shortages resulted in a 50 percent chance of that area experiencing an algal bloom, compared to only a 10 percent chance in normal areas. Experimental studies in which the authors excluded top predators from marine areas corroborated the findings. Lead author Britas Klemens Eriksson of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands says this pattern suggests that the problem is a trophic one: when top predators are scarce, their smaller fish prey become more abundant and eat more invertebrates. These invertebrates feed primarily on algae, so when their numbers are reduced, algae can grow freely. Eriksson says that the key to controlling algal blooms may not be through simply controlling nitrogen, but also by controlling fishing. Said Eriksson in the Nature article: If we want to manage algal blooms effectively, we need to start by taking an ecosystem perspective … we have to restore depleted fish communities. Read the paper in Ecological Applications here (abstract; full-text by subscription), and rest of the Nature article here. Eriksson, B., Ljunggren, L., Sandström, A., Johansson, G., Mattila, J., Rubach, A., Råberg, S., & Snickars, M. (2009). Declines in predatory fish promote bloom-forming macroalgae Ecological Applications, 19 (8), 1975-1988 DOI:...

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