2019 Doug Walker Lecture with J. Drew Lanham

J. Drew Lanham
J. Drew Lanham, PhD

University of Washington’s EarthLab and the College of the Environment are excited to announce our 2019 Doug Walker Lecturer, J. Drew Lanham, PhD. In this lecture, Lanham will discuss what it means to embrace the full breadth of his African-American heritage and his deep kinship to nature and adoration of birds. The convergence of ornithologist, college professor, poet, author and conservation activist blend to bring our awareness of the natural world and our moral responsibility for it forward in new ways. Candid by nature — and because of it — Lanham will examine how conservation must be a rigorous science and evocative art, inviting diversity and race to play active roles in celebrating our natural world.

Learn more

Washington leads: connecting ocean acidification research to people who need it most

At the helm of EarthLab’s Washington Ocean Acidification Center are two experienced ocean scientists, but what they are trying to do is something entirely new. Terrie Klinger and Jan Newton are Salish Sea experts – one an ecologist, one an oceanographer – and they are addressing one of the biggest emerging threats to our environment today, ocean acidification.

Jan Newton and Terrie Klinger lead the Washington Ocean Acidification Center.

“When we first were funded by the legislature to stand up the Washington Ocean Acidification Center, there was no precedent. We were starting from zero,” says Klinger. Born from a Washington State Blue Ribbon Panel, the Center was established by the legislature at the University of Washington to make sure actions to combat ocean acidification have a strong backbone in science. Along with colleagues and collaborators, it was up to Klinger and Newton to bring the new Center to life, making sure it serves the needs of Washington citizens.

Ocean acidification is a global phenomenon. Worldwide, the ocean plays an invaluable service to the planet by absorbing nearly 30% of the carbon dioxide produced by human activity. Yet this also drives a series of reactions that change seawater chemistry, and as a result the oceans are becoming more acidified, which poses a suite of problems to some marine organisms.

Ocean Acidification Challenges in Washington

In Washington, ocean acidification’s threat became visible in the state’s extensive shellfish industry. Corrosive seawater compromises the ability of shellfish to form their shells, especially in the animal’s early days. In years where seawater conditions are persistently harsh, shellfish farmers failed to raise any new oysters to marketable size, and livelihoods were at stake.

Answers began surfacing when the Washington Ocean Acidification Center connected with shellfish growers and other partners, helping solve what initially seemed like an intractable problem. Now the industry has new tools to manage corrosive water – like monitoring water conditions at the hatcheries, adding buffering agents to incoming seawater, or tracking forecasts of unfavorable water conditions through LiveOcean. In many cases, these tools have allowed shellfish – and business – to continue thriving.

Over the years, the Center’s approach to research has become even more sophisticated, all while remaining “grounded on the Blue Ribbon Panel recommendations to sustain observations, modeling, and biological experiments relevant to ocean acidification,” says Newton. They now can start telling the much deeper story of how ocean acidification threatens ocean food webs, which underpins the eye-popping amount of wildlife and productivity in Puget Sound.

“We’re trying to use the lens of ocean acidification to help solve bigger problems,” says Klinger. “We’ve really grown over our six years and are moving from just a focus on, let’s say shellfish, to include salmon, forage fish and other parts of our ecosystem that are really important to the region.” Expanding focus matters because it can answer questions at a larger scale, helping decision-makers create conservation strategies that support the tiniest creatures all the way up to the big ones, like the southern resident orca whales.

Asking challenging, big-picture questions has always been a part of the Center’s vision and mission. On the research docket now is an investigation into how ocean acidification affects small schooling fish that feed and fuel so many of the Salish Sea’s iconic residents, like salmon, rockfish and marine mammals. Acidifying waters have already been shown to have adverse effects on a fish called the sandlance on the east coast – a species that is also present in the Salish Sea. There is new evidence that shows how increasingly acidified waters affect the ability of young salmon to detect predators, and concern that it may also affect their ability to make their way back to their natal streams where they eventually reproduce.

Sharing the Science of Ocean Acidification with Society

The Washington Ocean Acidification Center stands as a prime example for how EarthLab and its member organizations approach science’s role in society. Placing people at the center, EarthLab is designed to leverage the intellectual resources at the University of Washington and from community partners to co-produce and deliver science-based solutions to the greatest environmental challenges we face as a society.

New questions to ask, and new capabilities to answer them, emerge as the Center continues to grow, build more partnerships and make inroads with new communities. By listening to people’s needs and leveraging work from other partner institutions – like crab research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, salmon research coming from Washington Sea Grant, and real-time data serving from the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems – the Center is better able to address various needs stemming from many communities.

“I think what’s really lovely about the Center is that it really did originate in the Blue Ribbon Panel, which was comprised of a large and diverse group of people,” says Klinger. “That set the tone for us to build a broad bench of partnerships to work on these projects. When you are trying to do something big, it’s nice to have a lot of minds contributing. And that way, more people feel a better ownership to it as well.”

A local community of practice has developed, with federal, tribal, state, industry and private partners. “We simply could not do this work without this diverse input and expertise,” adds Newton. “And our work here in Washington is well-linked to national and global efforts too.”

Employing cruises and buoys, and working in collaboration with partners, the Center obtains data from Washington waters on water chemistry and plankton, and is investigating new approaches to observing biology in the field. “When we have a multi-year record of what we’re seeing in the environment, we can understand the food web effects much more broadly. We can use the observing data to continue to refine the model and give people information that’s useful for many purposes,” says Newton.

Creating Smarter Data and Valuable Insights

The Center’s history with this region is an asset for decision-makers. Long-term datasets allow scientists to look back in time and discover important environmental trends, which in turn supports policymakers, managers, businesses and NGOs to develop smarter strategies towards sustainability. But if the data don’t exist, then decision-makers are left in the dark.

“The value of the Center just increases over time. Staying the course is really important to get the greatest benefit, and that allows us to build relationships with people, which is really important,” adds Klinger.

Washington’s marine environment connects to people and community in many ways – culturally, economically and scientifically. Having roots in this region, Newton and Klinger want to make sure the Salish Sea continues to be vibrant. “I do this work because I care,” says Newton. “The ocean changes that are happening are large and have potentially big consequences. As I have gained knowledge over my career that can be put towards understanding this better, I think that’s a responsible and important thing to do.”

More about LiveOcean

Parker MacCready is a physical oceanographer who works primarily on estuaries and coastal systems. With funding from the Washington Ocean Acidification Center and Washington Sea Grant, among others, Parker and his colleagues created LiveOcean, a model that predicts when Washington’s waters are particularly corrosive. Using a suite of model inputs – like ocean currents, weather, water temperature and salinity, oxygen levels, and more – LiveOcean issues a three-day forecast of ocean conditions that are useful to numerous communities, including shellfish farmers. By checking the forecast, farmers can decide if the conditions are favorable to set out baby oysters to start growing in the ocean or if they should wait until conditions improve.

Read more about Live Ocean, and listen to a recent interview with MacCready on Coastal Café.

Human well-being related to marine protected areas: a global research synthesis

Point Lobos marine reserve in central California.

In the June 2019 issue of Nature Sustainability, EarthLab’s Sara Breslow and researchers from 10 other institutions share their insights gleaned from 118 peer reviewed journal articles of the effects of marine protected areas (MPAs). But their inquiry differed from most studies about MPAs – what, they asked, are the effects MPAs on human well-being? The literature is full of examples that document the ecological effects of marine protected areas, but information is lacking on the overall effects MPAs have on the human communities connected to them.

Their findings indicate that the majority of the measured effects of MPAs have a positive effect on people, while about one-third have a negative effect. Most studies focused on economic and governance aspects of an MPA, and thus many of the social, health and cultural effects remain unexplored. Their synthesis was global, including all populated continents, with the majority of studies coming from Europe and Asia.

Read more on the University of Victoria website

Read the study on Nature Sustainability

Spend time outdoors this summer to reap health benefits

UW Botanic Gardens staff and visitors enjoy the natural beauty of the Washington park Arboretum. (UW Botanic Gardens/University of Washington)

Fresh air, lush foliage, open space, and sunshine. Time spent outdoors isn’t just good for the soul—research at UW EarthLab is showing it’s also good for the mind and body.

Even in the Pacific Northwest, where the weather is often, let’s say, less than optimal, getting out into nature brings with it a host of health benefits.

And there are plenty of options in the Seattle area, even in the heart of the city.

“There’s good evidence that spending time

outside can reduce stress, depression levels, and anxiety,” says Josh Lawler, a UW environmental & forest sciences professor.

Lawler is the director of the Nature and Health Initiative, a multidisciplinary research program launched last fall with funding from REI.

Research has shown we’re spending more and more time cooped up inside. The Environmental Protection Agency found that Americans spend an average of 90 percent of their time indoors.

The risks aren’t limited to the effects of a sedentary lifestyle: people indoors are exposed to levels of pollutants, like cleaning products and paint, that are 2 to 5 times higher than outdoors.

Time spent in nature, on the other hand, offers a catalogue of positive effects that is long and often surprising.

Outdoor time can reduce the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and preterm birth. Surgery patients who can see a natural scene out a window experience less pain and recover faster.

The mechanism isn’t exactly clear yet, Lawler says. “We suspect that one of the routes for the physical benefits is through decreased stress and anxiety.” In other words, feeling better on the inside benefits the entire body.

Some studies have even shown that people who start out more depressed and anxious seem to experience a greater effect, Lawler says.

In 2018, a research team at the UW College of the Environment launched a pilot study on how outdoor expeditions can help war veterans grappling with PTSD. A full clinical trial is planned as early as 2020.

The upside of outdoor time is especially important to children, says Pooja Tandon, a pediatrician at UW Medicine. “Our indoor environments are increasingly filled with screens and other reasons to be sedentary.”

Today’s kids spend less time outdoors than any previous generation: an average of only four to seven minutes, versus a daily recommendation of a full hour.

Tandon says that studies focusing on the mental health benefits to children from playing outdoors are the most compelling. For example, children diagnosed with ADHD can concentrate better after spending time outdoors.

Time spent outdoors may also be crucial for normal eye development in kids—provided they wear sunglasses when necessary.

One angle researchers are still exploring is what exactly qualifies as “nature,” Lawler says. The spectrum ranges from hiking in wilderness areas to filling your house with plants to viewing a leafy scene on television.

“The hypothesis is that more is better, but we don’t know yet,” Lawler says. An important  study done by UW’s Peter Kahn found that viewing an outdoor scene on a plasma screen does have some effect, but not as much as a real view.

Whatever form it takes, the importance of enjoying the outdoors is becoming increasingly clear. “Our family time is easier when we’re outdoors, definitely,” Tandon says. “Whether it’s just us or with friends, my boys tend to have a more positive experience outdoors—and so do I.”

Where to Get Outside in Seattle

There aren’t many cities that have as many outdoor options close at hand as Seattle does. Here are just a few.

Tree Nirvana

One of Lawler’s favorite local destinations for a green fix is the 90-acre Center for Urban Horticulture, part of the UW Botanic Gardens.

“You get water, trees, a bunch of different environments, and the birds that come through in the spring are great,” he says.

The gardens also include the 230-acre Washington Park Arboretum on the shore of Lake Washington.

“People just can’t even believe that this space exists in the middle of the city,” says Adult Education Supervisor Jessica Farmer. “It’s really an opportunity to disconnect from the urban busyness of life.” Unlike most botanical gardens, she adds, admission is free.

The gardens offer numerous activities for families and kids, from the Fiddleheads Forest School for preschoolers to summer camps and tram tours of the arboretum.

Paddle and Row

Want to explore Union Bay? Rent a kayak, rowboat, or canoe at the UW Waterfront Activities Center, a short hop from the UW light rail station.

Keep an eye peeled for bald eagles and osprey, and if you’re feeling ambitious, you can paddle all the way to the Washington Park Arboretum.

Natural Medicine

It’s surprising how few people know about the Medicinal Herb Garden run by the UW Department of Biology, considering it started in 1911.

The two-acre plot has thousands of plants native to most environments on Earth, from deserts to tropical rainforests.

Its collection is constantly changing and growing with additions from around the world.

The garden’s entrance is near the UW chemistry building; look for the monkey statues on top of a pair of columns.

Take a Hike

It takes a little over an hour to drive to Pack Forest in Eatonville, an outdoor classroom where UW students study sustainable forestry.

The experimental forest covers over 4,300 acres of rolling Rainier foothills.

Within its boundaries, the Newton Creek Reserve protects 300 acres of lowland old growth forest.

A handful of trails snake through the forest. The 5.2-mile 1000 Road Loop is open to mountain bikers, while the 1.8-mile Hugo Peak Trail climbs almost 1,000 feet through second growth Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar.

Nature and Health is housed within UW’s EarthLab, an organization dedicated to accelerating and focusing UW expertise to address large-scale environmental challenges, making a positive impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.


Article by Julian Smith

Games for Our Future Game Jam Re-cap

The Second Annual Games for Our Future Game Jam was a success! Presented by EarthLab, Seattle IndiesSeattle Serious and Social Impact Games and Pacific Science Center, the theme was Creating a Green Tomorrow. The Game Jam brought game developers and researchers together for a weekend to learn from each other and show the power of games to translate complex environmental research into a medium that is both fun and educational. 60 developers worked in teams to create over 13 games (11 uploaded). The day kicked off by having nine UW research mentors speak, three on topics about game design and six on topics of climate change and environmental science. Afterwards, teams formed and began creating games.

–> Check out the games our participants developed!

–> Read more about the event on the Seattle Indies blog.

Below are the award winners in each category from the Game Jam:

Theme: Social Solutions to Climate Change

Climate Utopia: Virtual Reality experience in which you explore a world in the future that is truly sustainable

Incorporated Research from UW Mentors

Seed Our Future: Augmented reality application to suggest social solutions to climate change in real places

Game Design and Game Play

2 Degrees!: Board game simulating building a city without increasing the global temperature to 2 degrees C

Art, Music and Aesthetics

Rising Tides: Game to combat sea level rise by investing in seawalls, moving to a new location, or responding to other disasters

Overall Judges’ Pick

2 Degrees!: Board game simulating building a city without increasing the global temperature to 2 degrees C

People’s Choice

Icebears Care: Save polar bears on melting ice caps by stapling icebergs back together

None of this would be possible without the tireless dedication of our mentors:

Jennifer Atkinson UW Bothell, English
Gary Handwerk UW, Comparative Literature
Dargan Frierson UW, Atmospheric Science
Isabel Zamanillo UW, College of Environment
Jason Lambacher UW Bothell, Political Science
Sarah Chase UW, Forestry
Rick Thomas UW, Forestry
Mark Chen UW Bothell, Game Studies
Theresa Horstman Microsoft (formerly, UW, Education)


2019 Ocean Acidification Symposium

The Washington Ocean Acidification Center will convene its Third Biennial Science Symposium on Thursday, May 30 at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle, WA. This day-long symposium will consist of invited presentations from regional experts. Presentations will focus on new results from research relevant to ocean acidification in Washington waters, including field observations, biological experiments and modeling. Presentations will be followed by plenary discussions and will offer numerous opportunities to enhance communications and strengthen regional communities of practice.

There is no fee to attend, but registration is required.

Please see the draft agenda for the symposium.

Time outdoors is a natural elixir. Researchers still don’t know why.

At least two decades of research confirms what might seem obvious for many residents of the Pacific Northwest: time in nature is good for you. It can lower blood pressure, alleviate depression and anxiety, and even reduce nearsightedness in children.

But how often should you interact with the natural world? Where? And for how long? Is gazing at the stars from your backyard enough to reap rewards? Would a solitary, seven-day backpacking trip in the Cascades yield greater results?

Can you really take two hikes and call the doctor in the morning?

A wide-ranging team of researchers at the University of Washington hopes to answer many of these questions through the Nature for Health initiative. The effort, launched in October with a $1 million grant from outdoor retailer REI, brings specialists from disciplines including ecology, urban planning, public health, geography and the visual arts together with pediatricians, child-care providers and mental-health professionals.

EarthLab funds first round of Innovation Grants

Providing resources for new approaches to environmental problem solving is the focus of the first EarthLab Innovation Grants funding. Projects funded in this first round of grants will support big ideas with high potential for impact and the ability to motivate change.

“I was blown away by the breadth of topics, the quality of the proposals, and the depth of engagement with community partners,” says Phil Levin, chair of the Innovation Grants review committee. “It was a great opportunity for me to really see the creativity of the faculty, staff and students here at UW, and I was excited to see  EarthLab serve as a spark for some amazingly innovative and impactful projects.”

During this round of funding, persistent themes emerged across proposed projects. These included the urgent need to partner with the communities that are most impacted by climate and environmental change and the importance of co-creating knowledge that is both usable and used. Project teams included faculty from a range of disciplines at the University of Washington, including public health, global health, environmental and occupational health sciences, engineering, environmental and forest sciences, and more. Partners from beyond the university included city, county and state agencies, local and regional non-profit organizations, and other universities.

“We were encouraged by the strong response to the request for proposals. There was a clear need for funding that supports collaborative, transdisciplinary projects,” says Anastasia Ramey, Grants Program Lead for EarthLab. “We are looking forward to supporting the grantees in this work. ”

The Innovation Grants Program, a signature initiative of EarthLab, seeks to achieve numerous outcomes. These include increasing capacity across the UW for innovative transdisciplinary scholarship, deepening engagement with diverse community partners, and funding research projects that address co-defined problems from multiple perspectives. The goal with all funded projects is to generate knowledge aimed at environmental problem solving that is useable and used, ultimately helping support peoples’ lives and livelihoods.

During this first year, the Innovation Grants Program will focus on first-mile funding to support convening and building teams in novel, sometimes high-risk, high-reward directions that may take a variety of forms. This funding will give teams the chance to test a concept, scope out a project or take the first steps in developing a larger team to tackle a collaborative project.

EarthLab leaders hope to learn from this first year of funding, and are approaching it as a pilot. From it, they hope to learn what investments are most effective and then apply that knowledge to future investments.

Funded Projects

Assessing Climate Driven Zoonotic Disease Risk in Washington State
In the State of Washington, West Nile virus, valley fever, hantavirus, and leptospirosis are a significant concern. This project will explore the relationships between climate conditions and these climate-sensitive disease threats to community health in Washington. A project goal includes generating seasonal maps that identify high-risk conditions for each pathogen, which can be an important tool for determining, managing and preventing risk of human and animal infections.
Principal Investigator: Cory Morin, Department of Global Health

Clean Safety & Health in Food Trucks Program (SHiFT)
This project brings together a multidisciplinary team to work with the food truck industry to promote best cleaning practices and technical assistance to shift toward safer chemical alternatives. The project team will include diverse and traditionally underserved communities, and small business owners not previously engaged in safe chemical transition and hazard awareness campaigns. A new toolkit will be introduced to food truck owners/operators/workers and other stakeholders so they can reduce their use of chemicals, their hazards to living systems and the risks to our waterways and the environment.
Lead Co-Principal Investigator: Nancy Simcox, Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences

Digitizing Holistic Environmental Studies
This project will collaborate with local community leaders and youth to integrate a Native American knowledge forming process to script digital stories. Stories will be action-oriented and visualize sustainable holistic solutions for complex and multi-disciplinary environmental problems. This project aims to develop a tool and platform to communicate and inform decision-makers what the intervention points of local environmental problems are by contextualizing the interconnectedness among multiple information streams.
Lead Co-Principal Investigator: Kristiina Vogt, School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

From Risk to Resilience: Connecting Communities to Coastal Hazards through Interactive and Immersive Design
A collaborative team of researchers, including the UW’s Climate Impacts Group, recently released new projections of sea level rise for Washington state. In order to increase awareness and use of this science by Washington communities and decision-makers, the Climate Impacts Group, UW Reality Lab, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) and Seattle-based data visualization company Tableau have teamed up to create two different interactive data visualization tools – an interactive tool of sea-level projections for 171 different coastal sites in Washington state, and creating several public-facing virtual reality experiences that showcase community-relevant impacts of future sea level rise to 2150.
Principal Investigator: Heidi Roop, UW Climate Impacts Group

Voices Unbound: Amplifying Perspectives of Disenfranchised Communities to Provoke Environmental Change
A considerable gap exists among the discourses of those who implement environmental policies and the underrepresented communities that disproportionally experience environmental issues. This project seeks to transform discourses of policymakers by directly incorporating underrepresented community members’ voices. Enviro-postcards will be distributed to communities that ask “what environmental challenges are most important to you” and “how are you coping with or surviving these challenges?” Concurrently, the project will pilot in-person science booths and a podcast series to amplify community voices. This will culminate in an eco-art gallery open to the public that will prominently showcase community perspectives and promote a novel blueprint for inclusive environmental engagement.
Co-Principal Investigators: Christopher J. Schell, School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, UW Tacoma; Robin A. Evans-Agnew, School of Nursing and Healthcare Leadership, UW Tacoma

2019 EarthLab + Population Health Initiative Grantee
In addition to the Innovation Grants, EarthLab jointly funded one award addressing environmental resilience in partnership with the University of Washington Population Health Initiative. The funded project, Ethnoforestry: Applying Traditional Ecological Knowledge for Ecosystem Sustainability on the Olympic Peninsula, focuses on applying traditional ecological knowledge of local people to forest management on public lands. Learn more on the Population Health website.

More information will be shared about the funded projects in coming weeks.

EarthLab welcomes new Advisory Council to help guide actions

Inaugural Advisory Council members for EarthLab

EarthLab is pleased to announce and welcome the inaugural members of our Advisory Council. Chaired by former Interior Secretary and REI CEO Sally Jewell, the council will help guide and advise on EarthLab’s core mission – to focus and accelerate UW’s expertise on the most pressing environmental challenges and in so doing make a positive impact on peoples’ lives and livelihoods. Council members will also help to connect EarthLab with organizations, people and ideas outside of the university where UW faculty, students and staff can engage in work that has impact in our world.

“I am grateful that eleven exceptional individuals with wide and diverse backgrounds will join me in shaping and supporting EarthLab,” said Sally Jewell, chair of the Advisory Council.  “From a deep understanding of social equity and justice to business and the environment, the council will help open doors between the university and our community to shape a more sustainable future.”

The all-volunteer council will meet two times each year, helping shape EarthLab by raising awareness and support, creating connections that may lead to fruitful partnerships, advising the executive director and the EarthLab team on strategic initiatives, and assisting with planning efforts.

EarthLab Executive Director Ben Packard said he was ”looking forward to having this diverse group of people,  perspectives and experiences available to the UW community to guide and advance our efforts in these early days for EarthLab.”

Advisory Council Members and Bios

Pollinators need people

Participants in global dialogue Indigenous and local knowledge about Pollination and Pollinators associated with Food Production, Panama City. Photo: Phil Lyver

A global study has concluded that people are essential to conserving the pollinators that maintain and protect biodiversity, agriculture and habitat.

“There’s increasing awareness of the importance of pollinators to our quality of life,” lead researcher Rosemary Hill said. “That discussion is often reduced to how to protect bees, and how to expand the amount of land managed as conservation reserves. What we found is that the best way to protect pollinators is to support those people whose cultural, spiritual and economic lives are tied to them.”

While pollinators can range from weevils to monkeys, and from tiny shrimps to birds and bats, bees are the main pollinators of our food, and the key focus of the investigation.

EarthLab’s Sara Breslow contributed to these discussions, and helped shape a recently published paper in Nature Sustainability about the importance of biocultural approaches to pollinator conservation. You can read more about the group’s process in Behind the Paper on the Nature Sustainability website.