If you were to picture what makes Seattle such a special place to be, what might you imagine? Whether your response summons the lush evergreen trees, fresh seafood, beautiful Puget Sound views, infamously misty days, or something entirely different, there’s a good chance that your answer connects back in some way to our region’s rainy climate. Unfortunately, due to increasing climate change and urban development pressures, the quality and quantity of the water that we depend on has been drastically impacted by stormwater runoff.
When rain and snow melt over the Puget Sound region, this picks up pollution (like oil, fertilizers, dust from tires, copper, zinc, pesticides and trash) as it washes off buildings, streets and highways before flowing directly into our streams, lakes and marine waters. Just as the rain has a way of reaching through even the most durable rain coats if our exposure to the elements is long enough, so too do the effects of stormwater runoff have a way of touching all of the fibers weaving our community’s health and wellbeing together.
“Stormwater is the single biggest source of pollution across aquatic environments in the Puget Sound and in Lake Washington,” shared Ericka Hegeman, GIS Research Scientist at UW EarthLab. In fact, just one acre of pavement can put a million gallons of polluted runoff into the Puget Sound annually. “We know it’s a huge problem for fish in particular, but stormwater runoff impacts everyone in the food chain from primary producers like algae and plants to the whales who feed on local salmon and to humans in the area.”
As our region continues to expand in both population (including cars on our roads) and industry, this problem will only magnify. In order to create lasting mitigation strategies to ease the burden of stormwater runoff on our health and environment, we first have to ask: where are our most polluted areas and how do we better prioritize our mitigation efforts?
The Role of Redlining in Community Pollution
Although the negative impacts of stormwater pollution touch us all, they don’t impact us equally. Ericka is part of UW Professor of Practice and Lead Scientist for the Nature Conservancy Phil Levin’s research team that is currently at work on a stormwater mitigation project. This team is mapping Seattle’s areas of high pollution alongside regional health data provided by the Washington State Department of Health Environmental Health Disparities Map to learn more about where improved environmental health will have the greatest impact.
“We know that the Seattle areas most impacted by pollution are often BIPOC communities,” said Ericka. “In fact, communities of color are at a disproportionate risk from experiencing stormwater pollution in comparison to white communities.”
For example, the 98188 zip code is one of the most diverse areas in the country, and it also experiences disproportionately higher levels of pollution compared to zip codes dominated by white residents.
Despite changing demographics, historically redlined areas from the early 20th century onwards continue to have a significantly hazardous impact on the animals, humans and the natural environment, which speaks to the need to target mitigation efforts first and foremost in these communities.
“By linking the pollution loading in certain locations with the potential for stormwater solutions to mitigate specific pollutants, we’re hoping to help reduce overall environmental health disparities currently faced in the area,” shared Phil.
A new model to better map stormwater mitigation plans
The framework that Phil and Ericka’s team are developing ultimately aims to provide a systematic approach to improve community health through multiple levers of impact.
This project was partially inspired by The Nature Conservancy’s Water 100 Project, which identified the top 100 most substantive solutions to create a cleaner and more resilient Puget Sound. These foundational mitigation strategies built a movement for the current GIS mapping model to help address dynamic solutions across a variety of environmental and human health indicators.
“Part of what makes this project unique is that we are focused on the many benefits of potential solutions rather than the isolated benefits from a singular approach to improving water quality,” We are seeking solutions that are good for nature and people,” said Phil. Mapping data from this project can help provide information on the critical areas for infrastructure improvements. For instance, investing in green infrastructure (such as planting more trees, building swales – shallow channels made to collect and slowly release water – and creating home rainwater-harvest systems) can improve water quality by removing pollutants from the air naturally before they can transform into toxic stormwater runoff. In this case, water quality is improved, while simultaneously alleviating health disparities resulting from better air quality, such as asthma or even heart disease.
As Ericka explained, “Green stormwater infrastructure is about making the urban landscape better by improving people’s lives and the environment at the same time.”
By examining the impacts of physical, mental and environmental health disparities alongside stormwater mitigation solutions, researchers are able to exact and scale new data that provides insights into where our city infrastructure investments are needed most– for both our environment and the people living within it.
This project has been generously funded by Boeing. To learn more about this area of work, please visit Phil Levin’s lab website.
The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is currently studying whether crabs could be impacted by ocean acidification, a process some scientists say Puget Sound is particularly susceptible to. Alex Gagnon, a researcher with the Washington Ocean Acidification Center, discusses the science behind greenhouse gasses, ocean acidification and the important crab industry in Washington state. (KING 5)
Indigenous people have depended on Olympic Coast marine species for their livelihoods, food security and cultural practices for thousands of years. Today, these species—and the tribal communities that depend on them—are at risk from ocean acidification. Washington Sea Grant, in partnership with the Olympic Coast Treaty Tribes, federal and academic scientists and coastal managers, is working to understand and plan for the impacts of ocean change to tribal community well-being.
This collaborative investigation and project video were funded by the NOAA Ocean Acidification Program (Project #NA17OAR0170166), and is led by Dr. Jan Newton, UW Applied Physics Lab, and Dr. Melissa Poe, Washington Sea Grant. Dr. Newton is also the co-director of the Washington Ocean Acidification Center, a statewide organization that connects researchers, policymakers, industry and others across Washington to advance the science of ocean acidification and provide a foundation for proactive strategies and policies to protect marine ecosystems and the people connected to them.
This beautiful 18-minute film about the Olympic Coast research partnership uses collaborators’ own voices and perspectives on ocean change and tribal resilience to bring the story to life.
This video and article was originally published by Washington Sea Grant.
We’re excited to announce a new research project that will be co-funded by UW EarthLab and UW Population Health. The aim of the proposed pilot project, “Environmental and human health impacts of a new invasive species in Madagascar,” is to provide the Malagasy government with the information it needs to appropriately manage the invasive marbled crayfish (Procambarus virginalis) in ways that minimize impacts on local biodiversity while maximizing benefits to public health.
The project team is a a new interdisciplinary collaboration, with Chelsea Wood, UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences; Peter Rabinowitz, UW Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Services; Luciano Andriamaro, Réseau International Schistosomiase Environnement Amenagement et Lutte; Susanne Sokolow and Giulio DeLeo, Stanford University Julia PG Jones, Bangor University; and two Malagasy partners: RISEAL and Madagascar’s Ministry of Health.
This is the second co-awarded grantee between EarthLab and Population Health. The inaugural research 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. This results of this project are expected in late 2020.
The University of Washington Population Health Initiative announced the award of approximately $250,000 in pilot research grant funding to six different faculty-led teams. For more information on Population Health and their 2020 grantees, visit the Population Health website.
Authors: The Social Science for the Salish Sea (S4) Planning Team: Leah Kintner, Ecosystem Recovery Manager, Puget Sound Partnership; Sara Breslow, Social Science Lead, University of Washington EarthLab; Stacia Dreyer, Adjunct Faculty, Arizona State University; Heather Cole, Puget Sound Community Relations Manager, The Nature Conservancy.
From snow caps to white caps, the Salish Sea includes the transboundary waters shared by Washington State’s Puget Sound and British Columbia’s Georgia Basin. It is a sea we share with each other and with all local life. It is ours to enjoy and also ours to protect and preserve.
To understand the environmental condition of the Salish Sea, we must undoubtedly understand its biological and physical processes. We must also understand us, the people, who both negatively and positively affect the ecosystem that sustains us. Better understanding the diverse perspectives and values will facilitate a more effective and equitable approach to recovering and protecting the Salish Sea.
There is growing recognition that to solve environmental problems, we need to understand the human dimensions. The Puget Sound Partnership’s (Partnership) need for robust social science to inform regional ecosystem recovery strategies led to a novel partnership with the University of Washington’s EarthLab (formerly Center for Creative Conservation). We convened a dynamic team to develop an action-oriented social science research agenda that serves the pragmatic ecosystem recovery needs of the Salish Sea in a project called Social Science for the Salish Sea, or S4.
The S4 project brought together an interdisciplinary community of researchers, practitioners, and funders to come together to co-create a social science research agenda. Nathan Bennett, social scientist and geographer with the University of British Columbia, said, “Ecosystems ignore international borders. If we are to effectively manage the Salish Sea, the people who live in this region must also work together.”
We often talk about the importance of connecting humans with nature, but the S4 project and the priorities that were prioritized signified this critical interconnectedness. These priorities are not just for social scientists but for all of us working together on ecosystem recovery.
The aim of the S4 project was to scope a research agenda that responds to the social science information needs of entities leading ecosystem recovery, including governmental agencies, advocacy organizations, Tribes, and First Nations. Heather Cole, Puget Sound Community Relations Manager at The Nature Conservancy, commented, “We often talk about the importance of connecting humans with nature, but the S4 project and the priorities that were prioritized signified this critical interconnectedness. These priorities are not just for social scientists but for all of us working together on ecosystem recovery.”
Fundamentally, the S4 project continues to seek to elevate awareness of the diversity of social science fields and their contribution to robust environmental solutions. The group involved in the S4 project included researchers in disciplines ranging from psychology to economics, geography to public health, anthropology to conflict studies, and law to marine affairs.
The S4 is important, groundbreaking work because of its novelty, scale, and inclusion of social scientists and environmental practitioners. The S4 project is the first action-oriented social science research agenda that clearly identifies the recovery needs of the Salish Sea. It is rare to have both social scientists and practitioners from so many disciplines, organizations, Tribes, and First Nations come together to inform and co-create a research agenda such as this.
Stacia Dreyer, Adjunct Faculty at Arizona State University, notes that, “The S4 is important, groundbreaking work because of its novelty, scale, and inclusion of social scientists and environmental practitioners. The S4 project is the first action-oriented social science research agenda that clearly identifies the recovery needs of the Salish Sea. It is rare to have both social scientists and practitioners from so many disciplines, organizations, Tribes, and First Nations come together to inform and co-create a research agenda such as this.”
A series of in-depth workshops resulted in a framework highlighting four thematic goal areas (e.g., social, ecological, social-ecological, and human wellbeing) and 114 potential research topics. After a systematic effort to condense and prioritize the work, the S4 team landed on a final proposed research agenda of 33 primary topics, which included our combined and prioritized recommendations for the most urgent and impactful topics deserving immediate attention.
The S4 research agenda has already garnered extensive interest from organizations, both affiliated and not affiliated with the project, who are seeking ways to use this work to improve their own actions on the ground.
For more information, the full S4 report can be accessed on the Partnership’s website here: https://www.psp.wa.gov/social-science-research.php
This project was generously funded in part by the Environmental Protection Agency, Puget Sound Partnership, Bullitt Foundation, University of Washington EarthLab, and University of Washington Canadian Studies Center.
From large lakes where fish populations thrive to running rivers that generate electricity, freshwater ecosystems supply our world with critical food, water, and power. With a changing climate and projected environmental changes, little is known about the potential impacts these changes may bring to communities. Enhancing the sustainability of these essential freshwater resources by developing a dynamic workforce is necessary in the face of change.
There is an urgent need for scientists from a range of disciplines to work together in innovative ways to solve problems. The Future Rivers Initiative, a new organization in EarthLab, aims to build a culturally-aware STEM workforce fluent in state-of-the-art quantitative approaches that will be necessary for sustaining food-energy-water (FEW) services in large river ecosystems. The Future Rivers training program will support up to 60 trainees as they prepare to effectively safeguard freshwater ecosystem services for a growing world population.
Graduate training that breaks down barriers
“How do we take the perspectives of all of these complementary but different disciplines here at the University of Washington?” asked Gordon Holtgrieve, associate professor for the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. “We have engineering, forest science, fisheries, landscape architecture, geosciences, and more. How do we take those disciplines and use each of their strengths to solve problems around freshwater sustainability?”
To address this question, Holtgrieve recruited faculty from across the University to create Future Rivers. This National Science Foundation supported graduate training program at the University of Washington focuses on building collaborative bridges between disciplines to think outside-the-box when it comes to building a foundation of freshwater sustainability.
“The students here at the university really made this happen. Our students voiced that they want to gain skills around data science while connecting with people outside of their discipline,” says Holtgrieve. “These students want to learn more about communication and issues of inclusivity and culture in STEM. Future Rivers was designed and pursued in order to meet this request.”
Building a workforce of the future
Students accepted into the program will get to experience data science courses, science communication trainings, STEM inclusivity workshops, and social gatherings along with professional networking.
As an EarthLab initiative, students will learn to work in applied ways within career fields outside of academia. Future Rivers is creating a solid foundation that connects academic government and industry partners when addressing freshwater issues.
“Enduring solutions to complex environmental challenges usually come from multiple disciplines and sectors cooperating and using actionable science,” explains Ben Packard, EarthLab’s executive director. “EarthLab is thrilled to welcome Future Rivers and to help build the workforce of the future, competent in transdisciplinary work and prepared for careers in a variety of roles.”
As the program moves forward and prepares for its first cohort of students in Fall 2020, the team hopes this program will equip students with the skills and experiences needed to conduct science in an innovative way.
“The metric of success is coming up with new and interesting ways to do science with an interdisciplinary approach,” explains Holtgrieve. “This is the goal for each of our students to achieve and take with them throughout their careers.”
Application and program details
Graduate students interested in the Future Rivers program are encouraged to apply in January 2020. For more Future Rivers program details, please visit earthlab.uw.edu/program-details.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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
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.
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.