Tuesday, April 24, 2018

How Climate Change Ruins Your Spring Break

It’s an exciting time when the harsh coldness of winter begins to retreat and the warmth of spring begins to creep in. When the weather starts to get a little bit warmer we all know what this means: spring break. When we hear this term, many of us probably associate it with tropical or coastal areas and this is obviously the case because we all want to enjoy the warmer weather in optimum areas.

"My friend just went to New Orleans. A bunch of other people went to Florida, [that's] the other place," said one student.

"I’ve traveled actually each year for spring break," said Boston University senior Sophie Ashainaze-Collender. "Freshman year I was in Mexico for a service trip, Sophomore year I was in Wisconsin, last year I was in Italy because I was abroad. This past year I was in Durban South Africa for another service trip."

"Usually go skiing, this year i went to France, that was really cool. Otherwise to Colorado," said junior Ken Garber. "My friends, sometimes [they go] to the Caribbean, sometimes they hang out here, most of the time they go home to hang out with family."

Unfortunately, spring break could be completely ruined in the near future for many of us. According to NASA, current projections of global sea level rise by the year 2100 range from 0.2 meters to 2.0 meters. Climate change has been affecting the coastal areas where many people go for vacation. Extreme weather and flooding have become increasingly common, costing coastal areas more and more each year. For some, this means more than just finding another vacation spot. To sophomore Antonia deBianchi, sea level rise means losing her home.

"I’m from Hollywood Florida, which is right near Ft. Lauderdale and Miami," said deBianchi. "So I live by the beach. There’s a lot of different estuaries and lakes, and all of that leading up to the Atlantic."

Living so close to the shoreline means that Antonia and her family have already started to see the effects of climate change and sea level rise.

"In my specific neighborhood, since I live right next to the Intercoastal we’ve had a lot of moon tides. Whenever there’s a full moon the tides will rise a lot and it’s connected to climate change and sea level rise, because it’s happening at a higher rate than typically we’ve seen in the past few years," said deBianchi. "What would happen is my whole neighborhood would start flooding, and it’s definitely a sign of a change in the environment due to our lack of sustainability."

Other students who plan to live on the coast, however, don’t seem to be as conscious of the consequences sea level rise will have on their lives.

"I’m actually going to be going to Washington DC to do a dual degree program," one international relations senior said. "I actually don’t think I’ll be seeing any rising ocean tides in DC, but I don’t know how long it would take for something like this to really make me notice."

From the student interviews we conducted, we get the impression that although college students realize that climate change and sea level rise are issues we have to face, they do not really sense the urgency of the situation. To get a better sense of the magnitude of the situation, our team decided to interview Professor Sergio Fagherazzi, who studies geomorphology, hydrology, and coastal and marine geology here at Boston University.  This is a researcher whose work is largely related to sea level rise. You may say to yourself that, obviously, the nature of his work and research concentrations lead him to seeing the effects of sea level rise more often than the average college student. However, he talked to us about how the effects of sea level rise can be seen in coastal places all across the world.

"In Florida, in Virginia, here in Massachusetts, Louisiana, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, lots of places in China; [there are a] lot of places in which the effect of sea level rise and hurricanes and storms are becoming more evident," Dr. Fagherazzi said.

The Professor was kind enough to give us some personal anecdotes of his experience dealing with sea level rise in his hometown Venice.

So for example my brother has a store, and they have a special gate, basically a metal plank that he has to put in the front of the store to avoid the water coming in during the surge," he said. "The city is prepared in a way that there are alarms, sirens all over the city, no matter if it’s day or night to warn the population that the water is rising that day, and then the people react accordingly. So the people who are very low they need to put protection up.What we thought was unique of Venice, because Venice is very low, because it was built very low. There was sea level rise for many decades because the land is going down, so the lifestyle you have in Venice, it might become more and more frequent everywhere else, including Boston."

Do you hear what the professor is saying, fellow Boston residents? We may have to adopt a more Venetian lifestyle in Boston in the near future. As you can see, sea level rise will affect us in places that are seemingly fine at the moment.


Projected sea level rise in Boston today and in 2030, 2045, 2060, 2080, and 2100. From maps created by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"So my family has a place in Venice, where I grew up, and I was asking people around 'should I sell?' And interesting, the response of people my age is, 'It’s not going to happen before you die, you know if it’s a question of a 20 or 30 years, you’re safe,'" Dr Fagherazzi said. "But young people, they have more than 20 or 30 years left, so they think more in the long term. But this mentality, that it’s not our problem, that it’ll happen in 50 or 100 years is probably what’s preventing us from acting now."

This was an interesting and critical piece of information Professor Fagherazzi gave us to think about. It seems that most people, although acknowledging the presence of a looming issue of sea level rise, tend to want to neglect the problem because it hasn’t affected them significantly yet. This, however, is a dangerous mindset. Moreover, socioeconomic factors will surely lead to issues as the effects of sea level rise become increasingly prominent. This is because lower income people will find it more difficult to adapt to changing conditions, whereas people of higher income could potentially afford to move inland or adapt to conditions in some other fashion.

"My sister is an engineer, so in an internship they thought of sea level rise economically," deBianchi said. "In their contracts and blueprints they have to decide if [the building] is environmentally feasible to build near the beach because they don’t know if in a few years that’ll be sustainable."

Antonia’s story allows us to get a better understanding of how sea level rise will have a huge impact on a lot of people in the near future. In fact, according to NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 2014 global sea level average was 2.6 inches above the global average in 1993. It is also important to note that local sea level rise can be greater (or less) than the rate of global sea level rise, due to many factors such as subsidence, upstream flood control, erosion, regional ocean currents, and many more. Many of these factors are dependent on human activity, and it is therefore true to say that our actions can have a direct effect on local sea level rise  In talking to students around campus, we found that although everyone was familiar with sea level rise and seemed to think that it was an important issue, most of them didn’t know much of the science behind it beyond the fact that it’s related to climate change.

 Map of predicted sea level rise. From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Global warming is the most important thing, causing sea level rise. That’s what I believe, that it also causes ice melting," one Chinese international student told us.

"Probably human waste, in terms of plastics, other throwaway items. Carbon, in the atmosphere, and anything man made in terms of gases that goes into the atmosphere," Ashainaze-Collender said.

"In fifty years, where the neighborhood where I lived will most likely be under water," deBianchi said. "Miami is definitely home and an option for me to go back to. My family lives there, so it’s definitely a concern, because even if I don't live there, everyone I love lives there so it’s definitely something that’s concerning."

When we think about sea level rise, we usually think about the future.  However, lots of scientists like Dr. Sean Mackay, a post-doctoral associate at Boston University, are studying the past. We asked him why studying paleoclimate, or past climate, is so important.

"My research focuses primarily on looking at archives of ancient ice and ancient atmosphere and pretty all of what I look at is located in Antarctica. To a large extent the only way we have an idea of what the Earth is actually capable of doing in the future is by understanding what it has done in the past," Dr. Mackay said. "So, apart from just general curiosity as a human for what we’ve gone through on this planet, it has very real world consequences. If we understand a configuration the Earth has already had, and is that configuration was under circumstances, or greenhouse gases or temperature of what we’ll expect in the future then we already have a perfect type case for what the Earth may do in the future. So it’s a way of judging the future by looking at the past."

Dr. Mackay explained to us how there are two main causes of sea level rise.

"It’s the expansion or contraction of the ocean by changes in the temperature of the ocean. Right now we’re talking about expansion of the ocean because the ocean is heating up," Dr. Mackay said. "Cause number two is simply the addition of water from land based ice. Those are the two fundamental drivers of sea level rise."

While some of the students we talked to mentioned melting ice, none of them were able to identify the expansion of warm water as a cause of sea level rise.  We asked Dr. Mackay about other misconceptions people have about sea level rise.

"Even if some scientist tells me it’s going to go up by 2 or 3 feet in 80 years it doesn’t sound like a lot, because I may live 200 feet above the ocean, but understand that that seemingly small amount of sea level rise can have a very large impact on the global Earth system and especially coastal communities," Dr. Mackay said. "It’s a couple feet, we could just build our walls a little higher, but you’d have to build a wall around the entire continent. It’s just not that simple. As soon as your raise the global ocean level a little bit, when i start talking about storm surges, hurricanes, global hazards, it goes up non-linearly. In other words, a small change can have a big impact."

So based on how we’ve already changed the environment, sea level rise is unavoidable, and we will need to develop ways of dealing with it.  We asked Professor Fagherazzi to explain what we can do about sea level rise.

"Singapore is building a new port. They’re rebuilding one of the largest ports in the world, and they ask their scientists to forecast sea level, and they raise the port accordingly. In Venice there are plans to put gates up to block the surges, they’re building them now," said Dr. Fagherazzi. "They’re doing the same thing in London, so London is very low, and with sea level rise the center of London could flood from the Thames, so they put up locks. They put up locks in St. Petersburg, and in Amsterdam in the main channel."
"A lot of places they’re already acting to stop the flooding but they’re hard structures and very expensive. I don’t know if they’ll make the same plan for Boston, but the two options are to stop flooding or just retreat," Dr. Fagherazzi said. "I would stay far away from the shore, at least two meters above high tide, and 200 or 300 meters inland. I would never buy a place that is less than two meters above high tide and 200 meters away from the shore. It’s important that we don’t develop areas that are very low, I think in a lot of places we’re still building at the shore without considering these extreme events.

So it seems like it is necessary for us to deal with a mix of climate mitigation and adaptation when it comes to global sea level rise. When we say climate mitigation, we mean actions to reduce global warming, just like Professor Fagherrazi was talking about in terms of reducing our carbon footprint. Adaptation to a changing climate, and changing sea levels, would entail innovative engineering, like building walls for example, or a significant change in the way we live.

"Nobody knows for example that where we are now, Boston University, was a wetland or even some parts were a bay. So here was water, and now it wants to go back to water. And people think it’s safe, but how many students know about the tide? If I ask a student how high the tide gets, they don’t know, because we protect ourselves with these walls and locks, to prevent the tide from coming in and flooding," he said.

"When there’s a big flood you can see water rising a lot, and we feel protected, but that protection is very ephemeral. The same as New Orleans, they thought they were protected because of the levees, but they didn’t even know they were under water, technically. I would be worried if I were young, of some situations. I would be very careful where I decided to live, lots of places on the shore nowadays, it’s not a question if it’s going to be flooded or not, but a question of when."

Created by Eleanor Ho, Lauren Mock, Josh Taylor, and Kaiya Weatherby.

Sea level rise image sliders provided by Climate Central. Global temperatures are predicted to rise by 2°C by the end of the century.

Friday, July 28, 2017

DIAL Lab Internship

Hi, I'm Sofia and I'm a rising sophomore interning this summer with BURECS. I spend my days working in the DIAL Lab--the room connected to the BUARG Lab that's filled with cameras, tripods, computer monitors, and other tech-y stuff. As a journalism major with an interest in films and documentaries, science has never really been up my alley and I opted for an internship that would allow me to communicate scientific findings rather than do the science research myself. The DIAL Lab provided me with that exact opportunity.

As an intern in the DIAL lab, I get to do cool things with the stunning photographs and video footage that have been taken during trips to Antarctica over the years. I help to edit and create media that promotes the program to prospective students, and helps the general public understand what exactly it is we do here.

My first major task involved creating another slide for the ginormous slide show that's in the Earth and Environmental Dept.'s hallway. You've probably seen it--those three huge TV screens that are constantly cycling through gorgeous photographs paired with text about how much energy we're wasting, how much ice is melting, etc. etc.? Yeah, those. It was so exciting to know that the footage I was working on would be showcased to the thousands of BU students that would walk through that hallway. However, the task was difficult and came with a lot of guidance and self-teaching. Though I'm pretty comfortable using Adobe Photoshop, this task required me to pick up a whole new program: Adobe AfterEffects. Thankfully, in today's digital era, online tutorials are plentiful and it only took a bit of Googling and YouTubing to learn the skills necessary to do what had to be done.

Overall, the process took about a week and a half. I was working with a photograph, and it was so cool to see the image literally come to life: icebergs began to floating through water that looked like it was glistening in the light, and plumes of smoke swirled in the background. Check out what the end product looks like!

This picture really doesn't do it much justice though, so if you're ever walking down the east side of CAS through the EE dept's hallway, take a moment to stop and look at all the little details!

Aside from that footage, I did a few tasks for helping future BURECS generations understand the mechanics of using and updating our website and blogs. I edited a video tutorial detailing necessary steps via Adobe PremierePro, and conveyed the same information in a beautifully designed (in my humble opinion) pamphlet created on Adobe Photoshop. If you're a future BURECS student learning how to operate Blogger and the BURECS website or calendar and you're being assisted by a video or pamphlet, those were made by yours truly.


Finally, a huuuuuuge portion of my time was dedicated to making time lapses of videos recorded in Antartica. This process was extremely lengthy because several steps required rendering or exporting afterward--so I'd edit a little bit, wait for it to export, edit a little bit more, wait for it to render, then edit the last little bit and wait for the final thing to form! Eventually, it felt like I had a "conveyor-belt" system going on: while one batch of pictures was exporting, I'd be editing another batch; and while that batch started rendering, I'd be prepping the next-time lapse to get ready to be exported! Time efficiency at its finest.

All the Antarctica footage I had to sort through! And this was only one folder.

However, there were still moments where tasks overlapped and I'd end up waiting for two time lapses at the same time. Luckily, the DIAL lab had a few other great interns, Ricardo and Julia (who were BURECS interns last year as well) and our mentor, Keith, who all kept things fun. Aside from our biweekly runs to Insomnia Cookies for ice cream, we'd listen to Keith's stories about his side projects working with Nick Cannon on a documentary about Adderall or his brief encounter with world-renowned chef Anthony Bourdain at a shoot. Ricardo and I would grab lunch together and he'd tell me about his adventure traveling to Ecuador with Keith to study monkeys.

... and Adobe Lightroom!

If you want to see some of the time lapses I've been working on, I posted a snippet on the BURECS's Instagram here.

Time lapse essentials! LRTimelapse...
Overall, my time in the DIAL lab has been rewarding but also entertaining. I've honed my skills in using some programs like Premiere or Photoshop, but can now say I'm familiar in AfterEffects and LRTimelapse as well. I've seen the inner-workings behind how to take scientific research and effectively communicate it, hopefully to inspire and educate other people about all of the beauty and information Antarctica holds. Though I only have one more week interning in the DIAL lab, I know that the skills I've gained will stay with me regardless of what career path I pursue and my appreciation for Antarctica's landscape and scenery will last for the rest of my life.

Marsh Edge Erosion - Fitzgerald Lab

Hi I’m Rachel and I am a rising sophomore majoring in Earth and Environmental Science and Public Relations. This summer I'm interning in the Fitzgerald lab. Our lab studies a variety of coastal processes but the project I’m working on focuses on marsh edge erosion on the north shore of Boston which is where I grew up.
I live in Beverly where the red arrow is pointing. The Great Marsh starts about 15 or 20 mins north of me and extends almost to the border of New Hampshire. We do a lot of work in Newbury, Rowley and Ipswich.

In front of the marsh edge there is usually a mudflat that is very sticky. Professor Fitzgerald believes that the entire marsh will eventually be mudflats. You're not part of the team until you've had to dig your boot out of the mud.

We are currently in the middle of an extended sample collection project involving sediment pads. Sediment pads are small mylar circles that we put out in the marsh at low tide and leave overnight. While the sed pads are in the marsh, the tide rises and inundates the marsh with water, washing loose sediment onto the pads for us to collect. The pads are placed at 5 m intervals moving away from the marsh edge, giving us continuous data on the amount of loose sediment in the marsh. For this particular experiment we are leaving the pads on the marsh for an entire tidal cycle which is about a month.

Miyu and I collected the sediment pads from our last experiment in petri dishes so no extra sediment would be introduced. The sed pads and cups are marked by orange flags which make them easy to spot from a distance.

When we set out sediment pads we also set out solo cups to collect water samples. When the water rises onto the marsh the cups fill with water and get trapped there. Then we collect the water in nonreactive bottles and run them through a filter back in the lab. The filters trap sediment, telling us how much sediment is suspended in the water.

I would like to say that no arthropods were harmed in the making of this science but they were. The ones that weren't dead after collection, storage and filtration were put in the -80° C freezer.

In addition to lab and field work, the interns are also responsible for conducting some literature research. Duncan has asked us to research rates of sea level rise in marshes all around the world. I am in charge of researching marshes in the United States. Carina and I spend most afternoons at the Kenmore Starbucks looking through databases and reading scientific articles. We skim the articles looking for the rate of sea level rise in a specific marsh and then input them into a data table.

Reading multiple scientific papers a day requires copious amounts of caffeine.

This week we also got a chance to process a different kind of sample: sand from Brazil. The samples were shipped to us so we could conduct grain size analysis. First we dried out the samples so they wouldn't stick to the equipment. Next we split each sample in half so we'd have a back up sample in case we messed up or needed additional analysis. Then we put the samples through a stack of sieves which were shook for 10 minutes by a machine, sorting the sand by grain size and allowing us to determine what percentage of the sample was fine grained and what percentage was course grained. The different components of the sand were all different colors and sizes which was very cool and a refreshing change from the marsh samples we usually process.

I'm having a lot of fun this summer learning about lab work, field work and scientific research. I can't wait to see what our data tells us at the end of the summer.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Summer Reading: Henrietta Lacks

Starting this year, BURECS students who have stayed in Boston for summer internships are participating in a semi-formal book club led by grad student Donovan Dennis. Unifying this summer's selections is the theme of how STEM and research interact with social issues.

Students first jumped in with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. This well-received book, later adapted as a movie starring Oprah Winfrey, walks the line between memoir and nonfiction narrative as Skloot describes the history of the Lacks family. Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer who moved to Baltimore as a young woman, developed an aggressive form of cervical cancer. She passed away in 1951 after several months of treatment at Johns Hopkins. However, before her death, a biopsy of her tumor was taken (with dubious consent) as part of widespread national efforts to culture cells that could live outside the human body. Her cells, dubbed HeLa, were and have continued to be the most successful and hardy strain, and have contributed to enormous medical breakthroughs across a wide range of fields, including the polio vaccine, cancer treatments, and even research on the International Space Station.

Skloot follows the path of Henrietta's cells in the scientific community, but she also follows Henrietta's family, who were not aware of their mother's contributions to science for years after her death. To this day they have received no reimbursement, and are too poor to afford adequate healthcare. Skloot developed a close friendship with Henrietta's youngest daughter, Deborah, and much of the book is devoted to their combined efforts at uncovering Henrietta's story.

The book explores the complex issues of race, autonomy and consent, medical ethics, and family which arise from Henrietta's situation. Students have had the chance to discuss their own views, as well as choices made by Skloot in the way she presents the Lacks narrative. After finishing the book, they met up after work to watch the movie and discuss its similarities and differences with the book.

My own reaction to the book was overall very positive; Skloot did an excellent job of weaving together the scientific and "human interest" sides of the story to form a cohesive narrative of Henrietta's enduring significance. My only critique is that Skloot herself plays such a large role in the story, despite the focus ostensibly being the Lacks family, but I think that in this case it would have been incredibly difficult to extract herself from the book without losing some of the memorable interactions that she had with members of the Lacks family.

Next on the reading list is Spare Parts by Joshua Davis, which follows four undocumented immigrant high school students in Arizona as they build a robot for a national competition.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Fitzgerald Lab: Salt Marshes and Sediments

Hey y’all! I’m Carina Terry and this summer I’m working in Duncan Fitzgerald’s lab. I’m a rising sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. I started off as a physics major, but after a semester in the BURECS program, I decided to switch to earth and environmental sciences.

The Fitzgerald lab is a perfect internship for my major. We’re studying salt marshes; their composition, dynamics, and most importantly, how we can save them from impending sea level rise. The marsh we’re looking at now is the Great Marsh right here in New England. This marsh has a high occurrence of slump blocks – large pieces on the edge of the marsh that are slowly separated from the rest of the marsh until they reach a tipping point and cave into the tidal creek. The loss of these blocks isn’t great for the marsh, as it means the marsh is eroding even more quickly.
Tidal creek with slump blocks at high tide 
Many theories in the world of marsh studies state that erosion increases when wave power increases. This is applicable to many other cases of marsh erosion, but Professor Fitzgerald doesn’t believe high wave power is the cause of our marsh’s slump blocks. The blocks that we observe are found fairly far upstream in the tidal creek – far enough that the waves can’t get that powerful because the channel is fairly narrow. Since high wave power doesn’t seem to be the cause of the slump blocks, we have to figure out what is.
To solve this question, we test the marsh in several ways. After driving about an hour north of Boston, we park our truck and then hike out into the marsh. This hike usually takes about 10 – 20 minutes, depending on which part of the marsh we’re examining. Occasionally we have to crash our way through forest and brush, which can be a bit challenging, but it’s worth it – when we make it to our marsh site, the view is beautiful.

When we reach the tidal creek, someone has to climb down into the creek. (We have to make sure we go to the marsh at low tide, so the water is shallow enough that we can do this – we don’t want anyone to take an unpleasant swim!) After they’ve climbed down, they use a special syringe to take samples down the side of the creek bed. We do this for about 3 or 4 sites a day, then head back to the lab.

Once we’ve got the samples back in the lab, we first have to dry them for several days. When they’re dry we weigh them, which will allow us to calculate their bulk density. Then we split the samples in half and begin the rest of our analysis.
Dried marsh samples
The first half are assessed for organic content. We crush the samples up into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle, then place the crushed samples into crucibles. After weighing the crucibles to find the initial mass, we place them into the furnace. Then, at around 5 or 6 pm, one of us has to come back to turn the furnace on. The samples are burned at 550 degrees Celsius (1022 degrees Fahrenheit!) for 16 hours; we come back in the morning to turn the furnace off and let them cool, then weigh them once again. Since all the organic material was burned away in the furnace, this tells us what percentage of the sample was composed of inorganic sediments and what percentage was organic.

Mortar and pestle
The other half of the samples are analyzed for biomass. First, we use a sieve to separate the sediments from the vegetation in the sample. The vegetation is dried and then weighed by itself, to find what percent of the sample was composed of vegetation. The sediments are split in half; one portion is dried and weighed, while the other is stored in a vial for future use. Eventually, these samples will be sent to a lab in Louisiana, where the size of the sediment grains will be analyzed and recorded.

Sieves and brush
Clearly, a lot of the analysis we do is related to the mass and composition of the marsh: what percentage is inorganic, how much vegetation is present, and how big the sediment grains are. We analyze these factors because we suspect they could have a correlation to how stable the marsh is. Once we have collected all our data, we will look for trends and try to find which of these factors have the largest effect on marsh stability. Then, when we know the important factors, we can work on restoring the marsh and fortifying it against rising sea levels.

The salt marsh is an important ecosystem; it serves many functions, including sheltering young fish and insects and removing carbon from the atmosphere. It’s very important that we work to keep it from being destroyed due to climate change. And, of course, we wouldn’t want to lose this beautiful view.