New College Innovation May Help Restore Coastal Wetlands
by David Gulliver
A web mapping application developed here at New College is helping restore wetlands a thousand miles away, along the shores of the Great Lakes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.
Justin Saarinen, a New College research scientist with the Environmental Studies program, worked with local biologists, restoration experts and managers – along with several New College students – to develop a data-driven restoration model, or geodesign, to locate restorable coastal wetland areas on the Great Lakes coastal landscape.
The application is being used by managers and decision-makers at all levels of government in the Great Lakes Region to support their decisions about where and why to select, find and initiate a restoration project.
Or as Saarinen puts it: “I like to say that we are helping to minimize random acts of restoration in order to maximize restoration dollars for ecosystem service benefits.”
(You can see the application at the U.S. Geological Survey's website.)
The project has enormous significance to a major ecosystem. The Great Lakes are the largest surface reservoir of fresh, and mostly potable water in North America, and house a fantastic diversity of fish, birds and other wildlife. The high quality of Great Lakes water is maintained by healthy and functioning natural services, also known as ecosystem services, which are provided by habitats such as forests, prairies and wetlands.
However, over the past few decades, scientists and citizens have reported a significant decline in the quality of Great Lakes water, including observations of harmful algal blooms, disappearance of fish and wildlife, and beach contamination. There is much evidence supporting the loss of ecosystem services as the cause, and also the cure: An estimated 95 percent of coastal wetlands have been lost and converted to other land uses such as agriculture, and most of the remaining coastal wetlands are not functional, Saarinen said.
Studies on Lake Erie show that increasing the area of functional coastal wetlands will improve habitat for fish and wildlife, and could significantly reduce the annual nutrient pollution entering the lake. This thinking extended components of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which aims to identify stressors to the system, and to locate and inventory ecosystem services such as water purification and wildlife habitat, which can ameliorate the stress and return balance in the system.
And that’s where New College comes in.
Saarinen began the work in Michigan in 2012 and brought the project here when he joined the faculty in 2014. From then until completion, the project received more than $382,000 in government funding, including about $60,000 for salaries for students working on the project.
New College students, recruited from the Environmental Science and Data Science programs, and GIS courses and tutorials, were engaged early in the process and “contributed intelligence, effort and persistence,” Saarinen said. Among their tasks was helping to locate and inventory features on the landscape, such as Great Lakes coastal wetlands, and applying the geodesign to the pilot study areas, including Western Lake Erie, the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair, Saginaw Bay and Green Bay.
Three students will be graduating this year, and others have moved on to careers in GIS or are currently in graduate school pursuing GIS, computer science or environmental science.
“The students were critical to the process, and it was completely win-win,” Saarinen said. “Not only did they make a good wage working in an on-campus lab, but they gained valuable experience and skills working on real-life projects, characterized by plenty of unprecedented challenges to solve.”