Mason Scientists Know No Boundaries in Studying Environmental Issues

Posted: April 20, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Mason professor Changwoo Ahn wants to ensure that any new waterway projects undertaken in Korea are constructed using methods that are safe for the environment and won’t harm the natural plant and animal life around them.
Photo courtesy of Changwoo Ahn

By Tara Laskowski

From the scenic Galapagos to sub-arctic Siberia, Mason faculty members are casting a wide net in their efforts to ensure a more sustainable and diverse planet Earth.

Following are highlights of a few of the many environmental research projects that faculty members from across the university are conducting internationally.

In Protecting Biodiversity, There’s No Playing Favorites

We can all get on board with “Save the Whales.” But how about “Save the Rats”?

Cody Edwards
Cody Edwards
Photo courtesy of Cody Edwards

Cody W. Edwards, assistant professor of environmental science and policy at Mason, has been working for more than a decade to do just that — save several species of rat unique to the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.

An uphill battle, perhaps, by way of public support. But Edwards strongly maintains that to protect biodiversity, you must protect all forms of life, including those that some may see as “uncharismatic.”

In 1997, working as a master’s student at Angelo State University, Edwards traveled to the Galapagos with a team of researchers. During their trip, these scientists discovered a species of rat that had been thought to be extinct for almost 100 years.

With 13 major islands and more than 100 smaller islands and “islets,” the Galapagos Archipelago is a complex and sensitive ecosystem, and it is difficult to document and track the animals living there.

rare rat
The Nesoryzomys swarthi “Santiago Rice Rat” that Edwards “rediscovered” in 1997, almost 100 years after it was thought to be extinct.
Photo courtesy of Cody Edwards

In addition, with the influx of tourism and an increase in the human population (a 40-fold increase in the past 50 years), three invasive species of rat, found all over the world, have found their way to the islands at the same time that the rare species of rats are disappearing. Edwards hopes to discover the link between the introduction of these invasive species and the rapid decline of the endemic rodents.

“It is essential to save these unique organisms because we have no idea what role they play in the functioning ecosystem of the Galapagos,” he says. “It would be like taking a watch apart and plucking one tiny piece out and throwing it away, then trying to put the watch back together again and hoping it still functions. Every piece, no matter how small, is significant.”

Maintaining Biodiversity in Korea

Wetlands are an extremely important component to maintaining a diverse and thriving ecosystem. For Changwoo Ahn, assistant professor of environmental science and policy, making sure that new wetlands are as close to natural conditions as possible is essential.

Changwoo Ahn
Changwoo Ahn
Photo courtesy of Changwoo Ahn

While Ahn is currently researching wetlands in Northern Virginia, his work is also influencing environmental research in Korea. Ahn, working with numerous other Korean scholars around the world, wants to make sure that any new waterway projects in the country are constructed using methods that are safe for the environment and won’t harm the natural plant and animal life around them.

He is working on a paper that outlines the impacts of large river engineering-dams and levees on river ecosystems. He also hopes to develop technology and ways to construct and manage wetlands so they sequester more carbon effectively and mitigate greenhouse effects.

“Created wetlands often show little evidence of ecosystem development comparable to that of their natural counterparts, and many fail to meet basic success criteria within the legally mandated time frame,” Ahn says.

Through his research, he hopes to improve created wetlands so their ecological functions thrive more like a natural wetland.

He also consulted last year on the project ECORIVER 21 with the Korean Institute of Construction Technology in their planning of floodplain restoration.

Investigating the Cultural Implications of Climate Change

Although we all depend on the natural world for our daily sustenance, many of the world’s peoples continue to practice a daily and direct interaction with the plants and animals of their environment to feed themselves and their families.

These peoples, who often inhabit more climate-sensitive areas of the world that are rapidly changing due to global climate change, also use myths, stories and legends to explain natural phenomena.

Anthropologist Susan Crate is showing how the local changes to northeastern Siberia’s ecosystem due to global climate change is putting one people’s myths, legends and stories in jeopardy.

Through her National Science Foundation-funded research, Crate has worked for two decades with rural Viliui Sakha, a group of native horse and cattle breeders in Siberia. In recent years, she has noticed changes in the way they tell their stories.

Susan Crate with field collaborators
Susan Crate, far right, with two Viliui Sakha collaborators in the village of Khoro, Suntar region, Sakha Republic, Russia.
Photo courtesy of Susan Crate

“My own ‘ethnographic moment’ occurred when I heard a Sakha elder recount the age-old story of Jyl Oghuha (the bull of winter),” says Crate. “Sakha use this mythological bull to explain the deep cold of their sub-arctic winters. But now with the climate warming, many elders comment that the bull of winter may become a legend of how the climate used to be and not a way to explain what is.”

In response to her own encounter with cultural implications of climate change, Crate organized and recently published an edited volume, “Anthropology and Climate Change: From Encounters to Actions” (2009, Left Coast Press), which explores anthropologists’ encounters across the climate-sensitive world areas and builds an argument and a research agenda to further investigate the human dimensions of climate change.

Crate believes that anthropology has a definitive role in climate change research exactly because the field focuses on the human dimension and has methods and models appropriate for interpreting and understanding culture.

She thinks that anthropologists can serve as cultural mediators: finding appropriate ways to communicate information that indigenous people need about global climate change and informing policy makers about the unique situations of different peoples of the world.

“Advocacy is key not only to our collaborative relationship with communities, but also to representing their lived realities in policy and other advocacy contexts,” she says.

Making Climate Change an International Issue

With climate change quickly becoming one of the biggest global concerns, Donglian Sun, assistant professor of geography and geoinformation science, is helping to communicate about this problem and educate an international audience.

Donglian Sun and Chinese minister
Donglian Sun organized an international climate change meeting that will take place this fall in Beijing, China. Above, she meets with the former minister of Chinese Science and Technology, GuanHua Xu.
Photo courtesy of Donglian Sun

She organized an international meeting that will take place this fall in Beijing, China, about the impacts of climate change and mitigation and adaption to climate change. The World Meteorological Organization, Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Chinese Meteorological Administration, U. S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U. S. Geological Survey will participate.

“China is facing more air pollution and more frequent floods and droughts,” says Sun. “I’m collaborating with the Chinese Academy of Science, Chinese Meteorological Administration and Shanghai, Jiangsu and Hubei Meteorological Bureaus to try to educate people about these effects of climate change and how they can detect and monitor them.”

Sun is also interested in training young students and scientists on climate change. She participated in the Sally Ride Festival held on April 18 at Mason and educates middle and high school girls about climate change and its impacts on hurricane activity.

Sun’s research areas concentrate on how global warming affects severe weather such as hurricanes, floods and droughts. She combines satellite remote sensing and numerical model simulations to study natural hazards as part of the Center for Earth Observing and Space Research at Mason.

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