Protecting Bristol Bay: A Lesson from Nicaragua

In 2001, the Pebble Mine Project was introduced by Canadian mining company Northern Dynasty Minerals, Ltd. (NDM). The proposed copper/gold/molybdenum open-pit mine would be located in the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, which is home to the world’s most productive sockeye salmon run.

Pebble

Location of the proposed Pebble Mine with respect to Bristol Bay. (source: NDM Pebble Project Website)

Between 2014 and 2017, NDM and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) went back and forth regarding a potential veto of the Pebble Mine Project. In 2017, NDM and the EPA reached a settlement and, since then, NDM has worked toward getting the necessary permits for Pebble Mine, one of which involves a comprehensive study of potential environmental impacts. On February 20, 2019, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a draft Environmental Impacts Statement (dEIS).

The dEIS analyses conclude that the mine does not pose a large threat to the Bristol Bay ecosystem. However, researchers are concerned about the science presented in the dEIS. Notably, the analyses cover only the 20-year life span of the mine while ecosystem damages could last hundreds of years, long-term risks due to climate change are hardly mentioned, and environmental stressors are assumed to occur independently of each other when, in fact, they are often synergistic.

The Pebble Mine Project is not the first threat seen by the freshwater world—just six years ago, the freshwater of Lake Nicaragua was threatened by an attempt to build an alternative to the Panama Canal.

Nicaragua

Location of the proposed Nicaragua canal with respect to Lake Nicaragua. (source: Smithsonian Magazine)

In 2013, the Nicaraguan government sanctioned the construction of an interoceanic canal to be carried out by Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Corporation. Like the dEIS of the Pebble Mine Project, the proposed Nicaragua canal required an environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) before construction. In November 2015, the Nicaraguan government granted the environmental permit after receiving the ESIA from Environmental Resources Management, an international consulting company.

However, the Nicaraguan Academy of Sciences stepped in, facilitating an international workshop where researchers came together to evaluate the ESIA. The experts brought to light several issues regarding the science within the ESIA, focusing on five main areas: water and sediments, biodiversity, natural hazards and risks, social and economic implications, and international standards.

Mike Brett, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington whose research focuses on biological limnology, was among the workshop participants. He sees many parallels between the Nicaragua canal project and the Pebble Mine project, especially the potential negative impacts on the two freshwater environments: Lake Nicaragua in Nicaragua and the headwaters of Bristol Bay in Alaska.

“One of the main parallels I see is the impact that each of these projects would have on the water quality in the area. In Nicaragua, about a third of the canal was set to go through Lake Nicaragua. The canal would have to be about 20 meters deep, which is deeper than Lake Nicaragua by about 10 meters,” says Brett. “This would require a large trench to be dug, and the excavation of the aquatic sediments would be the largest ever done. Those sediments need to be placed somewhere, and they would end up back in the lake, messing with water turbidity and the natural ecosystems.

“In Bristol Bay, we’d see a change in water quality with a slightly different cause: chemical reactions between the water and some of the minerals being mined. This wouldn’t be an immediate effect, rather it would occur over the next hundred years. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore it.”

“Another thing that’s very similar between the two is the issue with indigenous rights,” says Brett. “This was a big issue with the Nicaragua Canal because it was going to cut through some areas that were set aside for indigenous communities.  It’s also definitely an issue seen with Pebble Mine. The coastal tribes in Alaska are fighting against the mine because their ways of life depend on Bristol Bay salmon.”

In addition, supporters of these projects tout the purported economic benefits to the regions, but, in reality, foreign companies would profit.

The parallels are stark and concerning, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. By banding together to review the science and make their voices heard, Brett and his colleagues were able to preserve a valuable resource for Nicaragua. The final evaluation by the workshop participants was widely publicized, and when combined with a Chinese stock market crash in 2015-16, it led to the abandonment of the Nicaragua canal project in 2017.

While no workshop is currently being assembled to evaluate the dEIS for the Pebble Mine Project, the people of the freshwater world can still make a difference. The dEIS is open for public comment until June 29th, 2019.  Public comments rooted in science and fact will help drive home that Bristol Bay is no place for a mine. The deadline is fast-approaching, but for the sake of Bristol Bay, let’s make our voices heard.

To submit a public comment, go to https://pebbleprojecteis.com/.

Field Work Friday #1: Fun in Forks

Summer is one of the busiest times for scientists doing field work. I get out to the field regularly during the summer, and I know I’ll continue going to the field throughout the year. Because of this, I’ve decided to start “Field Work Friday” as a recurring blog installment!

This past week, I was in Forks, Washington calibrating tipping buckets for my research project.

Fig1

Me and one of the tipping buckets. We have 80 to calibrate, and I’m in charge of the naming/numbering system. And yes, the front has bird poop on it.

If you’ve read my “Research” page, you’ll know that I’m really interested in sediment (mud) transport (movement). For the sediment to move anywhere, you need some sort of driving force. In the case of my research, that driving force is WATER.

To understand the process of sediment transport, quantifying the amount of sediment and the amount of water is incredibly important. This is where the tipping buckets come in! In our field set up, the tipping buckets are placed on a platform on the hillslope below the road surface (along with a sediment tub and a turbidity tank), and water is routed through the tipping buckets so we can get a measurement of the flow.

The tipping buckets work like this:

  1. Water goes in through the top of the tipping bucket
  2. One side of the bucket is filled until it tips over
  3. The other side of the bucket is filled until it tips over
  4. Repeat

Fig2aFig2b

Fig2c

Schematic of the inside of the tipping bucket as it goes through the tipping process.

Inside the tipping bucket, we have a tip counter. We take the number of tips multiplied by the amount of water it takes to tip, and voila! We have the quantity of water we were looking for.

I spent this week calibrating the tipping buckets (i.e., determining how much water it takes for the tipping buckets to tip!) To do this, we used a fire truck (which I got to ride in!!!) with a flow meter attached to it and spent hours (and hours and hours…) counting tips, doing basic math, and lifting heavy sheet metal boxes.

Fig3

An example of our setup during calibration. The fire truck feeds water through a flow meter, then through the tube that goes into the top of the tipping bucket.

Though it may sound boring and monotonous (which, honestly, it could be at times), I still firmly believe that a bad day in the field is better than any day in the office.

Happy field-working!

Towards a more inclusive STEM

Being in a STEM field is hard. Being a woman in a STEM field is even harder. For the past eight years, my interest in science has been met with questions and doubt.

When I was first applying to college for physics, most people responded with shock.

In my first college physics course, we were told to split into groups to work on a quiz. I joined a group with two men who proceeded to ignore what I had to say the entire time.

When I was tutor at a community college, one tutee refused to get math help from me and instead asked a fellow male tutor.

When I tell people that I have a bachelor’s degree in physics, I’m met with, “Wow, really??” and “I didn’t expect that.” Explaining to people that I’m pursuing a Ph.D. in Hydrology, I’m met with similar responses.

These instances are frustrating and discouraging. I’ve been in a STEM field for the past six years, and by all measures of success, I’m doing damn well—I have a first-author publication; I have field experience; I can code in Python; and, maybe most importantly, I haven’t given up.

However, I still underestimate my abilities. And I know I’m not alone. In a recent piece published in Advances in Physiology Education, researchers found that in an undergraduate biology class (a field that is typically more female-dominated than most other STEM fields), the average male student sees himself as smarter than 66% of the class, while the average female student sees herself as smarter than only 54% of the class.

Reading about this study and seeing the disparity invoked so many emotions within me:

Anger. I’m angry that women tend to see themselves as lesser than their male counterparts, even when they are just as, if not more, capable and smart.

Sadness. I’m sad that it’s still true that fewer women than men pursue careers in STEM fields.

Motivation. I’m now feeling more motivated than ever to be a role model for young women considering joining a STEM field. I don’t want STEM fields to continue in this direction, and I want to show young women that, despite these unfortunate experiences, it’s possible to continue in STEM and thrive.

To my fellow STEM-ers:
We need to do better. We need to be better. Let’s work together to ensure that the future of STEM will be inclusive of all people, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, and ability. Below, I’ve linked to a few excellent articles that discuss concrete steps we can take as a community to become more inclusive:

How to involve more women and girls in engineering
Women in STEM Begins With Girls in STEM: 7 Ways to Support a Generation of Scientific Young Women

Breaking the STEM ceiling for girls


This post was inspired by an article published on April 4. Read it here.

To my dear and loving science

When I was in high school (many years ago), my English class had a poetry unit during which we read “To My Dear And Loving Husband” by Anne Bradstreet:

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

My English teacher had us students write a poem in a similar style, and we had to title the poem “To My Dear And Loving ____.” I absolutely loved the poem, and I remember thinking the assignment was awesome. (Though if you asked me what I wrote my poem about, I couldn’t tell you.)

Within the past few weeks, this poem and assignment have resurfaced in my mind (for reasons unknown to me.) But when it did reappear, I realized what I would have titled my poem had I been given this assignment today: “To My Dear And Loving Science.”

Because I am a scientist and not a poet, I won’t subject you to my rendition of Anne Bradstreet’s beautiful poem, but I will tell you a brief story.

Science has been a major part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, my mom (a biologist by training) had me and all my siblings do science experiments and participate in science fairs. She also took us into her histology lab and let us use the microscopes, making us feel like we were cool scientists. In middle school, science was the class in which I always had the most fun (even if the fun was mostly due to friends in the class being goofy.) In high school, I took as many science classes as I could, including my first physics class, and fell even further in love with science.

Now, I have one degree in physics and am working towards another degree in hydrology. Every day, I wake up, and I’m so excited to see where my science takes me. I get to code, I get to write, I get to read, I get to learn, and, maybe most importantly, I get to go out and get my hands dirty (literally—field work is the greatest.)

I have an absurd amount of love for science, and I realized that I wanted to be able to share that love with other people. And thus, Muddy Manda was born.

So, to my dear and loving science:
I am so grateful for you and all you have done for me. You have given me a way to connect with the world that I haven’t found in anything else. I hope that I can share you far and wide, so others may, too, know your beauty and power.