Tuesday, April 3, 2012

LUMCON: Louisiana's University-Based Solution to its Coastal Science Concerns

By Paul C. Focazio, Web Content Manager, New York Sea Grant

On the final day of the New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA) and New York Sea Grant (NYSG)-led restoration and wetlands trip in southern Louisiana, our educators (pictured in (2) below) and students from Massachusetts' Brandeis University toured the facilities at LUMCON, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. LUMCON was established in 1979 by an act of the Louisiana Legislature to coordinate and stimulate marine research and education in the state. The Consortium's base of operations is at the W.J. DeFelice Marine Center (pictured in (1) above) in Cocodrie, which lies within the expansive wetlands of the Mississippi River deltaic plan between the Atchafalaya and Mississippi rivers. The Marine Center offers coastal field and laboratory space to researchers, educators, students and public groups.

"We're here to increase society's awareness of the environmental, economic and cultural value of Louisiana's coastal and marine environments," said Dr. Nancy Rabalias, LUMCON's Executive Director. LUMCON accomplishes this by (1) conducting research and education programs directly relevant to Louisiana's needs in marine science and (2) serving as a facility for all of the state's schools interested in marine research and education.

One of the many other hats Rabalias wears is as Chair of the National Sea Grant Advisory Board, which is comprised of 15 members, all with diverse backgrounds in marine affairs. This board advises the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Secretary of Commerce, the undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere, and the director of the National Sea Grant College Program on scientific and administrative policy.

LUMCON owns and operates two research vessels - the R/V Pelican, a 115-foot University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) vessel used for oceanographic research in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and Western Atlantic, and the R/V Acadiana, a 58-foot vessel used for short trips offshore and extended cruises in coastal bays, rivers and estuaries.

The R/V Pelican (a model of which is pictured in (3) below) was named in honor of the Louisiana state symbol, the brown pelican, as well as two earlier vessels of the same name. In addition to these research vessels, LUMCON also has a fleet of small boats for use by researchers and educators in nearshore waters.

LUMCON's marine education program raises awareness about coastal Louisiana through programs tailored for K-12, university, teacher and public audiences. K-12 students engage in field and laboratory activities. The youngest of these "scientists-in-training" help identify species first-hand and draw them on LUMCON's "Wall of Organisms," as pictured in (4) - (5) below. University students can earn credit at Louisiana colleges for courses and internships completed at LUMCON. Teachers can take part in programs to better understand the scientific process, learn marine and coastal science and gain confidence in active learning methods. As for the general public, groups of 10 or more people can request a guided tour and may also schedule an educational cruise or overnight activity session.

The Consortium's educators highlight the research conducted by its scientists and relate the importance of their work toward developing a better understanding of the environment. About a half dozen resident marine scientists and their research teams focus on themes such as: river/ocean interactions, coastal productivity, processes influencing coastal change, human and industrial environmental impacts, and living resources. Some "hot topics" include harmful algal blooms and the influence of oil and gas platforms on the expansion of corals in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

LUMCON's environmental monitoring system (see related research posters (6) - (7) below) collects and provides real-time and long-term environmental data to a broad community of scientists, educators and the public. Stations at the Marine Center, off-shore, and in local bays, estuaries and the Mississippi River record wind speed and direction, precipitation, water height, air and water temperature, salinity, oxygen, nutrients and other data. LUMCON posts current environmental data at weather.lumcon.edu. This Web site also displays current weather conditions at the Marine Center as recorded through two cameras located in the observation tower.

In addition to providing stellar views of the natural environment surrounding LUMCON's facilities (see pictures (8) - (10) below), the observation tower serves as an educational outpost, filled with informative panels on everything from Louisiana's changing wetlands, salt marshes and industries to its cultural influences and resident and migratory species. Also featured is a history of the Marine Center, which once suffered from water levels of almost seven feet due to storm surge associated with 1992's Hurricane Andrew. Even though the eye of Andrew hit landfall in a sparsely settled area just west of Cocodrie, storm damages reached a total of $2.5 billion, with widespread destruction in the area's Terrebonne parish.

Another issue being addressed at LUMCON is hypoxia, or low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water (see related map in (11) below). It's an issue that our educators were reminded is rather common, also occurring in parts of Long Island Sound (LIS) and other waters back home in New York (as illustrated in (12) - (13) below).

During the summer, surface water heats up and forms a distinct layer "floating" over the bottom water, which is denser due to greater salinity and cooler temperatures. The layers lead to a sharp density gradient that restricts the oxygen-rich surface waters from mixing with bottom waters. At the same time, nutrients, particularly nitrogen, fuel the overgrowth of planktonic algae. As the algae and the microscopic animals that feed on the algae die and sink to the bottom, they are consumed by bacteria, which also take up oxygen in the process. A significant loss of oxygen in the bottom waters results in hypoxia, a condition that impairs the feeding, growth and reproduction of aquatic life.

For more information on hypoxia in Long Island Sound, check out these resources: "LIS Water Quality: Hypoxia" and "LIS Environmental Indicators: Frequency of Hypoxia"

One of LUMCON's current researchers is Alex Kolker (pictured at right in (14) below), a coastal geologist focusing on wetlands loss. Kolker is a former Sea Grant scholar who once worked under Stony Brook University marine geologist Steven Goodbred and fellow investigator Kirk Cochran. Kolker presented his findings on the disappearing marshes of New York City's Jamaica Bay at a March 2004 symposium (see NYSG's Summer 2004 story, "Are Marshes Losing Ground?").

Last October, a NYSG co-sponsored follow-up symposium, "State of the Bay: Past, Present and Future—Revisited," was held at Brooklyn College. There was much discussion amongst scientists in attendance at this event about what could be done to restore the bay's salt marshes, which are being lost at a rate of 44 acres per year. For more, see NYSG's related news item, "NYSG partners with the National Park Service and other organizations to revisit Jamaica Bay's restoration issues" (click here).

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