As PhD student Neil Schock stood next to what looks like a ditch to the untrained eye, he recorded water data with another CMU student.
They’re actually near a wetland, and Schock is working on what will eventually be his dissertation.
He wants to create a mathematical tool that the Department of Environmental Quality will use to determine whether or not a wetland has a ground water connection. If so, the DEQ has jurisdiction over that ecosystem and is able to protect it from being repurposed.
So what does Neil do with these readings?
“All this data that were collecting will go into multivariate ordinal statistics to kinda generate out what we’re seeing in those environments. Taking all those parameters with multiple dimensions and kinda boil them down into a few dimensions so we can visualize what’s happening in those areas.”
This is no small undertaking, and Schock is building this research from the ground up.
You may wonder, ‘what does a wetland have to do with climate change?’ Experts like Don Uzarski, the director of CMU’s Institute for the Great Lakes Restoration, say the answer is a lot.
“Were just starting to realize in the past probably 20 years just how important these small systems are, small or large, to the overall ecosystem and the Great Lakes in particular.”
Uzarski says this murky, unglamorous area is imperative to the health of Michigan’s water system, explaining that wetlands act as the kidneys of Michigan’s larger waterways.
“So anything that we put on the agricultural field or even a dry precipitation or dust that falls on to the field, theres going to be nutrients, theres going to be some level of toxicants associated with that. In this case its going to come through this wetland. Even though its in the center of Michigan its still acting as a filter and processing that material before it makes it down to that drainage ditch eventually makes it to a stream, that will eventually make its way to the Great Lakes.”
Uzarski says Schock’s work is crucial to the health of the United State’s waterways. He says America is essentially running on a single kidney at this point.
“50 percent of wetlands nationwide have been lost. In some regions though, like the Saginaw Bay region we’ve lost 95 percent of the coastal wetlands already. Other states are in much worse shape than we are.”
Back in the field, Schock explains that although he’s pioneering this kind of wetland experimentation, he never feels lost.
“For the most part we’ll let the data lead us, Ya know, data doesn’t lie. Ya just kinda go with what ya got and with the resources that you have, and with sound statistical analysis it will lead you where you wanna go.”
There’s one quality I’ve found in every scientist I talked to for this series. Pride in the Great Lakes, and the state of Michigan.
Schock, says he wants to protect the Great Lakes with his research by stopping potential negative impacts at their source.
“It’s easy to lose sight of where certain things are impacting the Great Lakes. I’ve always been interested in the Great Lakes ecosystem and the health of the Great Lakes, so you gotta get down to where are these impacts coming from. And this is a big part of that.”
Schock says if things continues to run smoothly, his wetland tool should be ready for statewide use in two to three years.
He says the best part of his job is the office he works in. Michigan’s outdoors, the trees, the wildlife and the clean water is one of the defining features of the Great Lakes state. Schock and Uzarski ‘clock in’ every day to ensure those features will still be there when the rest of us ‘clock out’.