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Predicting the Past
Predicting the Past

Natural systems such as the Lower Columbia River Estuary evolve over time, driven by interconnected factors.  Understanding how natural and human causes intermingle, and how such systems have changed over time, are key to anticipating how they will evolve in the future – and how we may need to adapt to them.

A rising figure in the field of coastal oceanography, Civil and Environmental Engineering professor Stefan Talke employs a novel approach to evaluating long-term changes to coastal water-levels, rivers and water properties.  Using a combination of archival research, historical data analysis, remote sensing technologies and contemporary modeling approaches, he is able to map the transformation of waterways since the mid-19th century and parse naturally-occurring factors from human interventions such as wetland reclamation or alterations for navigation. 

“From a research perspective, Oregon offers a very unique opportunity. The Pacific Northwest was relatively untouched until the mid-to-late 19th century,” explains Talke.  “Part of conquering the West was being able to understand a completely new environment, so there was a concerted effort by the US Government and volunteer observers to measure tides, river flow, water depths, and water temperature as early as the 1840s.  We can use this data today to reconstruct a spatial view of a pristine system absent of human modification.”

With his latest award, Talke is mapping long-term changes in the temperature and salinity of the Columbia River.  His project “Modeling 19th-century Estuaries to Address 21st-century Problems” is supported by a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award, a prestigious honor given annually to young tenure-track faculty.  Providing approximately $500k over five years, the award is intended to support his development as a college-level instructor, researcher, and member of the scientific community.  The research will determine to what extent salinity intrusion and water temperatures have increased, and assess the multiple reasons why.

As part of the grant’s outreach component, Talke plans to work with High-School educators from Portland and coastal communities over the next several summers.  These teachers will be embedded within the Talke research group and will have the opportunity to work on the historical, analytical, or modeling aspects of the project.   These educators will use their experience to develop primary-source based curriculum that fulfills “next generation science standards” and can engage students in scientific issues of local relevance.  By working to increase the number of Oregon students interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects, such projects address the dearth of students that go into these growing fields.   

“My hope is that the interdisciplinary nature of this work will keep it interesting for students,” said Talke. “Perhaps I can even inspire some to go into research.”