Local Research Becomes Online Learning

Local Research Becomes Online Learning

What better place to start with science education than your own backyard? In 2019, that question inspired Wisconsin’s Lake Superior Reserve and their local school district to partner to develop interactive online lessons about local research projects in the St. Louis River estuary.

Every 5th grade class in the Superior school district now has access to these lessons, which cover topics like algal blooms, coastal flooding, and wild rice restoration. The lessons align closely with state science standards and are delivered in a format similar to the rest of the district’s science curriculum.

They didn’t have a global pandemic in mind, but the Reserve and their partners have made it possible for the region’s children to continue to build science literacy and connect with their Great Lake.

Talk NERRdy With Me: Deanna Erickson

Talk NERRdy With Me: Deanna Erickson

Talk NERRdy to Me is a column about leaders and luminaries from across our 29 reserves. NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov chatted with Deanna Erickson, Education Coordinator at the Lake Superior NERR. A real Swedish fish, she couldn’t stay away from the Great Lakes. Her passions for community and co-learning are as deep as Lake Superior and as unique as its estuaries.

Nik: Why would you want to be an education? Couldn’t you have been an investment banker or a coal magnate?

Deanna: The money is so much better in education; it’s hard to stay away… What’s so perpetually exciting about education is that you’re engaged equally in learning, with young people or community members. It’s so generative; there’s so much that comes out of it in terms of connection and understanding the place.

Nik: You’re not just teaching, you’re being taught?

Deanna: I’m working on a poster for our St. Louis River Summit with a bunch of fourth-graders, and they’re all in Google docs editing it together, going back and forth on their data all day. I’m learning about how to study wildlife populations so I can help them with accurate information.

Nik: What’s your favorite age to teach?

Deanna: Upper elementary is pretty great, but middle school, they’re a little more engaged with the world and their immediate surroundings and that’s really fun. They can take on harder questions, be a little more curious. But early childhood has the cuteness factor, you know? They say really hilarious and extremely astute things and should be in charge, probably, of more things than they are.

Nik: So true. Did you get to work with them when you were developing the Lake Superior NERR Estuarium, one of the newest exhibit showcases in our system?

Deanna: By then we had been running River Rovers, our nature playgroup, so I had a lot of early childhood experience. I also worked with preschool teachers, and all my friends have little kids, so they’re like, ‘you’re gonna need these things.’ We really tried to structure the exhibit hall around what’s called loose parts theory; things you play with can be many different things. They offer options for the imagination and that keeps kids engaged longer. Basically, every person you’re trying to explain things to is a little different; educators try to find what’s engaging for everybody.

Nik: Speaking of different: you don’t have ocean tides at Superior. Please explain your quote-unquote ‘estuary.’

Deanna: We do have tides… of about three inches. But what really gives us the oscillation and mixing between chemically different bodies of water is this phenomenon called the “seiche.” Seiche is a French word that means to sway back and forth. In the Great Lakes our weather systems move from west to east. High pressure pushes down on the west, and to balance that out, a bulge of water gets pushed up in the east. The water will kind of rock up to the eastern, northeastern side of the lake, and then it will begin this oscillation all the way back to our western side. So about every three to four hours, our St. Louis River reverses direction—even more often than your coastal systems do, not to brag.

Nik: But what kind of range does that seiche have?

Deanna: It’s not always the same. Because it’s weather-based, it’s not entirely predictable. The highest seiches in the Great Lakes are up to 10 feet! And we have storm surges that combine wind blowing the water up to one side of the lake with the oscillation of the seiche—those can be really destructive. You get huge pulses, it’s called a meteotsunami, which is a fun word.

Nik: Many across the NERRS know what the moon-based tide’s going to be at their location 2000 years from now on a particular date and time. Your life, your estuary, the creatures in it—much less predictable.

Deanna: And it’s not salt and fresh either, though the water in the lake and the river are significantly chemically different. We can take a scoop of water from anywhere in the estuary and tell how much of it is lake water and how much of it is river water. The main differences between an oligotrophic lake and this very nutrient-rich estuary are temperature, oxygen, calcium availability, and nutrient availability.

Nik: You sound like a research coordinator.

Deanna: Yeah, man! My undergrad was at University of Wisconsin Stevens Point in natural resource management and conservation biology, then a Master’s in environmental education from the University of Minnesota Duluth. I worked in Utah and California, but water’s my thing! I’m from Northern Wisconsin, so we’d come up here. My great-grandfather and my grandfather’s family were all fish-tenders on Lake Michigan. I just feel like it’s in my genes.

Nik: A Swedish fish, Erickson. You talk about place-based knowledge a lot. What’s that mean?

Deanna: I live in Ojibwe territory in the Northern Great Lakes; the Upper Great Lakes are pretty much all Anishinaabe land. Even though things are written down now, a lot of knowledge, from long ago, is passed down orally, so it’s really important to spend time out in the landscape with people, especially elders. People know SO much because they know what their mom knew, what their grandma knew, what their great-grandma knew—and those things have been passed down. 

Nik: It’s long-term monitoring?

Deanna: Yes! Without ever having to sit down with an Excel spreadsheet. I’m learning to be respectful, to engage with plants and animals and the water, and the landscape as beings.

Nik: What does that mean?

Deanna: Oh man, you can’t put this in a newsletter, no one will talk to me anymore. I think what that means is understanding that as much as I have ways of thinking and being in the world, living and non-living beings around me do as well. Paying attention and respecting and listening to what they’re up to can help you understand them better. And it also makes you humble, because you realize how much you don’t know. 

Nik: Who (or what) has been one of your greatest teachers?

Deanna: There’s land that’s part of the Reserve that used to have a mostly Ojibwe village on it, and that village was forcibly removed. Through the years I’ve gotten to know many descendents from that village. There was a pretty well-known chief, a negotiator with the federal government, named Chief Osaugie. My friend, Mark McConnell, is his great-great-great grandson and has taken a lot of time with me to help me have a longer understanding of this place. We have to remember that estuaries are really important culturally, especially to Indigenous people, because they’re such productive systems. Every Reserve in the system is situated on land that has Indigenous history and ancestry to it, and so making those connections can really help convey more of the whole nature of the places that we live and work.

Nik: Lightning round. Favorite animal?

Deanna: The first thing that came to mind is our otters. SO megafauna. Nigig is the name for otter in Ojibwe, and so a little otter is nigigoons.

Nik: Salty or fresh?

Deanna: Fresh, man, all the way.

Nik: So obvious. Favorite cheese-based dish?

Deanna: Oh my god. That’s really hard. I grew up in dairy country, and cheese curds are where it’s at. You gotta get them fresh from the cheese factory.

DC Download: August 2019

DC Download: August 2019

In early August, congressional staff took to the water to see how Reserves protect places and people on Chesapeake Bay.

We’re happy to see members of Congress and their staff beat the DC heat this summer in the best way possible—by visiting Reserves around the country!

A big NERRA thank you to the co-chairs of the Estuaries Caucus—Representatives Bill Posey (FL), Suzanne Bonamici (OR), Rick Larsen (WA), and Brian Mast (FL). Earlier this month, they brought a group of congressional staff to our Maryland Reserve so they could learn how place-based programs build stronger communities.

The outing was hosted by Reserve staff with support from their partners at Patuxent River Park and NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management. Staff from the offices of Representatives Bonamici (OR), Jared Huffman (CA), Frank Pallone (NJ), Alan Lowenthal (CA), Jerry McNerney (CA), and members of the subcommittee for House CJS Appropriations got a hands-on opportunity to learn more about our Reserves and enjoy a beautiful day on Chesapeake Bay.

In the midwest, our Lake Superior Reserve hosted staff from the offices of Senator Tammy Baldwin’s and Representative Pete Stauber’s (MN). Our Great Lakes representatives in Congress have consistently demonstrated that they are true champions of the coasts and our Reserves and we thank them for that!

Colleene Thomas (second from right), senior policy advisor from Senator Baldwin’s office, joined Lake Superior Reserve staff and partners for a trip on the the R2512. This NOAA-supported vessel is used for research, monitoring and education in near-shore environments.

In the Mid Atlantic, the Jacques Cousteau Reserve hosted staff from Senator Cory Booker’s (NJ) office. Alongside tours of the Reserve’s Grassle Trail, Marine Field Station, Life on the Edge exhibit, and the Sandy Marsh restoration site, Booker’s staff gained a new appreciation of the entire Reserve System.

Are you planning to host congressional representatives at your Reserve in the coming months? Let us know at info@nerra.org.

Two of Senator Booker’s staff—Sea Grant Fellow Ben Hughey and Project Specialist Kaitlin McGuinness (center)—went from ship to shore to learn about monitoring and restoration at our New Jersey Reserve.

Washburn Goes to Washington

Washburn Goes to Washington

Senator Tammy Balwin (left) and Erika Washburn, director of the Lake Superior Reserve.

Lake Superior Reserve Director Erika Washburn did an outstanding job representing the Reserve System and other coastal programs before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Science, Ocean, Fisheries, and Weather today. Her testimony focused on climate science and the work that Reserves and partners do to help communities adapt to life on a changing coast.

“I’m grateful to Senator Baldwin for inviting me to testify,” says Washburn. “She knows how important understanding the changes in the Great Lakes is to the long-term health of our communities. It was a privilege to represent the science and outreach our programs do to help.”

“Wisconsites take great pride in our water resources, which define our quality of life and keep our economy running,” says Senator Tammy Baldwin (WI). “The Lake Superior Reserve plays a key role in helping the Twin Ports communities and our Northland residents to gain insights into the ways Lake Superior is changing. Weather patterns are changing rapidly, and I am extremely concerned about our lack of preparation.  As we work to address this issue, the first thing we need is to know what’s coming.”

Washburn’s testimony explored three aspects of climate science that are of particular importance to people in all coastal communities: changing water levels; changing habitats, and changing water temperatures and chemistry.

“The ability to predict and plan for these changes touches almost every aspect of life on the coast,” says Washburn. “It impacts infrastructure, property values, shipping, dredging, fisheries, tourism, public health, and quality of life over all.”

Washburn offered examples of how coastal programs help communities through initiatives like the Reserves’ national monitoring program, which maintains 280 stations across the 29 sites in the Reserve system. Every 15 minutes, these stations take readings on water quality, pollution, habitat change, sea level rise and weather, produce more than 40 million, publicly available data points every year.

“Communities rely on Reserve baseline monitoring data and interdisciplinary research to plan for extreme weather, manage fisheries, assess storm damage, and much more,” says Rebecca Roth, director of the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association. “We could not do this without continued federal investment in programs like Reserves that provide a bottoms up voice for what communities really need to manage the impacts of climate change.”

Aloha, Wisconsin!

Aloha, Wisconsin!

Lake Superior NERR education coordinator Deanna Erickson (center, facing camera) plants kalo (taro) during a volunteer work day at KākoʻoʻŌiwi, an agro-ecological restoration site within the Heʻeia NERR.

In February, Deanna Erickson bought some apology flowers for her ice-bound officemates and boarded a flight for Hawai‘i, headed for the He‘eia Reserve, the newest in our national system. With her, the Lake Superior NERR education coordinator carried Wisconsin’s own maple sugar and wild rice and a more than suitcase full of lessons learned about creating education programs from scratch.

“The designation of a Reserve is a momentous event, the product of years of work by community partners and NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management,” says Erickson. “But what happens next? For a new Reserve, a little support from the NERRS network comes in handy.”

As the first education coordinator at the Lake Superior Reserve (founded in 2010), Erickson was eager to compare notes with Fred Reppun, the founding education coordinator at He‘eia. The two discussed potential programs and shared their experiences and the local contexts that influence their work. Fortunately, Fred and Deanna were willing to share a few thoughts on the exchange with all of us…

From Deanna

Surprisingly, the Heʻeia Reserve has many similarities to Lake Superior! Our landscapes are enmeshed in indigenous history and managed through modern, indigenous-led land use practices. Also, both Reserves are housed in universities and partner with robust, existing education programs.

Fred and I each spend a lot of time listening to elders and partners to plan our next steps. He‘eia’s partners include the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology and Papahana Kuaola, a cultural learning program. Likewise, I work with the University of Wisconsin and tribal-run Fond du Lac Resource Management. These commonalities allowed me to engage with the He’eia ahupua’a (a traditional socio-ecological land division) informed by relevant experiences in Wisconsin.

Spending time at He‘eia reminded me that starting a Reserve from scratch isn’t always straightforward. Staff must find the overlap between best practices in education, community needs, their own expertise, and the Reserve’s structure to create effective programs. He‘eia is in that process now.

Eric Enos (center), is the executive director of Ka’ala Farm, a restored kalo lo’i that also provides cultural education for students. The relationship between indigenous land knowledge and institutional scientific methods is key to the cultural and educational work at both the He’eia and Lake Superior Reserves.

We talked about community resilience, grants, internships, branding, communications, research and the interrelationships between indigenous knowledge and institutional scientific methods.

And we went snorkeling! On a windy day, Fred took me out in choppy seas so I could have a chance to see coral, reef fish, and a sea turtle. When he saw I hadn’t brought flippers, he handed me one of his. We were both able to swim successfully in the current. That’s the benefit of a network in a nutshell!

Another thing we share—community discussions and needs drive what we do. I started the Rivers2Lake education program that’s now been running for six years.  Fred has some exciting ideas about internships and programs that can support He‘eia’s partners. It’ll be fun to see which ones move forward, and how they evolve.

Fred and his colleagues taught me a great deal about the unique Hawaiian context that informs his work. I came back with new perspectives that have already enriched discussions with our partners on Lake Superior.  For example, I shared the Hawaiian concept of biocultural landscapes at the St. Louis River Summit this past week, and took ideas about kalo (taro) to our Manoomin (wild rice) work group here. These ideas have been helpful and well received.  

From Fred

From the first day, Deanna was willing to literally jump in and participate in all of the activities of our Reserve—from testing a coral bleaching monitoring tool in frigid Hawaiʻi waters to removing invasive mangrove in knee deep mud. She attended meetings with our site partners, where her presence and comments helped bring key issues to the surface.

Deanna observed that He‘eia is well positioned to build bridges between communities focused on contemporary science and those focused on traditional ecological knowledge. This was something we had already sensed, but she validated both the importance and the difficulty of this approach, based on her own experience working with tribes in the Lake Superior Area.  

We also talked a lot about community resilience and how to build it into our programs. I am looking forward to continuing this conversation with her and others at the next annual meeting.

One of the things I most enjoyed was seeing the exchange of gifts between Deanna and the people she met—wild rice and maple sugar for bone carvings, in one instance. It was a physical symbol of the exchange of ideas and aloha between our two places. Hawai‘i is the most isolated island chain in the world, but when we connect with people like this it doesn’t feel that way.

Lake Superior Reserve Responds to Chemical Fire

Lake Superior Reserve Responds to Chemical Fire

Photo courtesy of Deanna Erickson.
On April 26, an asphalt tank exploded at Husky Energy’s Wisconsin refinery, just over two miles from our Lake Superior Reserve. In the ensuing chemical fire, 20 people were injured, residents within a three mile radius of the refinery and up to 10 miles south of the blast were evacuated, and a plume of toxic gas extended over the Lake Superior watershed. Since then, the Reserve and their partners have stepped up to monitor the fall out, keep area residents informed, and facilitate community dialogue.

In the long-term, this incident likely will have lasting impacts on Wisconsin communities and environments. In the short-term, it’s reshaping how staff at the Lake Superior Reserve think about “protecting people and places,” and how that will change in the future. We are grateful that our colleagues are safe and—amazingly—committed to hosting the Annual Meeting this November. We are also grateful that they are willing to share their experiences in the weeks after the fire and what they are learning about how to prepare for future emergencies.

Thursday, April 26

Some people at the Reserve heard a loud explosive sound and the office building shook. Lights and power flickered. They thought it was a transformer. By noon, they were flooded with emails and call alerts about the emergency.

Photo courtesy of Hanah Ramage.
By noon…
There was confusion and chaos. Education Coordinator Deanna Erickson and Education Specialist Ryan Feldbrugge had been at the Great Lakes Aquarium with a field trip. They were about about to drive over the bridge to Superior and when they saw the fire’s plume and texted Reserve Manager Erika Washburn. Evacuation maps changed frequently, and everyone at the Reserve was encouraged to go home and/or evacuate. (Research Coordinator Shon Schooler evacuated his family.) Washburn reached out to NOAA OCM leadership, Reserve Advisory Board members and the regional NOAA National Ocean Service lead lead Heather Stirratt. “The evacuation led to so many unanticipated issues,” Washburn observes. “People in the community didn’t know where to go, students were stuck, hotels were full, and kennels were overloaded. Disasters at multiple scales were unfolding everywhere.”
Celeste Venolia brought education and science together in her Hollings Fellowship.
→ What they learned: More preparation will cut down on the lag time for communication in future emergencies. Reserve staff have talked about building their communications network, keeping phones and emergency contact lists at the ready, and putting a text message alert system in place. It’s also been helpful for them to understand the different communications capacities in their network, e.g., who can easily put out a press release.

By late afternoon…
The fire was at its worst, with fireballs and thick black smoke visible from Duluth. Reserve staff were concerned that petrochemicals and fire fighting chemicals might be getting into nearby Newton Creek, which receives runoff from the refinery and drains into the estuary, which is close to the sandbar inlet to Lake Superior. Schooler recommended putting an auto sampler into the creek. System-Wide Monitoring Program Specialist Hannah Ramage and Erickson collected the gear and brought it to Newton Creek. The water was frozen over, so they “had to hoof it in.” This was the first of the evening sampling runs that take about four hours to complete. “We’ve had some big floods over the past several years that we have not monitored,” observes Erickson. “I was really glad that everyone at the Reserve was willing and able to respond to this event. That’s one of the benefits of being at a Reserve; we are small and nimble and able to capture data more easily than a large agency.”

Pop up NERRS sampling station created after the fire. Photo courtesy of Deanna Erickson.
→What they learned: The local research and monitoring community needs to be plugged into emergency response and become part of the disaster team. For example, for samples to be used, everything has to be documented and sampled according to protocol and logged on a chain of custody form.

Friday, April 27
The Reserve had to cancel their regular programs. They felt secure enough to stay on site; the plume had not shifted direction over the Reserve’s buildings. They were lucky to have the help of Mike Koutnik, chair of the Lake Superior Friends, who made a map of the evacuation zone. US EPA also produced a slideshow with maps of the plume, weather and wind—it gave them a good sense of what tributaries to look at. “This event caught us all by surprise. Many of us didn’t know the level of potential risk to the Reserve,” says Koutnik.  “Our headquarters was in the evacuation zone, and that zone includes forests, coastal wetlands, and thousands of residents and hundreds of business and other organizations that benefit from these resources. We plan to discuss how to support the Reserve in emergency preparedness and response, and what, if any, direct role a friends group can play. ”

Map courtesy of Mike Koutnik, chair of the Lake Superior Reserve Friends
By evening…
Newton Creek samples collected by Reserve staff had a distinctive odor. Because the incident was terrestrial, official monitoring for coastal waters had not been fully activated. Reserve staff felt they needed to work with partners to fill the gaps. Washburn reached out to NOAA again and started calls with the Lake Superior Research Institute (LRSI), Large Lakes Observatory (LLO), US EPA lab in Duluth, and local Sea Grant programs throughout the weekend. Together they came up with a plan to address monitoring. US EPA provided the specialized bottles needed for sampling; LSRI offered additional storage space; Minnesota Sea Grant released rapid response funds to launch a boat; Wisconsin Sea Grant offered funds for analysis and the Reserve, LLO, and researchers ran sampling runs in the bay and inlet to Lake Superior.

“Erika and her team at the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve were so quick to respond to the Superior Refinery fire. Their early coordination efforts resulted additional PFAS samples from the first few days that would not have been captured without their quick efforts, “ says Cherie Hagen, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources Lake Superior Program.

Photo courtesy of Hannah Ramage.
→ What they are learning: Reserve staff are already thinking about how to better coordinate and monitor with partners in emergency situations. This includes practical measures like stocking glass bottles at the Reserve—you can’t sample petroleum-contaminated water in plastic bottles—developing plans for storage of mass samping across partner facilities, and joint communications strategies.

In the following weeks…
There was an explosion of anger and fear on social media about the incident and Reserve staff have been trying to share factual, non-inflammatory information as often as possible. They held a listening session for the public in coordination with County Extension staff and University of Wisconsin volunteers so they could bundle up concerns and hand them off to the Department of Natural Resources, US EPA and local, county, state, and federal governments. The information gathered at the session is accessible in a summary report. Washburn anticipates the Reserve will be in a position to pull together teams of experts and arrange science-based briefings for the public; this may even be the theme of their science cafe lecture series.

Reserve staff are keeping eye on Newton Creek, which has been listed as an aquatic contaminated site. They are also looking for people and organizations with expertise in the chemistry of PAHs or refinery fires. And in true NERRS spirit, the Reserve’s new Coastal Training Program Coordinator Karina Heim has stepped right up to bat. She is already developing trainings and workshops around topics like emergency management for the public and risk communication for local elected officials and government agencies.


Photo courtesy of Erika Washburn.
→ What they’ve learned: Reserve staff found their niche as unbiased facilitators who could be trusted by residents in an emergency situation. The Reserve’s advisory boards include a lot of community representatives who could play a bigger role in sharing what the Reserve learns with the public in the future.

ReservesLake Superior, Wisconsin