Linking Science and Social Issues

Why is this course a SENCER model?

Honors 270 teaches environmental science through a multitude of issues associated with living on a densely populated, low-lying shoreline with a history of industrial development that goes back to the 1700s. The civic issues are broadly divided into three groups: natural hazards, anthropogenic impacts, and potential impacts of climate change.

Hurricane Preparedness

An important civic issue facing Connecticut relates to hurricane preparedness. Connecticut has not experienced a Category 3 or larger storm in 70 years and few citizens of the state have direct experience of the destructive force of a large hurricane. In fact, Connecticut has over 400 billion dollars of insured property in coastal areas, one of the highest values in the nation. Connecticut population densities are focused along the coast in large cities and along the Connecticut River, and both areas would be prone to flooding during a strong storm.

How prepared is Connecticut for a major hurricane? In our course there is a major focus on the potential impacts of a repeat occurrence of the 1938 hurricane. This storm assaulted the coast with a 14-18 foot storm tide, 15-foot waves, winds up to 90 mph, and copious rainfall. The impacts of this storm included the confirmed deaths of 682 people across the New England region with another 1500 people missing; the loss of homes for 4,000 people due to flooding; and the greatest amount of destruction in U.S. history until the advent of Hurricane Hugo in 1989. What would be the comparable impacts today from such a storm? Storm impacts include not only loss of life and coastal structures but also beach and wetland loss via erosion and degradation. Students examine threatened coastal environments and survey elevation changes along coastal roads to observe threatened coastal habitats and properties.

Harbor Sediment Contamination

Connecticut has a rich industrial history and current and past human activities have resulted in the contamination of harbor and Long Island Sound sediments with metals of environmental concern. One of our course modules examines the industrial history of New Haven harbor by contrasting the economic uses of the harbor with the natural environments that exist within the harbor. New Haven harbor receives contaminants via tributary rivers, treated effluents from industry and municipal wastewater, storm water runoff from highways and parking lots,
atmospheric deposition from automobiles and coastal fossil-fuel power plants, and discharges from shipping and marinas.

Due to regional energy needs, the placement of electric cables and natural gas pipelines from New Haven to Long Island, NY has highlighted the need to determine the spatial variation of sediment metals in coastal harbors. Burial of the cables and pipelines may suspend potentially contaminated sediment into the water column for transport to previously less impacted sediment. Our course examines the following questions: Are the sediments in New Haven harbor contaminated with copper? Are the levels of copper in the sediments harmful to commercially important marine organisms? Are there strategies to reduce the amount of contaminants entering New Haven harbor? Students develop hypotheses concerning the extent of sediment contamination based on the sediment type (sand vs. silt) and the location of the sediment in the harbor (proximity to sources of contamination).

Sediment samples are collected during a harbor cruise and the sediments are analyzed for physical (grain size and composition) and chemical characteristics (copper content). Results are then compared to their original hypotheses. Results of the HON 270 analyses have contributed to a GIS database of sediment metal analyses in New Haven harbor and have been presented at regional Long Island Sound Research Conferences. The data, once on-line, will be a useful tool for decision makers concerning the quality of harbor sediment.

Climate Change

Recent scientific studies show that residents in Connecticut can expect to live in a warmer climate in future years. The problems related to climate change include loss or reduction in living marine resources, sea level rise, increased storm intensity and frequency, changes in precipitation patterns and impacts on water resources, and effects of climate change on human heath. According to these studies, changes in the biological diversity in Long Island Sound, including the potential loss of the lobster fishery, are due to warmer water temperatures. The introduction of the mosquito borne West Nile virus, along with the extended range and increasing abundance of the deer tick (Lyme disease), have serious human health consequences.

Our course examines the potential consequences of climate change to residents of Connecticut, with an emphasis on impacts along the coastline. What are the anticipated consequences of climate change in Connecticut? We want students to identify important economic, social, and environmental consequences of a changing climate. Are there strategies available to reduce our emission of greenhouse gases? Students need to make specific recommendations concerning how residents in Connecticut, and themselves as individuals, can reduce their carbon footprint. How will Connecticut adapt to a changing climate? Student group presentations focus on a specific aspect of a changing climate in Connecticut, and students deliver the results of their research in a mini-symposium attended by students and faculty.

Science Topics and Their Relationship to Issues of Public Concern

Course ModuleScientific PrinciplesPublic PolicyLab/Field Activities
Landscapes and WatershedsComposition of rocks and minerals
Plate tectonics
Erosion and coastal processes
Watershed quality
Coastal landforms
Rock and mineral identification
Field observations of coastal environments and rock outcroppings
Coastal HabitatsMarshes, beaches, rocky interitdal zones
Coastal marine ecology
Storms and hurricanes
Economic, environmental and social value of coastal ecosystems
Hurricane preparedness
Coastal population and economic development
Field visits to marsh, beach
Landscape surveying and coastal flood analysis
Human ImpactsSources of harbor metal contaminants
AAS spectroscopy
Harbor sediment quality
Pollution prevention
Seafood quality
Dredging and harbor maintenance
Harbor sediment sampling trip
Laboratory analysis of sediment physical and chemical properties
Climate ChangeAtmospheric gases and greenhouse effect
Temperature effects on climate change
Climate models
Energy use, resources and economics
Renewable and alternative energy
Consequences of a warmer climate
Student group research concerning consequences of a warmer climate