Marisa Van Hoeven (left) and Stephanie Nebel deploy water sampling equipment near Palau.

Island journey

UD students travel to Palau for scientific cruise, marine policy discussions

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9:50 a.m., July 9, 2013--In the small island nation of Palau, located 600 miles east of the Philippines, rising sea levels threaten infrastructure and the economy — but there are very limited resources to address such problems.

Marisa Van Hoeven, a master’s degree student in marine policy in the University of Delaware’s School of Marine Science and Policy in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment (CEOE), traveled to the remote country last week to discuss climate adaptation with government officials. 

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“You really need to be on the ground, talking to people dealing with policy development in context,” she said.

Van Hoeven studies how tiny island countries like Palau are preparing for sea level rise, weather extremes and other threats related to climate change with her adviser, Biliana Cicin-Sain, professor of marine policy. She said she plans to analyze how coastal issues are being prioritized in adaptation action plans submitted by developing countries to the United Nations for future funding and assistance. 

In Palau, a country with 20,000 residents and an economy reliant on tourism and fisheries, Van Hoeven is meeting with various government officials to discuss some of the approaches they are taking to get ready for changes ahead. Scientific models project that low-lying areas will submerge within a few hundred years. Climate change effects are expected to exacerbate existing pressures on natural resources and cause shifts in the fish species on which island nations depend.

Issues such as those highlight connections between policy and science. Van Hoeven, who has an undergraduate degree in biology, will also participate in a scientific cruise while in Palau. She will be joined by recent UD doctoral graduate Stephanie Nebel aboard the research vessel Roger Revelle with scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO).

Nebel, who studied Delmarva barrier islands with Art Trembanis, associate professor of oceanography, while a student in CEOE, is similarly interested in the sand movement in and around the reef environments of Palau.

The team will gather data on ocean temperature and salinity to better understand waves, currents and circulation as they travel around Palau, and they will arrive in Guam on July 17. The researchers will also use sonar to determine the bathymetry, or seafloor depth contours, and type of sediment on the seafloor for the area around Palau. 

The opportunity arose out of an ongoing research project by Mark Moline, professor of oceanography who is also director of the School of Marine Science and Policy within CEOE. Moline is working with SIO’s Eric Terrill on a U.S. Navy project to develop a hydrodynamic model of water movement in and around Palau.

Because of the varying depths and bottom types in the lagoons and reefs of Palau, it is difficult to map and predict water flow. His role is to help collect the data sets to initiate and validate the model. 

Having spent a significant amount of time in Palau over the past five years, Moline has interacted with a number of officials there and taken an interest in supporting policy-related issues. 

“What we’re trying to do from our science perspective is inform the government in terms of their own natural resources and environment so they can make better decisions,” Moline said.

The trip also provides hands-on experience for the students, a hallmark of the educational approach fostered by faculty in CEOE, Moline said.

Van Hoeven, for example, has previously attended high-level United Nations meetings on sustainable development in Brazil. The scientific cruise and policy meetings in Palau extend the intellectual exchange between the classroom and the outside world. 

“Both Stephanie and I are very excited to participate in research in this unique location,” Van Hoeven said. “It is a special opportunity to link the science and policy components.”

Article by Teresa Messmore

Photos courtesy of Marisa Van Hoeven and by Mark Moline

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