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Researching The River

November 1, 1998

Bill Sasser

One of the world's great rivers and the raison d'etre for New Orleans, the Mississippi in coming years could also play a crucial role in research and teaching at Tulane University, according to Tulane professors Brent McKee and Tom Bianchi, pioneers in the growing field of river studies.

Bianchi, an associate professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology, and McKee, an associate professor of geology, are the principal investigators for an 18-month multidisciplinary study of the Mississippi River funded by the Center for Bioenvironmental Research (CBR), an institutional partnership between Tulane and Xavier universities based at Tulane's downtown campus.

McKee and Bianchi, both researchers at Tulane's Institute of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences, are studying how pollutants accumulated along the Mississippi's 2,500-mile course are stored in river sediments in the lower river. Their hypothesis is that seasonal weather patterns may affect the bio-geochemical conversion of such pollutants, perhaps tying river pollution levels to the Mississippi's flow level.

The team's project breaks new ground by looking systematically at short-term variabilities. "In a river you see as much change in 12 hours as in 12 months," said McKee, who has also received funding from the National Science Foundation for his work. Field sampling, stretching 100 miles from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, is being conducted on the R/V Pelican, a river research vessel owned and operated by the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.

While unraveling some of the basic biochemistry of the environmentally vital region where the Mississippi meets the Gulf, the findings can be applied to river systems around the world. The first major river study undertaken by Tulane, the project may also be the first step in the university becoming an international center of multidisciplinary river research, said McKee.

McKee, Bianchi and John McLachlan, director of the CBR, envision a world-class teaching and research center at Tulane, including a research lab and vessel based on the New Orleans riverfront. Such a facility would likely be part of a future Mississippi River Museum, a project recently proposed by a White House council on environmental quality as part of the American Heritage River Program. The CBR is initiating a feasibility study that will consider possible funding sources for such a center.

"A Mississippi research center could be a metaphor for the kind of research, teaching and learning the entire university is pursuing," said McLachlan. He pointed to the CBR's Mississippi River Interdisciplinary Research (MiRIR) program as an example of the kind of innovative research and teaching such a center could promote.

Among other projects, Tulane and Xavier researchers in the MiRIR program are planning remote monitoring stations on the Mississippi that would collect scientific data from the river year-round. A New Orleans-based research center could address a broad scale of river issues, said Bianchi, including localized pollution problems in the lower Mississippi, the impact rivers have on marine life and the interaction of river systems with oceans, atmosphere and climate changes worldwide.

"All of this is in line with the way the university is moving with multidisciplinary approaches and linking departments that wouldn't have been linked before," said Bianchi, pointing to Tulane's new doctoral program in earth and ecosystem sciences as another example of this approach. "This is a trend at universities nationwide and very important in linking faculty and students across the university."

While coastal shorelines have long been the focus of scientific study and conservation efforts, river systems are a relatively new area of research. Their impact on both land and sea, however, is enormous. The Mississippi drains more than 40 percent of the land of the lower 48 states, provides drinking water for 27 percent of the U.S. population, and accounts for more than 60 percent of the fresh water and sediments carried to the ocean by U.S. rivers.

"The university is sitting on the edge of one of the world's major rivers--a very unique environmental system," said McKee. "We should focus on using that resource and creating a niche for Tulane."

McKee and Bianchi will share preliminary findings of their river research with colleagues from across the nation on Nov. 20 and 21, when Tulane hosts a national conference on river studies. Called RioMar (an acronym for River-dominated Ocean Margins), the conference will explore innovative multidisciplinary approaches to river research with an emphasis on the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya River, its principal distributary. The two rivers offer scientists a chance to compare and contrast two different coastal environments.

"The conference is a chance to bring people from around the country to New Orleans and show them firsthand what's going on here with river research," said Bianchi. "To gain recognition in the field, you don't just go after grants."

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