Presenter's Essay and Bio
Have you ever thought about where your water comes from before it comes out of your kitchen faucet or tap? Those molecules of water have traveled around Earth as rain drops, flowed through rivers, sat deep beneath the ground, moved through the oceans, helped keep plants alive, and maybe even been drank by other animals before it ended up if your glass! Water molecules have moved around Earth like this for millions of years in what is called the hydrologic cycle. My research looks at the movement of water across the surface of the Earth, mostly through rivers and streams. It is easy for us to see how water moves across the Earth in rivers, which are very important for us and the environment. Rivers are the arteries of Earth, delivering vital nutrients to the organs of the landscape and bringing life to even the most remote places of society. However, with the help of society, the Earth has developed a very unhealthy diet, which harms the natural processes of rivers and their ability to deliver water, nutrients, and sediment.
Historically, many societies gathered around rivers and developed cities and villages. With the goal to develop the land, humans have greatly changed the shape and behavior of rivers. These changes are a result of mining, timber harvest, digging out the bottom of rivers so large boats can move up them, building cities and roads around them, and changing the amount of water that flows in rivers. To collect freshwater for drinking, growing food, and making every-day products, we have left only a small amount of water that naturally flows through some rivers. This is true especially in the western United States, like New Mexico, where populations in cities are growing and demand for water pulls a lot of water out of rivers. This changes the shape of rivers and the ability for rivers to support wildlife and the environment. The impact of societies on natural river systems is made worse by a changing climate. As temperatures increase, the demand for water becomes higher. My research and collaborative efforts with other scientists seek to explore the natural processes of rivers and how land use and climate change influence these processes. I do this by comparing how rivers mode water and sediment over time, how the shape of rivers change sediment and water movement, and how humans change the shape of rivers.
In the Café Scientifique how we get water from rivers, how this impacts the natural flow of rivers and wildlife, and what we can do to help. One of the main reasons we take water from rivers is for drinking water in cities and growing food, we do this by build dams to store that water in reservoirs. Dams and reservoirs store water that we can use throughout the year and can create electricity for use where there is a hydropower dam. Although reservoirs save water for when we need it and provide fun activities for families to go swimming and boating, it changes our rivers and hurts the river ecosystem (plants and animals living in and around the river). Dams can hurt the ecosystem by allowing less water to flow in rivers and by trapping sediment that normally moves down the river with water. This is important also for the coast and beaches along the ocean. When we trap sediment behind dams, beaches and important habitat for wildlife can disappear. Some fish grow up as they swim down the river, live their life in the ocean, and then swim back up the river (returning to their home town) to have offspring where they were born. Dams often stop fish from swimming back up the river, but some dams include fish “ladders” that help them get past the dam. This is one thing that can be done to lessen the impact of dams, but finding ways to decrease the number of dams we need is probably the most important. We can help by conserving water and trying to find ways to use less water. I do this by turning off the shower while I am washing and then turning it back on again to rinse. We can also turn the sink or faucet on lightly when we use it, and turn it off when we are not, so it’s not blasting out lots of water that we don't need. Using less electricity can actually decrease the amount of water needed when we get our power from hydroelectric plants.
As a society, we can (1) continue to develop solar and wind power so we do not have to build more dams, (2) make more efficient buildings so we do not need to use as much electricity, (3) use less electricity at home, (4) build dams with fish ladders and devises that help ecosystems live with dams, (5) increase the efficiency of our water use, especially in agriculture and growing food, (6) xeriscaping our yards so we do not have to use so much water on grassy lawns (this is the largest use of water in the US aside from agriculture), (7) eat less meat because it takes a lot of water to grow the food animals eat. Find out more about what you can do to help conserve water (https://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/urgentissues/water/how-you-can-help/index.htm ) and your personal water footprint (http://waterfootprint.org/en/water-footprint/personal-water-footprint/) or how much water you use by calculating your water footprint here https://www.watercalculator.org/wfc2/q/household/.
About the Presenter
Life is a river, but whether we float, swim, or sink, is up to each of us. If you have ever swum, canoed, or floated on a raft in a river, you may know what I mean. I am a firm believer in going where the current takes us, but also in planning ahead to make sure we don’t end up in a bad spot. Sometimes the current can take us to dangerous places, like into a large rock or tree. We might get caught up in an eddy where we keep circling back around over and over. On a rafting trip while I was doing research along a river once, I flipped in a kayak and was pulled to the bottom of river where the current was pushing me down. I cut my hands but was able to push myself away from the rocks below and emerge, much to the relief of my friends and colleagues. To avoid, mishaps like that, I like to keep my eyes forward, map out several possible routes, paddle hard when I need to, and see where the current takes me. This provides me with the flexibility to adapt to new situations without having my mind set or stuck on one possible outcome. The path (or stream) that got me where I am today is evidence of this.
I grew up in Ohio near Lake Erie and delivered furniture while I was in high school. I took mostly art classes, because it nurtured my creativity. I spent some summers hiking and camping in states around the country with my father and I developed an appreciation for nature. My parents encouraged me to think about college, but I didn’t prepare myself for it. I moved out when I graduated high school and started working numerous jobs, but eventually starting taking one class at a time at a local community college. My first photography course was very inspiring because I could combine my love for nature and creativity. I enrolled in a wide variety of classes including many other photography courses, art appreciation, humanities, music theory and appreciation, and science classes. I took philosophy, psychology, and sociology courses and thought I wanted to be a psychologist, until I ended up with a lousy professor who changed my mind. I focused on photography and started photographing weddings.
The courses I took began to shape my interests toward natural sciences while I continued photography. I was largely influenced by the environmental aspect of this paper as well as what I learned from my sociology professor from Africa about how much water Americans waste. The only course I took related to Earth sciences was a Physical Sciences course. Eventually, I earned my two-year Associate of Arts degrees in Universal Arts. I spent much of the time taking photographs and was inspired by the landscape photographer, Ansel Adams. His photographs show parts of the country people rarely saw, and helped those lands become designated as National Parks. Determined to make a difference in the world, I enrolled at a university to continue toward my Bachelor’s degree and declared Studio Art Photography my major. My photographs were primarily black and white landscape photography including depictions of nature, environmental issues, rocks, and water. I showed my photographs in numerous galleries and sold some for hundreds of dollars. It wasn’t until my first introduction to geology course that I realized that I could be a scientist if I put my mind to it! I was able to pull from the things I learned hiking and camping with my father so that geology seemed to come naturally to me. I decided to save up money and move to the western US where the geology was bare and exposed, like you see here in New Mexico. Back in Ohio, the rocks and land are covered by vegetation, so it’s difficult to see the rocks!
I enrolled in a university in Idaho and declared both Fine Art Photography and Geosciences a double major. I had an amazing professor that inspired me in a climate class where we learned about past climates of the Earth and the impact of climate change. She saw my potential and enthusiasm for science and offered me a job as a research assistant and introduced me to other professors. I ended up working in a laboratory and outside doing research in Idaho and Washington state with soils, water, geophysics, hydrogeology, and geographic information systems. One of these jobs included white water rafting on a world-class river, Middle Fork of the Salmon River, to do research on forest fires and sediment. Yes, one of those rafting trips was the time I thought I was going to drown when my kayak flipped. A senior thesis was formed from my work on one of those projects and I got an amazing scholarship through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
I didn’t finish my art degree and instead graduated with my Bachelors of Science in Geosciences from Boise State University. I decided to study how water flowing in rivers changes the surface of the Earth at Colorado State University for my Masters of Science degree in Geosciences doing research along desert streams. I conducted research on mountain streams in Colorado for my PhD in Earth Sciences at Colorado State University. By saying yes to opportunities and applying myself, I am now able to meet new people, share what I learn, ask and answer exciting questions, try to make a difference in the world, help people see the importance of water resources, and travel to different places around the world. My research has taken me to Idaho, Colorado, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, Washington DC, California, Virginia, Texas, Oregon, Arctic Alaska, Chile, Italy, and I even got to teach at a university in Vietnam! Learn more about my research here, https://nicholassutfin.wordpress.com/
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