Future Scientist Studies Road Salt Impact on Environment

March 9th, 2007 by Adam

Plymouth seventh grader Welles Mathison is like a lot of kids; he’s heard about and read stories concerning pollution and other problems threatening our environment. In particular, Mathison was worried about road salt affecting the Lakes Region. But unlike a lot of kids, Welles didn’t want to just read about it —he wanted to know more, and he wanted to do it himself.

“I have heard a lot about contamination in our lakes, I just wanted to prove it myself,” said Mathison.

His curiosity made his choice of a science fair project easy. Mathison decided to evaluate the concentration of chloride in local lakes to determine the impact of road salt in the water.

“I believe in helping the environment and this seemed like an interesting and fun project,” said Mathison.

Plymouth Elementary School science teacher Sarah Sanborn helped Welles understand the principles of the scientific method and testing design. Welles researched basic concepts of chemistry and effects of salt on vegetation and water quality. He then sampled a series of water bodies that he believed would be affected by road salt.

Welles then approached Amey Bailey at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest with his idea, and requested help in isolating and testing for salt concentrations. Amey referred him to PSU’s Center for the Environment, which offered a sophisticated laboratory with the necessary instrumentation for the analysis.

“Welles had good insight into the problem,” said Center for the Environment Director Steve Kahl. “He collected samples from a variety of locations that he believed had different levels of impact from road runoff.” At the high end of the scale was a site in Echo Lake, which had 34 parts per million chloride, indicating runoff from road salting. In contrast, two small remote ponds had only 0.5 parts per million, representing just the amount of chloride that is deposited in rain and snow on the watersheds of the ponds.

“When I went into the lab, I was able to grasp it more deeply,” said Mathison.

The Center for the Environment analyzed the samples using ion chromatography on a new two channel instrument recently acquired as part of the development of a regional service environmental laboratory in the Center. According to senior laboratory technician Adam Baumann, IC is “by far the best method for analyzing chloride in the environment.” In addition to developing a laboratory to support regional research, the Center is also developing a regional satellite laboratory at the invitation of the NH Department of Environmental Services. This role of the laboratory will serve river and lake associations and freshwater monitoring groups in the northern half of New Hampshire.

The Center has provided additional data on chloride to Mathison to include in his science fair project. Dari Sasson, a graduate student in the Center, is conducting an inventory of salt sources to watersheds in the I-93 corridor. Sasson has also provided Mathison information about road salt in the environment that may be useful in his project.

Mathison realizes that road salt is used to keep wintry roads safe for traveling and it is unrealistic to stop using it.

“There’s no question that we need road salt, but maybe we could design something that is more environmentally friendly.”

Kahl believes CFE’s involvement with area schools is a great idea. “It’s part of the regional university mission to engage people of all ages in issues of stewardship for New Hampshire and our way of life,” said Kahl. “We know that this type of partnership with young students and real-life scientific investigation can spark a keen lifelong interest in science and the environment. When we can serve the town of Plymouth in particular, so much the better.”

“It was fun, really amazing!” said Welles. “It was a very rich learning experience for him,” said Susan Mathison, Welles’ mother. “Thank you so much for helping to make that wonderful experience happen–a budding scientist right before our eyes!”

For more information on this release, contact Bruce Lyndes, PSU Media Relations Mgr., (603) 535-2775
of blyndes@plymouth.edu