PSU Professor Co-Authors Study on Human Impact on Northeast Water Resources

December 3rd, 2010 by Adam

When the first colonists started building a new world in what would become the eastern United States, they chose areas where water was plentiful. Water meant everything in the pre-industrial age – it was a critical part of everyday life, from drinking to growing crops to transportation. Now, the colonial hydrology of the northeastern U.S. has been reconstructed by a team of geoscientists, biological scientists and social scientists who say they can help future planning efforts by examining our forefather’s use of waterways.

Red Mill Fall etching
“Red Mill Fall (Opposite Albany)” by William Tolman Carlton, 1847-1849 Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

The results appear in the current issue of the journal Environmental Science and Technology.The findings will lead to a better understanding of hydrologic systems now and in the future, the scientists say.

“We outline a methodology for synthesizing modern scientific data with historical records, including anecdotal sources,” says Christopher Pastore of the University of New Hampshire, the paper’s lead author. “It underscores the role of humans in an assessment of hydrologic change.”

Throughout American history, water resources have played an integral role in shaping patterns of human settlement and networks of biological and economic exchange, according to PSU Professor Mark Green, who contributed to the paper as part of his post-doctoral work.

“It highlights methods by which we can look at historical watershed hydrology, which is the first step in being able to learn from history. The process of bringing students from multiple perspectives – geoscientists, ecologists, and social scientists – together, we were able to produce new data sets and conduct preliminary analyses,” Green noted. “The lesson from this paper is about how we can approach complex environmental issues, an approach that arose from a group of students willing to collaborate across disciplines to pursue complex tasks. Quantifying historical watershed dynamics at a regional scale is a hard task to even imagine, but they rolled up their sleeves and used their ability to analyze and interpret new information, listened to the experts that have worked in this arena for years, and came up with their own method; a method that is producing new insights into the evolving human-water relationship in the Northeast.”

The scientists divided their study area into three geographic and socio-political sub regions: New England; the Middle Colonies; and the Chesapeake.
Specifically, they looked at the ways in which physical variables–such as soil, vegetation, and climate–combined with socio-political factors to influence each sub region’s hydrologic environment.

Green said his main goal was to understand how humans changed hydrology in the Northeast during the colonial era (1600 to 1800).

“We explored the idea that settlers’ culture had a major influence on how land was managed, how aggressively beavers were hunted, or where dams were constructed,” Green said. “For example, the Puritans of New England were more likely to look at North America as a new home, as opposed to settlers in the Southeast U.S. were more prone to quick cultivation of resources – like tobacco – that could be taken back to Europe for profit. Thus, we separated the Eastern U.S. into regions with somewhat similar cultures to see if we could detect differences in land management and channel damming between the types of cultures – and thus an overall watershed hydrologic difference.”

The study, according to Green, will be used in Plymouth State’s environmental science curriculum, because of its unique approach in examining a critical environmental issue.

“Environmental issues are multifaceted and we need to hear many perspectives to truly understand complex environmental dynamics.”

Other co-authors of the paper are: Daniel Bain of the University of Pittsburgh; Andrea Munoz-Hernandez of the City University of New York; Jennifer Arrigo of East Carolina University; Sara Brandt of the U.S. Geological Survey in Northborough, Mass.; Jonathan Duncan of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Francesca Greco of King’s College, London; Hyojin Kim of the University of California at Berkeley; Sanjiv Kumar of Purdue University; Michael Lally of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; Anthony Parolari of MIT; Brian Pellerin of the U.S. Geological Survey in Sacramento, Calif.; Nira Salant of Utah State University; Adam Schlosser of MIT; and Kate Zalzal of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Portions of this news release were developed by the National Science Foundation.

For more information about Plymouth State University’s Center for the Environment, contact June Hammond Rowan, (603) 535-3218 or

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