CELS Helps Tackle Rhode Island’s Climate Challenges at 17th Statewide Conference

The University of Rhode Island’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS) joined the state’s top naturalists and the public for a meeting of the minds about climate change.

The conference, Climate Change and Rhode Island’s Natural History Future, was hosted by the Rhode Island Natural History Survey (RINHS) in North Kingstown, Rhode Island in November, 2019. The gathering featured a variety of speakers who addressed a range of challenges facing RI’s natural resources as a consequence of climate change – from fish stocks and turtle species to salt marshes and forests. The group discussed strategies for protecting these natural resources in the future.

CELS professor emeritus and recent retiree, Peter August, opened the conference. A recipient of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Merit Award, he is now a member of the board of directors for RINHS and the Watch Hill Conservancy. August discussed Napatree Point conservation area, a dynamic ecosystem that visibly illustrates the consequences of climate change. The area regularly experiences nuisance flooding as a result of sea level rise, severe weather, and more. August emphasized that Napatree, hosting rich biodiversity but also heavy tourism and human activity, is a great example of climate change resiliency.

Another presenter, CELS graduate student Supria Paul, shared her research on how climate change is expected to impact the Scituate Reservoir, which provides drinking water for approximately 60 percent of Rhode Island residents.  “In New England, future climate projections point to increasing and more intense precipitation events, which can cause more severe floods and shifting flow patterns,” states Paul. “My research can be used to manage reservoir levels in anticipation of extreme weather events that will be occurring with more frequency as climate change intensifies.”

Janelle Couret, an alumnus of CELS who now works as an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, informed attendees about a surprising and innovative potential source of natural mosquito control: carnivorous freshwater plants. “My research analyzes how effectively bladderworts can predate mosquito larvae,” states Couret. She believes this natural pest control could be an important tool in mitigating the transmission of viruses such as Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) and West Nile, pathogens that may be spreading more rapidly in conditions caused by climate change.

The RINHS Conference also featured poster presentations by numerous CELS students, including Noah Hallisey, a CELS master’s student in biological and environmental sciences who studies road mortality of reptiles and amphibians. “Many of these animals migrate between uplands and wetlands to breed, and roads that intersect these migration corridors increase the risk of road mortality,” says Hallisey. “My research will be used by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to identify areas for infrastructure improvements that will reduce the rate of road mortality among these creatures.” According to Hallisey, with many reptiles and amphibians in decline globally in response to extreme weather and the changing climate, these infrastructure improvements are crucial in aiding conservation efforts of these vulnerable animals.

“I have been fortunate enough to work with faculty in CELS who have guided me and helped to further develop my skills and knowledge,” says Hallisey, who credits his CELS experience with starting him on this research path.

Professor Couret echoed those sentiments. “I’ve grown so much as a teacher, scientist and communicator over the last three years in CELS,” states Couret. “The CELS community has been welcoming and supportive and provided the resources and space for the growth of my research program in vector biology.”