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SC Press: Whit Gibbons retiring

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Posted by: W von Papinešu at Wed May 21 18:20:41 2008  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by W von Papinešu ]  

AIKEN STANDARD (S Carolina) 21 May 08 Renowned ecologist retiring - in a way (Rob Novit)
As a boy, Whit Gibbons lived in Alabama near a large river, spending a lot of time there and in nearby woods and swamps.
While in junior high, he connected with some folks from Tulane University, who let him join them on field trips to explore southern rivers and look at turtles.
"I just loved it," Gibbons said Tuesday. "It was always an adventure and I decided that's what I wanted to do as a career."
He became a professor of ecology at the University of Georgia. He's the senior research ecologist at the Savannah River Ecology Lab (SREL) at the Savannah River Site and heads the lab's environmental and education program. Gibbons writes a popular column on environmental issues and has written 10 books and hundreds of articles and research papers, many in collaboration with other researchers.
When he arrived at SREL in 1967, he anticipated staying for a year or so and moving on. More than 40 years later, Gibbons is still there. He plans to retire in June -- sort of. His energies will move more toward the outreach efforts -- ecology tours, workshops, educational materials and school visits. Gibbons will no longer teach his herpetology class at the University of Georgia and will no longer supervise new graduate students. Additionally, he is turning over the helm of several research projects to younger faculty at SREL.
Gibbons will continue with his column that's published in the Aiken Standard and distributed by The New York Times regional newspaper group. Through his column he makes ecology and the environment accessible.
In a 2003 column he started off: "What good is a rattlesnake? What good is a river clam?"
People aren't malicious when they ask questions like that. They just want to know the justification, Gibbons wrote. He explained how rattlesnakes can prevent an overrun of rats and mice. Clams can serve as early indicators of environmental problems and can serve as food for fish and birds that people tend to think of as worthwhile.
When Gibbons was finishing up his Ph.D at Michigan State University, jobs in the emerging ecology field were plentiful. He got six good offers and chose SREL "because they would let me do what I wanted to do, which was to study turtles and snakes."
In developing plans to open SRS, the Atomic Energy Commission had left buffer zones around the nuclear reactors, because no one knew what the environmental impact would be. Without actually intending it, officials had created a huge wildlife preserve without traditional industry or urban sprawl, allowing a substantial diversity of certain groups of animals and plants.
Much like the woods and swamps of his youth, Gibbons had found another playground, he admitted with a chuckle, but one that would encourage serious research.
In the early 1970s, none of the faculty at SREL was older than 35 and had yet to establish themselves in research and education. They had to campaign hard for graduate students, said Gibbons. Their reputations soon grew, however, and eventually, they had so many applications that they had to turn some students down.
He is currently working with two doctoral students on projects, bringing the total to about 50 during his career. Most of the research has been done onsite, but other students Gibbons has mentored have traveled to locales such as the Caribbean and Mexico.
Gibbons has been involved with one project that's been ongoing for 30 years and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. When the U.S. Department of Energy developed a defense waste-processing facility, a natural wetlands area called Sun Bay was eliminated. DOE officials funded a study at nearby Rainbow Bay to determine any losses in diversity.
"We came up with the idea to do this on a long-term basis," said Gibbons. "It became more than a monitoring project."
The scientists looked at the impact of global warming, how they responded to major climate changes. They saw changes in amphibians in response to natural succession. As the unchecked vegetation increased, gradual shifts in populations occurred.
Gibbons described how they found exactly one salamander of a certain species the first year of the project and two the following year. On a single day in recent years, researcher David Scott caught 8,000 salamanders.
One key finding is that no species were lost by the elimination of a single wetlands area. But there is no justification for eliminating all wetlands anywhere, said Gibbons.
Their research also concluded that amphibian populations are not predictable from year to year. The numbers can be influenced by the amount and seasonal aspects of rainfall. SREL has collected 30 years of data and no two years are alike, Gibbons said.
"Wetlands are absolutely essential to amphibian populations of the area, and we can't afford to lose many of them," he said. "The fact is that you can't look at many species of animals and get an assessment without a long-term study. You can't make decisions on managing habitats and environments on a short-term basis. It's done all the time, but that doesn't mean it's right."
Gibbons doesn't diminish what he considers SREL's vital role in looking at the impact of SRS facilities on the environment. The research staff communicates their findings to the scientific community, but also has an obligation to report such information to the public in the regional area.
"People do want to know what's happening out there," said Gibbons. "SREL is the conduit for the impact of operations and facilities on the environment."
These issues aren't simple yes or no questions. Waterfowl, deer, bullfrogs, turtles and other animals and amphibians are monitored for radioactivity. Essentially, none pose any serious health concerns to the public, Gibbons said.
In recent weeks he has given tours at SREL to officials with Savannah River Nuclear Solutions -- the firm that will take over management operations at SRS in August. Again, Gibbons believes SREL has capabilities that will help the company, providing information to the community about what's happening at the Site. Everybody needs creditability and SREL can be that credible unit, he said.
The lab is funded now on a basic level, and Gibbons hopes to get back near its former funding. SREL has some new faculty to work with more experienced scientists to continue existing projects and work on new initiatives.
Gibbons still will be around on what he calls his "qualified" retirement -- talking to kids and adults about SREL and ecology and all the "critters."
"It's been great and will continue to be great," he said.
Renowned ecologist retiring - in a way


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