People see an algal bloom and think it doesn’t affect them, but if it’s hurting a fishery or affecting water quality, the entire Cape suffers.
High schoolFalmouth High School, Falmouth, MA, 2012
When we spoke with Tyler Hampton, he was packing his bags for the long trip from Woods Hole, Massachusetts to Auckland, New Zealand, where he would sail around New Zealand’s coastline as part of a SEA Semester program focusing on a comparison between the ocean environments of New England and New Zealand. As an island nation, the health of New Zealand’s ocean, land, and people are bound together, a truth that resonates with a young man who grew up on a stone’s throw from Nantucket Sound in the Cape Cod village of Waquoit.
“As a kid, I became involved in the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve,” recalls Tyler. “Waquoit Bay is an important estuary for fish and other marine species, and the Reserve has many research programs focused on improving our understanding of coastal ecosystems. Through my involvement, I began to understand the ripple effect that Cape Cod’s dense development had had on the Bay. Lots of people on the Cape have septic tanks in lieu of public sewer systems. These tanks leak into the sandy soil, building up nitrogen levels. The nitrogen then washes into the Bay, causing algal blooms which kill fish and choke out native seaweeds. People see an algal bloom and think it doesn’t affect them, but if it’s hurting a fishery or affecting water quality, the entire Cape suffers.”
When he began studying at the University of New Hampshire, there was no question that Tyler wanted to focus on water. “Water is the great unifier,” he notes. His focus, however, has gradually shifted from pure science to understanding the human implications. “I started college as a geology major, which is essentially ‘the study of old things.’ When I began attending Thoreau Foundation meetings and talking with the people there, I found myself more and more drawn to the connection between the science and its implications for and people and policy. I eventually shifted my major to hydrology. It’s a geological science, but it’s a bridge between earth science—the physical—and the human and policy-oriented—the practical. Everyone needs water to survive.”
Tyler credits his involvement with the Thoreau Foundation for helping him forge these links. “When I was inducted as a Thoreau Scholar, it really hit home that people were looking to me to pursue an education and a career where I would become a leader in protecting the environment. That has remained a touchstone for me. I’m still studying the science that I love, but I’m thinking more deeply about the way it impacts the health of the environment in which we live.”
Tyler is now passionate about finding a public outlet for his work. “Water influences a million aspects of life as we know it. But for most people, the threat to global water systems, whether our oceans or groundwater aquifers, is out of sight, out of mind. That presents a huge challenge to making positive change. If we take a look at the current drought in the Western U.S., hydrologists had data on this problem a long time ago, but no one acted to prevent it. What I’m interested in is getting hydrology data out into the public sphere in a way that influences the policy debate before it’s too late.”
Next up for Tyler? The Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program at the Hubbard Foundation, where he will study forest hydrology and ecosystems in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
Tyler runs a tracer test of bacteria and saline solution through the subsurface of a pond bottom while working with the U.S. Geological Survey on Cape Cod.