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Morss Colloquia Focus on Science and Society

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Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution launched a new program, hosting three “Morss Colloquia” since October 2006. Enabled by a generous grant from Elisabeth and Henry Morss Jr., the public colloquia concerned “issues of global importance that are con-nected to human society and involve some aspect of science.”

In October, hazard management officials, scientists, and coastal managers assembled to consider “Lessons from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.” Organized by WHOI marine policy researcher Di Jin and geophysicist Jian Lin, the colloquium included Stephen Atwood of UNICEF, who was director of emergency operations for the 2004 tsunami; Philip Berke, a University of North Carolina professor who conducted research on post-tsunami recovery efforts by inhabitants; and Emile Okal, a Northwestern University profes-sor who has conducted extensive earthquake and tsunami research worldwide.

“The Morss Colloquium brought together two traditionally separated research communities—natural and social scientists, along with emergency response personnel—to discuss a major issue, and it offers the promise of doing multidisciplinary research in the fu-ture,” Lin said.

WHOI biologist Rebecca Gast organized a colloquium in November 2006 focusing on lingering biological and public health ef-fects of Hurricane Katrina. Floodwaters from the September 2005 disaster damaged New Orleans’ infrastructure, including waste dumps and sewage treatment facilities, putting citizens at risk of bacterial and viral infections. In the months following the flood, researchers from WHOI, the Marine Biological Laboratory, and four other institutions teamed with colleagues from Louisiana State University to study the microbiological impact of the storm.

At the Morss Colloquium, hosted by the Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health, Gast and the research team gathered to share and compare results on the presence, abundance, and fate of pathogens and toxins in the water and sediment of Lake Pontchar-train. The workshop and public event allowed scientists to compare their findings and assemble them into a publication that appeared May 2007 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In January 2007, the third Morss Colloquium convened researchers from four continents to discuss research on a period in Earth’s history whose climate resembles today’s. Organized and led by WHOI paleoclimate scientist Jerry McManus, the public presentation was titled “Fire and Ice—Climate Changes of the Past ... and Future?”

Approximately 400,000 years ago, Earth had just emerged from an ice age (much the way it did 10,000 years ago) into a so-called interglacial period with relatively stable climate (much like our climate today). A key difference, however, is that no human activity had impacts on the environment then, as it clearly does now. At the Morss-sponsored public debate in Woods Hole, researchers dis-cussed what this interval in our geologic past can tell us about our climate future.

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