With projects spanning the globe, Bren School of Environmental Science and Management Associate Dean John Melack’s work on water quality has recently earned him a national fellowship.
In recognition of his research and discoveries, Melack received a 2008 American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow Award. The scientist, who has devoted his career to studying water quality in a wide array of environments, became a globetrotter when he was still a Ph.D. candidate at Duke University. For three years he lived in Uganda and Kenya where he studied both fresh and saltwater lakes.
In 1977, he became a UCSB biology professor. Just three years later, he began working on the projects that recently earned him the prestigious fellowship. Additionally, Melack was the first to propose the construction of the Bren School, which is devoted to environmental science and management.
Currently, Melack studies such distinct environments as the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, the kelp forests off the Santa Barbara coast and the lakes of the Sierra Nevada. Yet the overarching theme of water connects all of his projects.
“These [projects] are all integrated because they are related to various aspects of water quality and the way organisms respond to aquatic conditions,” Melack said.
According to Melack, his primary focus is biology, but he also incorporates physics and chemistry in his work. In Brazil, he said he analyzes the wetlands and measures the greenhouse gases released as part of the Large-Scale Biosphere Atmosphere Project.
“The Amazon is a big place,” Melack said. “It’s about the size of the U.S.”
Melack said LBA uses remote sensing in its study. The team transmits radar signals to the ground and examines the energy. If the energy is enhanced, it means that flooding or vegetation exists in the area.
Meanwhile, east of Yosemite in Mono Lake, Calif., Melack studies saline levels, which he said changed after Los Angeles diverted fresh water from the Sierras in order to provide water for the city.
“It caused the lake level to decrease and the salinity to increase, which threatened the ecosystem,” Melack said. “The increasing salinity was reducing the photosynthetic rates by the algae in the lake and reducing the growth and reproduction of the brine shrimp. They are an important food source for the thousands of California gulls that breed at the lake.”
Melack said he became involved at Mono Lake because it is a productive ecosystem with low species diversity and therefore easy to experiment with, much like the saline lakes he studied in eastern Africa as a student. He said his findings have had concrete implications for the area’s water policy.
“Our findings contributed to a decision by the State Water Resources Control Board to revise the water allocation to L.A. from the streams entering Mono Lake,” Melack said.
While studying the ecology of the high altitude lakes in the Sierras, Melack said he has found instances indicating climate change.
“California really depends on the snow in the Sierras for its water supply,” Melack said. “[The lakes in the Sierras] are sensitive to pollutants and respond quickly to pollutants.”
Additionally, Melack started work off the California coast in 2000 with a team that studies land, streams and nutrients of the ocean and their influence on kelp forests.
“The main nutrients relevant to the kelp forests are nitrate and dissolved organic nitrogen,” Melack said. “We also measure phosphate, and suspended sediments from the rivers that also contribute nutrients and reduce light reaching into the water.”
Melack said that while the scientific aspect of his job is enjoyable, he prefers the travel his job affords him even more.
“One of the pleasures doing this kind of work is you get to do field work in different places,” Melack said.
The American Academy for the Advancement of Science, which awarded Melack his fellowship, is an international nonprofit organization that publishes Science, which has the largest paid circulation of all peer-reviewed general science journals.
The AAAS Fellows Program began in 1874, and to become a member, the Fellow is nominated by the Steering Groups of the Association’s 24 sections, three current AAAS Fellows or the Chief Executive Officer. This year, 471 members became Fellows, five of them from UCSB. New Fellows will receive an official certificate and rosette pin at the Fellows Forum in Boston in February.