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An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

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In Wake of Japan’s 2011 Tsunami, Citizen Scientists Comb California Beaches Counting Debris

Man with clipboard and bag walking on beach.

A volunteer counts and collects the marine debris washed up at Drakes Beach in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. (NOAA)

It all started more than five years ago on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. A devastating earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan in 2011, ultimately sweeping millions of tons of debris from the coastline into the ocean. But it wasn’t until June the following year, in 2012, that a 66-foot-long Japanese dock settled on the Oregon coast and reminded the world how the ocean connects us.

NOAA’s Kate Bimrose explained how this event and the resulting concern over other large or hazardous items of Japanese debris spurred the start of NOAA monitoring programs on beaches up and down the West Coast and Pacific islands. She coordinates the program that monitors marine debris in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off the north-central California coast.

Thanks to funding from NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, the first surveys in this sanctuary near San Francisco took place in July 2012, a month after the Oregon dock made an appearance. No previous baseline data on debris existed for the shores along this California sanctuary. The only way anyone would know if Japan tsunami marine debris started arriving is by counting how much marine debris was already showing up there on a regular basis.

Training a Wave of Citizen Scientists

Graphic showing an example 100 meter stretch of beach with four 5 meter transects.

Following NOAA Marine Debris Program monitoring protocols, volunteers survey the same 100 meter (328 foot) stretch of beach each month, randomly choosing four sections to cover. Next, they record every piece of trash bigger than a bottle cap in those areas. (NOAA)

To find out how much trash and other manmade debris was washing up, Bimrose trained a small group of dedicated, volunteer “citizen scientists” to perform monthly surveys at four regular California beach sites. Three are located in Point Reyes National Seashore and one is in Año Nuevo State Park, but all are fed by the waters of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

Following NOAA Marine Debris Program monitoring protocols, once a month two volunteers head to the same 100 meter (328 foot) stretch of beach, using GPS coordinates to locate it. Next, they randomly pick four sections, each five meters (nearly 16.5 feet) long, to survey that day. This ensures they cover 20 percent of the area each time.

For those areas, the volunteers record every piece of trash they find that is at least the size of a bottle cap, or roughly an inch long. Having this size standard increases the reliability of the data being collected, providing a more accurate picture of what the ocean is bringing to each beach. NOAA is confident that volunteers are able to scan the sand and find the majority of items larger than an inch sitting on the surface of the beach.

Taking Things to the Next Level

Bottle with Asian characters on the cap.

While volunteers occasionally turn up debris bearing Asian characters, no items reported from this program have been confirmed from the 2011 Japan tsunami. (NOAA)

All of the data volunteers gather—from number of items to types of material found—gets entered into a national online database, which will allow NOAA to determine trends in where, what, and how much marine debris is showing up. Leaving the items behind reveals how debris concentrates and persists on shorelines, information which is lost when debris is hauled off the beach.

While gathering this information is useful, Bimrose admitted to one sticking point for her: none of the debris is cleaned up from these four beach locations.

“We want to be able to remove the debris,” she said. “It’s painful for all my volunteers to be out there and record it and not remove it.” However, the good news is that a June 2015 expansion to this monitoring program has added two new beach locations to the rotation, and after volunteers record the debris there, they pack it out. In addition, Bimrose takes out larger groups of one-time volunteers to those locations and trains them on site, creating a broader educational reach for the program.

Bimrose hopes to recruit local school groups as well as businesses to volunteer. Before each survey at the new locations, she introduces the sanctuary and the monitoring program, while passing around mason jars filled with the trash collected at past surveys to give volunteers an idea of what to expect.

These new monitoring sites receive more recreational use than the previous ones, and at least for the one at Ocean Beach, a heavily used shoreline in the heart of San Francisco, that means finding a lot more consumer trash left on the beach.

From clothes and cigarette butts to food wrappers and even toilet paper, the surveys at Ocean Beach are markedly different from those surveys further north at Drakes Beach, the other new site. There, volunteers count and remove mostly small, hard fragments of plastic that appear worn down by sun and sea, indicating the majority of the debris there is brought to shore by the waves, not beachgoers.

Survey Says

Long blue piece of boat insulation sitting on a table.

A volunteer surveying a beach in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary found this piece of insulation from an elite sailboat that broke apart in San Francisco Bay in 2012. The debris took two months to travel to a shoreline 60 miles north. (NOAA)

After four years of monitoring and roughly 150 surveys, what have they found so far on the north-central California coast? More than 5,000 debris items recorded in all, which, as Bimrose said, is “a good amount but not too crazy.”

Expanding to six survey sites from four only increases what they can learn about debris patterns in this area. As more data roll in, NOAA will able to outline the regional scope of the problem and see patterns between seasons, years, categories, and locations of debris accumulation. One thing that is likely not to change, however, is that plastic debris dominates. It constitutes about 80 percent of the trash found at all sites.

While volunteers occasionally turn up debris bearing Asian characters, no items reported from this program have been confirmed from the 2011 Japan tsunami. Through other partners associated with beach cleanups however, three pieces of Japan tsunami debris have been confirmed in California. The most recent was a large green pallet with Kanji lettering that landed on Mussel Beach just south of San Francisco. The discovery reinforces the importance of continuing to monitor debris along sanctuary beaches and shows us how items can persist in the ocean for years before sinking, breaking up, or landing on shore.

Another unusual example linking a piece of debris to the exact event that released it occurred in 2012. During a training run for the America’ Cup sailing race, an $8 million boat capsized and broke apart in San Francisco Bay on October 16, 2012. Two months later, one of Bimrose’s volunteers discovered a piece of insulation from that boat on a beach about 60 miles north.

Every month, Bimrose tags along with at least one pair of volunteers for their survey of one of the four “survey-only” beach sites. On one such occasion, one volunteer, an older gentleman, brought along his wife, who was puzzled by her husband’s constant chatter about “his” beach. According to Bimrose, a lot of the surveys could be considered rather clean or even monotonous. But even so, after a day walking and counting with him, the volunteer’s wife told her, “I totally get it, why he comes out here and rearranges his schedule to do this.”

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University of Washington Helps NOAA Examine Potential for Citizen Science During Oil Spills

Group of people with clipboards on a beach.

One area where volunteers could contribute to NOAA’s scientific efforts related to oil spills is in collecting baseline data before an oil spill happens. (Credit: Heal the Bay/Ana Luisa Ahern, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This is a guest post by University of Washington graduate students Sam Haapaniemi, Myong Hwan Kim, and Roberto Treviño.

During an oil spill, how can NOAA maximize the benefits of citizen science while maintaining a high level of scientific integrity?

This was the central question that our team of University of Washington graduate students has been trying to answer for the past six months. Citizen science is characterized by volunteers helping participate in scientific research, usually either by gathering or analyzing huge amounts of data scientists would be unable to do on their own.

Dramatic improvements in technology—particularly the spread of smartphones—have made answering this question more real and more urgent. This, in turn, has led to huge growth in public interest in oil spill response, along with increased desire and potential ability to help, as demonstrated during the 2007 M/V Cosco Busan and 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill responses.

As the scientific experts in oil spills, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has a unique opportunity to engage citizens during spills and enable them to contribute to the scientific process.

What’s in it for me?

Our research team found that the potential benefits of citizen science during oil spills extend to three groups of people outside of responders.

  • First, professional researchers can benefit from the help of having so many more people involved in research. Having more citizen scientists available to help gather data can strengthen the accuracy of observations by drawing from a potentially greater geographic area and by bringing in more fine-grain data. In some cases, citizen scientists also are able to provide local knowledge of a related topic that professional researchers may not possess.
  • The second group that benefits is composed of the citizen scientists themselves. Citizen science programs provide a constructive way for the average person to help solve problems they care about, and, as part of a collective effort, their contributions become more likely to make a real impact. Through this process, the public also gets to learn about their world and connect with others who share this interest.
  • The final group that derives value from citizen science programs is society at large. When thoughtfully designed and managed, citizen science can be an important stakeholder engagement tool for advancing scientific literacy and reducing risk perception. Citizen science programs can provide opportunities to correct risk misconceptions, address stakeholder concerns, share technical information, and establish constructive relationships and dialogue about the science that informs oil spills and response options.

How Should This Work?

Volunteer scrapes mussels off rocks at Hat Island.

A volunteer samples mussels off of Everett, Washington, as part of the citizen science-fueled NOAA Mussel Watch Program. (Credit: Lincoln Loehr, Snohomish County Marine Resources Committee)

Recognizing these benefits, we identified three core requirements that NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration should consider when designing a citizen science program for oil spills.

  1. Develop a program that provides meaningful work for the public and beneficial scientific information for NOAA.
  2. Create a strong communication loop or network that can be maintained between participating citizens and NOAA.
  3. Develop the program in a collaborative way.

Building on these core requirements, we identified a list of activities NOAA could consider for citizen science efforts both before and during oil spill responses.

Before a response, NOAA could establish data collection protocols for citizen scientists, partner with volunteer organizations that could help coordinate them, and manage baseline studies with the affiliated volunteers. For example, NOAA would benefit from knowing the actual numbers of shorebirds found at different times per year in areas at high risk of oil spills. This information would help NOAA better distinguish impacts to those populations in the event of an oil spill in those areas.

During a response, NOAA could benefit from citizen science volunteers’ observations and field surveys (whether open-ended type or structured-questionnaire type), and volunteers could help process data collected during the response. In addition, NOAA could manage volunteer registration and coordination during a spill response.

How Could This Work?

Evaluating different options for implementing these activities, we found clear trade-offs depending on NOAA’s priorities, such as resource intensity, data value, liability, and participation value. As a result, we created a decision framework, or “decision tool,” for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration to use when thinking about how to create a citizen science program. From there, we came up with the following recommendations:

  1. Acknowledge the potential benefits of citizen science. The first step is to recognize that citizen science has benefits for both NOAA and the public.
  2. Define goals clearly and recognize trade-offs. Having clear goals and intended uses for citizen scientist contributions will help NOAA prioritize and frame the program.
  3. Use the decision tool to move from concept to operation. The decision tool we designed will help identify potential paths best suited to various situations.
  4. Build a program that meets the baseline requirements. For any type of citizen science program, NOAA should ensure it is mutually beneficial, maintains two-way communication, and takes a collaborative approach.
  5. Start now: Early actions pays off. Before the next big spill happens, NOAA can prepare for potentially working with citizen scientists by building relationships with volunteer organizations, designing and refining data collection methods, and integrating citizen science into response plans.

While there is not one path to incorporating citizen science into oil spill responses, we found that there is great potential via many different avenues. Citizen science is a growing trend and, if done well, could greatly benefit NOAA during future oil spills.

You can read our final report in full at

Sam Haapaniemi, Myong Hwan Kim, and Roberto Treviño are graduate students at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. The Citizen Science Management Project is being facilitated through the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment. It is the most recent project in an ongoing relationship between NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment.

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10 Unexpected Reasons to Join This Year’s International Coastal Cleanup

Volunteers in a boat use nets to remove debris from waters in Honolulu.

Volunteers collect debris from the water during the 2013 International Coastal Cleanup in Honolulu, Hawaii. (NOAA)

There are plenty of obvious reasons to join the more than half a million other volunteers picking up trash during this year’s International Coastal Cleanup on Saturday, September 20, 2014. Keeping our beaches clean and beautiful. Preventing sea turtles and other marine life from eating plastic. Not adding to the size of the garbage patches.

But just in case you’re looking for a few less obvious incentives, here are 10 more reasons to sign up to cleanup.

Weird finds from the 2013 International Coastal Cleanup. Credit: Ocean Conservancy

Weird finds from the 2013 International Coastal Cleanup. Credit: Ocean Conservancy

After this one day of cleaning up trash on beaches across the world, you could:

  1. Furnish a studio apartment (fridge, TV, complete bed set? Check).
  2. Get ready for an upcoming wedding with the wedding dress and veil, top hat, and bowties that have turned up in the past.
  3. Outfit a baby (including clothes, bottles, high chairs, and baby monitor).
  4. Find your lost cell phone.
  5. Adopt a cyborg sea-kitty.
  6. Make friends with the 200,000+ others participating in the United States.
  7. Get some exercise (and fresh air). In 2013, U.S. volunteers cleaned up 8,322 miles of shoreline.
  8. Create a massive marine debris mosaic mural with the nearly 2.3 million, less-than-an-inch long pieces of plastic, foam, and glass found on beaches worldwide.
  9. Stock up the entire United States with enough fireworks to celebrate Fourth of July (and then organize a Fifth of July cleanup).
  10. Help you and your neighbors benefit millions of dollars by keeping your local beaches spic-and-span.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program is a proud sponsor of the International Coastal Cleanup and we’ll be right there pitching in too. Last year NOAA volunteers across the nation helped clean up more than 1,000 pounds of debris from our Great Lakes, ocean, and waterways in Washington, D.C.; Alabama; Washington; Oregon; California; and Hawaii.

Join us on Saturday, September 20 from 9:00 a.m. to noon and help keep our seas free of trash with any one (or all) of these 10 easy steps:

10 things you can do for trash-free seas. Credit: Ocean Conservancy

10 things you can do for trash-free seas. Credit: Ocean Conservancy

You can find more trashy facts in the Ocean Conservancy’s 2014 Ocean Trash Index.

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Apply for a NOAA Marine Debris Removal Grant

This is a post by Asma Mahdi, Outreach and Communications Specialist for the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

Divers work to remove tires from Osborne Reef in Broward County, Florida.

Broward County tire removal efforts from Osborne Reef in Florida. (Broward County)

The NOAA Marine Debris Program, in cooperation with the NOAA Restoration Center, has opened a fiscal year 2014 federal funding opportunity for marine debris removal. This opportunity paves the way for communities to implement marine debris removal projects that create long-term ecological improvements for coastal habitat, waterways and wildlife, including migratory fish.

Past projects have removed various types of debris from all over the country, including tires from Osborne Reef in Florida, wood pilings at Point Molate in California, and derelict lobster traps in Maine. Projects have restored critical habitat, such as coral reefs, raised community awareness about the debris problem, and even helped open up public beach access to previously closed areas.

From the grant application description:

A principal objective of the NOAA Marine Debris Program is to provide federal financial and technical assistance to grass-roots, community-based activities that improve living marine resource habitats through the removal of marine debris and promote stewardship and a conservation ethic for NOAA trust resources.

In order to track project success, funded projects will need to be able to report the total amount of debris removed (metric tons), total area or extent cleaned or restored (acres and/or miles), types of debris encountered, and volunteer hours involved.

The deadline for applications is November 1, 2013. Learn more and apply at

UPDATE 9/6/2013: You can check out the 11 community projects that have been awarded nearly $1 million for marine debris removal this year.

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Join the International Coastal Cleanup and Clean up a Beach Near You

Plastic bottle caps picked up from a beach on Midway Atoll.

Help pick up marine debris where you live on September 21 with the International Coastal Cleanup. Marine debris is a global problem, even for places like the middle of the U.S. or a remote Pacific island. The plastic bottle caps shown here were collected from Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands by NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. (NOAA)

Worried about the amount of trash on our coasts? Do gyres of bobbing plastic whirl through your head each night? Help wipe these worries from your mind and the beach by joining the International Coastal Cleanup on September 21, 2013.

With more than 550,000 volunteers scouring beaches, rivers, and lakes last year, this event is the biggest one-day cleanup of marine debris in the world. In the past, volunteers have turned up everything from bottle caps and plastic bags to toilet seats and cyborg sea-kitties. But each year cigarette butts take home the prize for most common item of debris found on the beach, with 2,117,931 of these toxic pieces of plastic turning up during the 2012 global cleanup alone.

To volunteer at a location near you, visit Ocean Conservancy online. The NOAA Marine Debris Program is a proud sponsor of the annual event, and last year NOAA volunteers cleaned up more than 2.8 tons (nearly 5,700 pounds) of debris from waterways and beaches in DC, Seattle, and Oahu.

Even if you can’t make it to your nearest waterway on September 21, you can still help reduce how much trash makes it to the ocean by planning your own beach cleanup and considering these 10 suggestions from Ocean Conservancy:

10 things you can do for trash free seas


Kelp Forest Restoration Project Begins off Southern California Coast

This is a post by Gabrielle Dorr, NOAA/Montrose Settlements Restoration Program Outreach Coordinator.

A volunteer diver removes urchins from an urchin barren to encourage the settlement of kelp larvae.

A volunteer diver removes urchins from an urchin barren to encourage the settlement of kelp larvae.

After 15 years of scientific monitoring, research, and planning, the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation (SMBRF), with funding and technical assistance from NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program (MSRP), begins a large-scale kelp forest restoration project [PDF] off the coast of California’s Palos Verdes peninsula this July. SMBRF will bring kelp forests back to life in an area that has experienced a 75% loss of kelp canopy.

Nearly 100 acres of reef habitat along the Palos Verdes coast is covered by “urchin barrens,” where the densities of urchins are extremely high and kelp plants are non-existent. Sea urchins are spiny marine invertebrates that live on rocky reef substrates and feed mostly on algae. When sea urchin populations are kept stable, they are an important part of a healthy kelp forest ecosystem.

On the other hand, in an “urchin barren,” urchin densities get very high because predators rarely feed on urchins, preferring the greater cover and higher productivity of healthy kelp forests. The urchins in barrens are also in a constant state of starvation, continually expanding the barren area by eating every newly settled kelp plant before the kelp has a chance to grow. These urchins are of no value to fishermen and urchin predators because they are undernourished, small, and often diseased.

See what an urchin barren looks like:

Kelp forests provide critical habitat for many fish species.

Kelp forests provide critical habitat for many fish species. (NOAA/David Witting)

To bring back the kelp forests, volunteer divers, commercial urchin divers, researchers, and local nonprofit groups will assist SMBRF with removing urchins from the “urchin barrens” and allow for natural settlement of kelp plants. Divers’ removal of the urchins will allow for kelp plants to grow and mature, which can happen quickly since the plants often grow up to two feet per day.

Within a year, SMBRF expects that many of the characteristics of a mature kelp forest will return, including providing suitable fish habitat for important commercial and recreational fish species. The mature kelp forest will support greater numbers of urchin predators, such as birds, fish, crabs, lobsters, octopuses, sea stars, and sea otters, which will help to maintain more sustainable levels of urchin populations in the future.

NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program is providing funding for this project as part of its plan to restore fish habitat in southern California. MSRP was developed in 2001 following a case settlement against polluters that released the toxic agricultural and industrial chemicals DDTs and PCBs into the southern California marine environment. MSRP has allocated settlement funds to restore natural resources that were harmed by these chemicals, including impacts to fish habitat due to their presence in ocean sediments.

Learn more about the kelp forest restoration project [PDF], including details about how and where it will happen.

Gabrielle Dorr

Gabrielle Dorr.

Gabrielle Dorr is the Outreach Coordinator for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program as part of NOAA’s Restoration Center. She lives and works in Long Beach, California, where she is always interacting with the local community through outreach events, public meetings, and fishing education programs.

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Eyes in the Sky to Boots on the Ground: Three Powerful Tools for Restoring the Gulf of Mexico

Volunteers. The Internet. Remote sensing. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration has been using all three to deal with the environmental aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. At Restore America’s Estuaries’ recent conference on coastal restoration [PDF], three of my colleagues showed how each of these elements has become a tool to boost restoration efforts in the Gulf.

Managing Data

OR&R scientist George Graettinger explained how responders can use remote sensing technology to assess damage after a major polluting event, such as the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill. He has helped develop tools that allow both Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialists and responders to visualize and manage the onslaught of data flooding in during an environmental disaster and turn that into useful information for restoration.

Here, the ERMA Gulf Response application displays information gathered by SAR remote sensing technology to locate oil in the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP incident.

Here, the ERMA Gulf Response application displays information gathered by SAR remote sensing technology to locate oil in the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP incident. (NOAA) Click to enlarge.

The principle tool for this work is OR&R’s ERMA, an online mapping platform for gathering and displaying environmental and response data. During the Deepwater Horizon response, ERMA pulled in remote sensing data from several sources, each with its own advantages and disadvantages:

  • MODIS and MERIS, NASA satellite instruments which each day captured Gulf-wide oceanic and atmospheric data and photos during the Deepwater Horizon response. While very effective in the open ocean, these sensors do not perform well in coastal waters [PDF].
  • AVIRIS, another NASA sensor which took high-resolution infrared imagery from a plane to estimate the amount of oil on the water surface. Its disadvantages included being able to cover only a small area and being limited by weather conditions.
  • SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar), a satellite radar technology with super-fine spatial resolution. This technology actually transitioned from experimental to operational during the 2010 oil spill response in the Gulf of Mexico. While very effective at “seeing” through cloud cover to detect ocean features, SAR does not allow easy differentiation between thinner and thicker layers of oil on the water surface.

Managing People

Volunteers plant vegatation to restore a section of Commencement Bay, WA which was injured by hazardous releases from industrial activities.

Volunteers plant vegatation to restore a section of Commencement Bay, WA which was injured by hazardous releases from industrial activities. (NOAA)

“If you spill it, they will come,” declared Tom Brosnan, scientist and communications manager for our Assessment and Restoration Division, at his presentation. “They” were the hordes of volunteers offering their eager help after the 2010 well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico caused the largest oil spill in U.S. waters.

Brosnan outlined some of the many challenges of using volunteers productively during an oil spill: legal liability, safety, technical training, logistics, reliability. The National Response Team, a federal interagency group coordinating emergency spill response, has taken a strategic approach to these challenges by creating guidelines for incorporating volunteers into response activities [PDF].

Brosnan also pointed out other great opportunities for harnessing the energy of concerned citizens for environmental restoration. One example was partnering with Citizens for a Healthy Bay in Tacoma, Wash. This is a community group soliciting and overseeing volunteer efforts to maintain already completed restoration projects making up for the decades of industrial pollution around Tacoma’s Commencement Bay.

Managing Communications

And no less important, explained NOAA communications specialist Tim Zink, is keeping people engaged after an oil spill is out of the public eye. For the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill, this has been a challenge particularly during the environmental damage assessment process. Zink described the difficulties of continuing to communicate effectively after initial interest from the media has diminished, of many different government trustee organizations trying to speak with one unified voice, and of the need for communication with the public to be framed carefully within the legal and cooperative aspects of the case.

He cited something as simple as a well-run online presence: the Gulf Spill Restoration website. This is a joint effort representing no fewer than three federal government departments (Commerce, State, and Interior) and five state governments. Well-organized and user-friendly, this website serves as a one-stop source of information about the ongoing effort to evaluate and restore environmental injuries in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill.

Among the closing speakers at the conference, Dr. Dawn Wright, chief scientist at GIS software company Esri, reinforced the importance of communicating “inspired science” to policymakers, communities, and other stakeholders throughout the restoration process. As a GIS specialist, she spoke to the many types of sophisticated spatial analysis that are available to anyone with a smartphone. The average person now has unprecedented access to geographic data on earthquakes, flu epidemics, and sea level changes. However, it is up to us to decide how we use these data-rich maps—and other tools—to understand and tell the story of environmental restoration.


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