Living near an ecosystem as biologically diverse as the Puget Sound presents an opportunity to experience first-hand the ways in which an ecosystem lives and breathes.
Published by the Puget Sound Institute – which is housed in UW Tacoma’s research center, The Center for Urban Waters – The Encyclopedia of Puget Sound explores that ecosystem through the stories of what is being done to protect and restore it.
What is the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound?
The Encyclopedia of Puget Sound is a collaborative effort with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the State of Washington’s Puget Sound Partnership that collects key scientific information regarding the Puget Sound and Salish Sea watersheds.
Puget Sound Institute Director and UW Tacoma Professor and Port of Tacoma Chair in Environmental Science Joel Baker conceived the site before assembling an editorial board of leading scientists to identify and review important content.
“The editorial board is composed of experts from the various disciplines that support Puget Sound recovery. Its role is to assess the quality and impact of the contributed articles,” Baker says. “Rather than sending each article out for a formal peer review by external experts, we rely on the editorial board. The board also participates by writing review articles."
Launched in October of 2012, the site has been "going strong ever since," according to its managing editor Jeff Rice. Since then, the encyclopedia has disseminated proposals and initiatives impacting Puget Sound across a varied set of groups and individuals who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to connect.
What kind of stories does the encyclopedia produce?
The encyclopedia is focused on publishing contributions from scientists, academics and policymakers that emphasize the recovery of Puget Sound. As an information portal, scientific research remains at the forefront of what the encyclopedia aims to present.
But it's not intended to be solely a cache for scientific data and cross-agency communication; it's also a great resource for anyone interested in Puget Sound and the species that live in the area. "The work with the scientists is probably the foremost thing that we do," Rice says "but there are also ways for the general public to interact with the encyclopedia."
A recent story in the encyclopedia concerns eelgrass, a small aquatic plant that is a vital component to the Puget Sound ecosystem. The importance of the plant is examined in-depth, but readers can also take the time to get better acquainted with the species by listening to the “faint, champagne-like bubbling of eelgrass,” which Rice captured using an instrument called a hydrophone.
“I think the eelgrass story was a nice example of what the encyclopedia does,” Rice says. “Here’s a plant that maybe most people don’t know much about. I certainly didn’t know much about it coming into this job, but it turns out it’s vital to the whole ecosystem. And so we wanted to tell a story about that, what’s happening with it and where things are headed.”
Who is reading the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound?
After conducting several surveys, the Puget Sound Institute found encyclopedia users were of all kinds, everyone from "hardcore scientists to teachers to just hobbyists, bird watchers or just people who are interested in what’s going on in Puget Sound," Rice says. "There can be a lot of different ways to use the encyclopedia."
However, just because the site attracts users from many different walks of life doesn't mean there aren't also challenges in making sure content is reaching as many readers as possible. More readers mean more opportunities to do well by Puget Sound.
As it turns out, the site's vast species library, which draws much of its content from the Encyclopedia of Life, and is used as a means of informing readers of the immense biodiversity in the area, is a big draw.
"Prior to the encyclopedia, you might ask, ‘Okay, what species live in the Puget Sound region?’" Rice says. "It seems like a fairly simple question. If we want to protect an environment and area, we should know what’s in it, right? One of the things we try to do on the encyclopedia is to say, ‘Here’s what we know about what occurs in the region.'
“And we put together these lists and there are various descriptions of various species, from zooplankton and invertebrates all the way to orcas and seabirds."
Interested readers can also stay informed through the encyclopedia's most recent collection of articles, 'Salish Sea Currents,' an online magazine which is the result of a partnership between EPA and the Puget Sound Partnership to tell the most interesting stories coming from the recent Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference.
"The conference is where the region’s scientists get together and share what they know. It’s a great opportunity to sort of tap into the brain trust of Puget Sound," Rice says, emphasizing a desire to make it accessible to all. "We’re trying to put these stories out so that not just scientists can understand, but the general public as well.
How does the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound envision the future?
Rice believes that the content the encyclopedia is currently developing has the potential to "reach every citizen in the Puget Sound region." And while he hopes that the information will continue to broaden its appeal, the trick is to balance the growth of the site with the encyclopedia's commitment to the scientists, to the scientific process and to inform the public about the needs of the environment.
"I would say that we’re not editorializing about the science; if you give people the right information, they’re going to be able to make the right decisions. So that’s our goal," Rice says.
As the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound moves into the future, the intent is to continue delivering detailed information that encourages a dialogue about biodiversity and helps individuals from all walks of life make well-founded conclusions regarding the environment.
“Eelgrass is a perfect example,” Rice says. “I think it’s important for the general public to understand and to know what makes up this ecosystem. They need this information presented in a way that is easy to understand and easy to access. And that’s what we’re trying to do with the encyclopedia.”
Learn more about eelgrass and hundreds of other species in Puget Sound by going to the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound website.
John Burkhardt, Media Relations, email@example.com, 253-692-4536