(Credit: Dan Stillman) Lissa Lyncker is studying the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the blue crab population of Lake Pontchartrain.
A Story of Survival and Science
MAY 08, 2007By Press Release, NASALake Pontchartrain may be best known as the source of floodwaters that devastated much of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. For Lissa Lyncker, the lake is both the culprit responsible for destroying the homes of many of her family and friends, and the laboratory in which she conducts scientific research in pursuit of a master's degree in biological sciences. Pontchartrain, the second-largest saltwater lake in the nation, has played an integral role in Lyncker's life from the beginning. She grew up in Irish Bayou, a small fishing community along the lake's southeastern shore near Slidell, La. Most of her family members are commercial fishermen -- shrimpers and crabbers. "I would say that is where I gained my love and respect for the species I study," she said. That species is blue crabs, a resource valuable to Louisiana’s ecology and economy. Blue crabs are not only an important link in Pontchartrain's natural food chain, but also a significant contributor to Louisiana's $3.3 billion commercial and recreational fisheries industry, as estimated by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. In search of blue crabs, Lyncker, a University of New Orleans graduate student, traverses the 1630-square-kilometer (630-square-mile) oval-shaped Pontchartrain by boat. She’s interested in seasonal variations in the amount and location of young blue crabs. Such information is helpful when planning projects to protect and preserve Pontchartrain, the focus of a federally authorized restoration effort since 2000. To learn more about how and why blue crabs end up where they do, Lyncker tracks water circulation in the lake using images from the Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, or MODIS, an instrument on board NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. This portion of her work is funded by a fellowship through NASA's Graduate Student Researchers Project. Tides, currents and the overall circulation pattern of the lake are largely influenced by the Gulf of Mexico, which feeds saltwater into Pontchartrain through narrow channels on the lake’s east side. Water movement can be identified in MODIS images, because sediment carried within circulating waters shows up brightly in contrast to the rest of the lake.
Tides and currents impact Pontchartrain's blue crabs from the very start of their life cycle. After mating, females release their eggs at the peak of high tide, just as the tide is about to retreat back toward the Gulf. This ensures that the eggs are transported toward the Gulf's higher-salinity waters -- blue crab larvae require a high salinity for optimal development. Later, the young crabs use incoming tides to re-enter Pontchartrain, then use currents to reach suitable habitats around the lake. As Lyncker conducts both on-the-water and satellite research of Pontchartrain, she can’t help but think about how the lake's overflowing waters changed her life and the lives of so many others. It was August 2005 when an approaching Hurricane Katrina abruptly halted Lyncker's studies. Before leaving town, Lyncker and her family spent several days tying down boats, boarding up windows, securing crab traps, and carrying freezers full of soft-shell crabs upstairs to avoid the impending storm surge. Then, on Aug. 28, a day before Katrina made landfall near the Louisiana-Mississippi border, they packed up their personal belongings and drove north. For two weeks, they stayed with friends in Columbus, Miss., glued to the TV for news from home.
The news wasn't good. Most of Lyncker's family and many of her friends lost everything. Lyncker and her mom were among the lucky ones. Incredibly, their house was still standing. "We were watching the TV as they did a flyover of Irish Bayou and we saw our house," Lyncker said. "Me and my mom almost hit the ceiling. I thought for sure it was gone." After a couple of weeks in Columbus, Lyncker and her family returned to the Slidell area where, for a time, they lived off of water and military-provided meals-ready-to-eat. School and research would have to wait while Lyncker and the rest of southeast Louisiana focused on cleaning up and starting over. The first trip back to their house was an eye-opening -- and nose-covering -- experience for Lyncker and her mom. Amid the mostly external damage to the house and the destruction of the surrounding neighborhood, was the smell of spoiled crabs. "All the freezers inside had thawed, and the soft-shell crabs were rotting," Lyncker said. "The smell was putrid." About a month after the storm, Lyncker drove out to California to stay with a friend. She was able to take classes online, but her research had to wait until she returned to Louisiana a few months later. Fast forward to now, more than 19 months after Katrina. Many in Lyncker's family are still homeless. Some live with Lyncker and her mom while they all continue to put their lives back together. Meanwhile, Lyncker's exploration of Pontchartrain's blue crabs is back into full swing. She's been delayed, but not discouraged. "I guess I had a six-month-or-so setback. I could have probably graduated last semester or last summer had Katrina not hit, but I'm OK with my situation," she said. "I came back to New Orleans and began again just like everyone else. What else could we do?" Through projects such as the Graduate Student Researchers Project, NASA continues the agency's tradition of investing in the nation's education. The project is directly tied to the agency's major education goal of strengthening NASA and the nation's future workforce. Through this and the agency's other college and university efforts, NASA will identify and develop the critical skills and capabilities needed to achieve the Vision for Space Exploration.For more information about NASA visit www.nasa.gov.