You are here

Michela Burla uses computer modeling to illustrate human impact on the mighty Columbia River

August 8, 2010 Michela Burla

The recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship, Michela Burla left her native Italy in 2001 with a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering to join OHSU’s Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction (CMOP) and begin her Ph.D. thesis, The Columbia River Estuary and Plume: Natural Variability, Anthropogenic Change and Physical Habitat for Salmon. She successfully defended in July 2009 and will officially earned her degree last June. “The river and its plume is a relatively unique system,” she said. “It is important to the geography and social culture of the region, as well as being a key river for salmon production and fishing.” She was, you might say, lured.

Dr. Burla used computer modeling to study natural variability and change in the lower river system, and compared it with the changes wrought by human development. “The estuary has undergone significant human development in the past 150 to 200 years,” she said. “Development brings conflict. Hydropower production, diking and dredging, and other human activities all have an impact, particularly on salmon.” Dr. Burla’s research also uncovered interesting differences in the way the plume – the area of brackish water formed by the mixing of salt and fresh water off the mouth of the river – may affect survival of different salmon species. “The plume is a highly variable feature in the system, responding within hours to wind shifts off the mouth of the Columbia River and to daily, seasonal and interannual changes in river discharge. “Steelhead appear to take advantage of the plume to move quickly away from the coast, where predation is high, for a more direct migration route to the Gulf of Alaska. Changes in the plume structure, however, do not appear to affect survival of Chinook salmon, which reside for a longer time closer to shore.”

Dr. Burla worked closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, D.C., during her studies, also completing a policy fellowship with the agency. She is currently a resident in Europe, where she hopes to build on her findings and use the techniques she developed during her Ph.D. studies to increase understanding of similar environmental systems there.

“I had no background in oceanography or computer modeling,” she said. “But CMOP uniquely gave me the chance to do what I love – interdisciplinary work melding many different environments, players and backgrounds. It was very interesting to put all the pieces together.”


Article written by the Office of the Dean, OHSU School of Medicine

Related Links

» Video of Dr. Burla’s thesis defense
» OHSU School of Medicine news website
» National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website