Posts Tagged ‘science’

Conservation group buying unusual Ottawa Valley cave complex

Channel spring Gervais Property. Photo by: Daniel Brunton for Nature Conservancy Canada, used by permission

Channel spring Gervais Property. Photo by: Daniel Brunton for Nature Conservancy Canada, used by permission

Nature Conservancy Canada (NCC) is negotiating the purchase of a 75-acre property with most of the entrances to the Gervais Caves, located near Westmeath, Ontario, about 90 miles west of Ottawa.

The Gervais Caves are said to be among the longest underwater cave systems in Canada (see more on that below).

From the NCC’s webpage on the project:

Beneath the surface of the Ottawa River lies a subterranean wonderland seldom seen by the human eye – the Ottawa River Caves. The labyrinth measures over 10 kilometres in length under several islands throughout the Ottawa River, and includes a four kilometre section on the Ontario side of the river known as the Gervais Caves.

Small pool in the forest after high water. Image courtesy of Nature Conservancy Canada

Small pool in the forest after high water. Image courtesy of Nature Conservancy Canada

Additional funds are still being raised to complete the purchase, which is ranked as a high priority by the organization.

The most important features of the property are the karst landscape and sinkholes associated with the Gervais property. Karst landforms are an important variant of landforms created by flowing water. Water is routed underground via solutional cave systems instead of flowing at the surface in normal river channels.

At least 13 of these sinkholes are connected to the Ottawa River through this extensive network of underwater caverns. Fish such as sturgeon, walleye and smallmouth bass can be found hiding in the nooks of the caves.

Above ground, the Gervais property is just as impressive. This site is full of life – home to over 135 native vascular plant species and a number of at-risk plant species, including the endangered butternut tree, the provincially-rare Hooker’s orchid, regionally-rare moonseed and Hitchcock’s sedge. The mature forest features exceptionally large examples of Eastern white cedar, including two trees over 90 centimetres in diameter that are many centuries old.

Ottawa River shoreline showing limestone rock in which the caves have formed. Image courtesy of Nature Conservancy Canada

Ottawa River shoreline showing limestone rock in which the caves have formed. Image courtesy of Nature Conservancy Canada

Ottawa Citizen science reporter Tom Spears had more to say about the caves and the fish population within:

Their passages range from one to 38 metres wide. There’s no vegetation in the dark caves, but clams, crayfish, eels and sturgeon move in and out from the river.

Veteran cave diver David Sawatzky told a Citizen reporter several years ago about being ambushed by a school of pike during one zero-visibility dive.

“There are some fairly aggressive fish in the Ottawa River, and they’re in the caves as well. It’s like being punched,” he said. “Some of the larger fish hit very hard, so I got punched a few times by fish. When one hit my hand, I didn’t let go (of the rope). I sort of expected it might be coming.”

The caves aren’t for amateur explorers.

“These are pretty treacherous and completely flooded. It’s not like a system that you can walk into,” said Gary Bell of the Nature Conservancy.

Pretty on the surface. Spooky down below: two layers of murky caves – with attack fish. It’s great they’ll be preserved and I’m content to learn about them from others.


Footnote: This list of underwater caves calls the Gervais caves the second longest in Canada. Yet another ranks it at number 13. Perhaps it depends on qualifying definitions?

Here’s another site with an array of info and photos on Caves of Ontario


Maple trees and species migration

"Comfort Maple" (est. 500 years old), Pelham, Ontario, Canada Allegedly, Canada's oldest and/or largest Sugar Maple Acer saccharum. circa 1500 A.D. Located near Fenwick, Ontario. Image by Mac Armstrong, Creative Commons

“Comfort Maple” (est. 500 years old), Pelham, Ontario, Canada Allegedly, Canada’s oldest and/or largest Sugar Maple Acer saccharum. circa 1500 A.D. Located near Fenwick, Ontario. Image by Mac Armstrong, Creative Commons

There’s a lot happening in studies of possible effects of climate change and species migration.

Sometimes this concerns the the big picture, as with an alarming study from the National Audubon Society that half the bird species of North America are at risk of extinction by century’s end.

There’s also the migration of unwanted things, as with an Associate Press item this week about new tree pests showing up in New York State.

One school of thought holds that animals and plants may simply migrate to new territory, so to speak. Moving north, for example, if cooler temps are needed. That could happen naturally or with human help, as with the concept of assisted migration.

But (big surprise!) factors surrounding what grows where turn out to be somewhat complex. Case in point: a recent experiment on maple seed germination in Quebec.

Canadian Geographic interviewed the study’s led author, Carissa Brown, an assistant professor of biogeography at Memorial University in Newfoundland.

In a series of what Brown described as “character building” experiments, her team lugged about 800 litres of earth up and down the kilometre high Mont-Megantic in southern Quebec. Doing so allowed the team to simulate northward migration by simply changing elevation. Instead of moving the soil to higher latitude, they took it up the mountain where the temperatures were comparably cool.

To ensure their results were being determined by factors other than climate, they brought soil from high on the mountain, outside the sugar maple’s range, down to the heart of the tree’s range and planted the winged seeds kids often call “helicopters.”

They found that even in the best climatic conditions, planting seed in soil from outside the tree’s range resulted in less seedlings taking root, meaning trees would naturally have problems expanding their range. But the real surprise was waiting for the scientists at the top of the mountain, where they’d transported the good soil.

“We came to our pots and instead of finding seedlings we found the seed wing, but instead of a seed attached to it, we found little bite marks,” Brown says.

Whatever was eating the seeds was stifling the sugar maples’ range expansion more than other factors such as soil quality. To prove it they ran another series of experiments using cages to protect some seeds, and found that when protected and planted in good soil, the seeds would germinate at high elevation.

Here’s a link to the study “Non-climatic constraints on upper elevation plant range expansion under climate change“. And here’s more discussion about sugar maple range and climate change from 2011.

Tapping a sugar-maple tree, Ohio. Keystone View Company -- Publisher, Creative Commons

Tapping a sugar-maple tree, Ohio. Keystone View Company — Publisher, Creative Commons

Arctic tour puts unintended spotlight on climate change

This August, Stephen Harper became the first Canadian Prime Minister to travel to the Northwest Passage. Photo: Prime Minister's Office

This August, Stephen Harper became the first Canadian Prime Minister to travel the Northwest Passage. Photo: Prime Minister’s Office

For 9 years running, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has spent part of his summers touring Canada’s Arctic regions, including this year’s Operation Nanook 14.

He goes to wave the flag and bolster territorial claims in the area. He goes in anticipation of a coming boom once resources and shipping are more accessible. And many think he goes from a genuine respect for the history and potential of the far north.

On tour, or back in Ottawa, what Canada’s most important political figure seldom discusses is a little thing called climate change. Which is odd, considering how the Arctic absolutely, utterly proves that something big is happening to our planet.

Particularly in the U.S., one can still get arguments about the cause of receding glaciers, changes in sea ice, and shifts in weather, animal and plant life. But in the Arctic, it’s virtually impossible to deny major changes are happening, often even faster than initially predicted.

Residents there know that first-hand. The Arctic Rangers, a mostly-indigenous civilian reservist force that patrols the region, say nearly everything is changing. As reported by the Canadian Press:

“The elders used to be able to predict the weather by looking at the clouds; they can’t do that anymore. You can’t predict the weather anymore,” was a typical comment on the impact of climate change, which has reduced snow cover, led to earlier springs and generated fiercer winter winds.

Snowmobiles are becoming less available as the snow disappears, making it harder to travel.

“We never used to have forest fires. Now we have more and more each summer,” said one participant.

“There are new species now like small birds, ducks, salmon, foxes, grizzlies and an unknown species that is a cross between a polar bear and a grizzly,” said another. “We never used to see any of these species before.”

Meanwhile, staples of the indigenous northern diet — caribou, seal and polar bear — are migrating north to escape the warmer weather, leaving fewer animals to hunt.

“Polar bears used to be fat and tasty,” said one ranger. “They taste different now.”

And the Arctic is no longer a natural refrigerator for the hunt, said some.

“When we are on the land and living in tents, we dig holes to put the carcasses in to keep them frozen. Now even six feet down it is not frozen.”

Natural Resources Canada map showing

Natural Resources Canada map of estimated burn sites near Yellowknife NWT, toward the end of the 2014 fire season.

CBC news reports the fire season has been unusually bad in the Northwest Territories this year:

The worst forest fire season in decades has ravaged about 33,000 square kilometres of land — an area larger than the size of Vancouver Island.

Most of the destruction has been in the North Slave region, where Alfred Arrowmaker hunts and traps.

“I went out weeks ago, looking for moose, and there was nothing there. Everything is burned. There is absolutely nothing out there,” Arrowmaker says.

“I have lived in Gameti my whole life, and I have never seen this kind of fire in my life before.

Micheal Den Tandt traveled with Prime Minister Harper’s entourage for Postmedia News. Summarizing the tour, Den Tandt said it went very well, on the whole. With two glaring exceptions.

Problem one is improving the many frustrations and poor conditions still faced by Canada’s indigenous populations. And, as Den Tandt put it,

The second elephant in the room is, of course, climate change. In the Arctic this is neither debate nor symbol; it is a fact on the ground. Moreover, it’s one the government clearly recognizes, at least in deed. The opening of northern sea routes now in its infancy underpins virtually every aspect of the Harper government’s Arctic strategy, from the search for the Franklin ships, to the need to project sovereignty northward, to the military’s Operation Nanook on Tuesday, which envisioned a tourist ship running aground in York Sound, near the Davis Strait.

None of this would be happening were it not for the gradual withdrawal of the summer ice. Climate change is a fundamental to the emerging geography of the Canadian Arctic. And yet, the two words “climate change” were not uttered a single time over the span of six days, by the PM or any of his ministers, that I am aware of. At this late juncture, with the Arctic so central to their plans, that is simply astonishing.

Readers who are still with me are probably interested in the Arctic as a region. So I wanted to call attention to a fascinating article in the New York Times on the mystery of what happened to the Dorset, an Arctic people who survived well in isolation for 4,000 years before vanishing about 700 years ago.

The article concerns a new study published in Science Magazine this August ”The genetic prehistory of the New World Arctic“ which examined DNA evidence to conclude the Dorset were not absorbed into surviving populations.

Researchers feel the Dorset likely had problems caused by their too-isolated gene pool. But the coup de grâce may have been environmental, according to New York University professor Todd R. Disotell (who was not part of the DNA study):

Another possibility, Dr. Disotell explained, is that the Dorset braved generations of harsh tundra conditions only to succumb to the effects of climate change. In the Arctic, even minor shifts in temperature can devastate marine life, cutting off vital food sources. The archaeological record, in fact, suggests that several such events had nearly wiped out the Paleo-Eskimos before.

“When you’re dealing with sea ice, just a few degrees can be transformative,” Dr. Disotell said. “Three bad winters in a row where you can’t hunt seals, and you’re in trouble.”

Of course, some will seize upon the fact that climate has changed – dramatically – long before humans were burning carbon counts as another challenge to today’s understanding of global warming and its causes.

But maybe the salient point is this: climate change matters. Argue all you like about what causes it. Just admit that some of these shifts become issues of survival.

A striking image from the Prime Minister's 2014 Arctic tour.

A striking image from the Prime Minister’s 2014 Arctic tour. Photo: PMO

If the U.S. “stinks” at math, what’s the fix?

Students cheering at MoMath's Second Annual Suffolk County Middle School Math Tournament  (Image MoMath)

Students cheering at MoMath’s Second Annual Suffolk County Middle School Math Tournament (Image: MoMath used by permission)

Earlier this week the most emailed story from the New York Times asked “Why do Americans stink at math?

It’s a worthwhile article, if long. But, in general terms, it’s true: America’s math skills need work.

Numbers that indicate mediocrity at best come from sources like the Programme for International Assessment, or PISA. Their 2012 assessment of math competency for 15 year-olds (in 65 countries) ranks Canada in 13th and the U.S. in 36th place.

The problem is fairly visible but solutions remain elusive.

Many fault how math is taught, including Glen Whitney, a key founder of the National Museum of Mathematics. Located in New York City, “MoMath” is the only one of its kind in North America - in contrast to Germany, which has several math museums. Other countries with math museums include Japan, South Korea, Italy, Spain, Japan and Hungary. (Of course, many museums and similar institutions in the U.S. include material that is very much related to math.)

Interviewed by Molly Petrilla for Smart Planet, Whitney expounded on ways math gets misunderstood, or improperly presented, in the U.S.:

In the roughly 2,000 hours of math instruction you get in traditional K-12 school, you get a non-representative view of what mathematics as a human enterprise is like. You learn that every problem has a specific method, and it’s just a matter of matching up the problem to the method. If you follow that recipe, you will get the one correct answer. There’s no sense of creativity or imagination or beauty or exploration. I think exploration is at the core of what mathematics is as an enterprise.

There’s also this impression that math is utterly linear. If you reach an obstacle — whether it’s something you find difficult or just don’t like — under the linear model of math, you’re done. You can’t proceed. Math must not be for you. That image is wrong. Mathematics is actually extremely bushy. There are so many different areas, and there’s no need for people to feel that if they don’t like one area, then they don’t like math at all.

In a separate NYT Op-ed, math teacher Jordan Ellenberg says a good place to start is to make engaging games out of various math concepts.

For all the excitement around using math creatively, some would counter that better grounding in plain old fundamentals can’t hurt either. As different generations are exposed to new math, newer math or (most recently) common core math, an immense source of frustration comes when parents cannot understand content well enough to help kids with homework. NCPR’s David Sommerstein blogged about this in 2012 — see if you can handle his daughter’s first grade math work.

Of course, complaints that the young leave school poorly educated are not confined to low math skills. This is part of the bigger problem of what should be taught, how does that happen best and who’s going to make any of that happen?

But sticking to math, do you see a problem? How would you fix it?

The science – and silliness – of sinkholes

This 1977 photo is described as "Dead sea ecological disaster - Sinkholes"

This 1977 photo is described as “Dead sea ecological disaster – Sinkholes”

Every so often some new sinkhole makes the news.

This week the local hole worth knowing about opened up in West Quebec and closed Highway 148 between Luskville and Quyon.

That got me poking around the Internet on the subject of sinkholes in general.

Here’s a graphic from Canadian Geographic on how they form. That page included links to a few notorious sinkholes, like the one that shallowed cars at the National Corvette Museum.The Corvette Museum reportedly plans to keep their sinkhole, apparently it’s become a big draw.

Then there’s the big gulp of this watery sinkhole that just sort of eats trees.

A sinkhole in downtown Ottawa last February was linked to tunneling for the construction of a new light rail project.

But why stop there? Here’s a round up from ABC news of impressive sinkholes from around the world. And a Q&A from the UK’s Independent asking why we seem to be seeing so many of them all of a sudden.

Need more? How about memes on what caused a recent sinkhole in Malaysia (Godzilla, among others) including yet one more use for duct tape.

In case any fellow Luddites are wondering “Um, what’s a meme?”  Wikipedia explains the concept (pronounced “meem”) thusly:

…an activity, concept, catchphrase or piece of media which spreads, often as mimicry, from person to person via the Internet.[1] Some notable examples include posting a photo of people lying down in public places (called “planking“) and uploading a short video of people dancing to the Harlem Shake.

Of course, some might say the Internet is just a giant mental sinkhole. But it can be fun sifting goodies out of the muck.

On a more sobering note, we may be in for more problems of this nature, considering the interplay of humans and their sprawl combined with more flooding and more frequent heavy downpours.

Two new bear cubs move in at Watertown’s Thompson Park Zoo

One of the two new bear cubs. Photo via Facebook

One of the two new bear cubs. Photo via Facebook

I love bears, so you don’t know how excited this makes me. Basically, my entire life has been a lead up to the moment in which I get to hold one (as long as the mama bear isn’t around).

The Watertown Daily Times reports that the two female cubs were given to the zoo by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency.

The cubs arrived at the zoo in mid-March (more information is on the zoo’s Facebook page).

WWNY-TV reports that after they spent some time in quarantine and acquainted themselves with the zoo staff, the bears are now sharing an exhibit space with Tess, the zoo’s three year old bear cub who has lived at the zoo for about a year.

Although the American black bear is the smallest of the three bear species found in North America, this type of bear is widely distributed throughout North America from Canada to Mexico and resides in at least 40 states in the U.S.

Historically, the American black bear occupied nearly all of the forested regions of North America. But in the U.S., this kind of bear has for the most part been restricted to more secluded forested areas.

To celebrate the bears’ arrival, the zoo will host its first annual Teddy Bear Picnic on July 12 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., with loads of bear-themed activities. On this day, the zoo will offer discounted admission to children who bring their teddy bear. For more information, check out the zoo’s website.

If you can’t wait until you can get to Watertown to see the bears, here’s a video of the two ladies from the Watertown Daily Times. Enjoy!


Clarkson alum will help America explore space again

The Orion spacecraft. Photo: NASA/Daniel Casper

The Orion spacecraft. Photo: NASA/Daniel Casper

Later this year, Herkimer native and 1994 Clarkson University graduate Michael Sarafin will be a big part of America’s return to space exploration.

In (probably) November or early December (more from the Watertown Daily Times), the Orion’s Exploration Flight Test-1 will be launched (a handy fact sheet from NASA). The Orion program began in 2005, and Sarafin came on board two years ago.

The Orion, according to NASA, is

built to take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before. Orion will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.

Cool. Sarafin, whose brother also works at NASA, will serve as the flight director at the Mission Control Center in Houston. According to the paper, Sarafin will be “responsible for Orion’s Exploration flight Test-1 from start to finish.”

You might be wondering what a flight director does. Here’s more information from a recent Clarkson press release:

Leading a team of flight controllers, support personnel and engineering experts, a flight director has the overall responsibility to manage and carry out space shuttle flights and International Space Station expeditions. A flight director also leads and orchestrates planning and integration activities with flight controllers, payload customers, International Space Station partners and others.

There’s a lot more information about the mission in the WDT article. If the Orion’s first flight is successful, NASA will arrange another unmanned test flight that will last roughly two weeks. If the second test flight is successful, NASA will be ready to send humans into space in Orion. But, Sarafin says “based on funding, we probably won’t be sending humans until 2021.”

So a Clarkson alumnus is attempting to make history at NASA who is also semi-local. This is exciting, both because it recalls the excitement of the Apollo era, and because it’s something new in space exploration. What are your memories and what do you hope to see come out of NASA’s next expedition?

Online museum collections: overwhelming, useful and fun

You would expect to see a dinosaur skeleton or two at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, but there's a lot more to it. For example--a public online database of 710,000 records of plants, animals, fossils, and minerals. Photo: Robert Linsdell, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

You would expect to see a dinosaur skeleton or two at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, but there’s a lot more to it. For example–a public online database of 710,000 records of plants, animals, fossils, and minerals. Photo: Robert Linsdell, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Technology sure can be a double-edged sword. Besides examples of excess in surveillance – or equally sinister pursuits –  in other wonderful ways knowledge is being set free, for all to see and use.

Take things like free e-books from Project Gutenberg. (It’s not new, but maybe more people should know about it.)

Along similar lines, many museums are digitizing their records and collections, making such material available to researchers or interested persons around the world. Examples include the British Museum: “There are currently 2,126,783 records available, which represent more than 3,500,000 objects. 823,748 records have one or more images.”

That’s pretty overwhelming, so try narrowing it down to something manageable, like artifacts recovered from the ruins of Pompeii. From which one can see singe items, like this wall painting of a bird pecking at cherries, or a portrait of a man and woman to make ancient times feel like people who once lived real lives.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (regular adult admission $25) has 258,856 searchable items one may view for free online, many of which are not on display, such as this queen from a deck of playing cards, circa 1470-80.

Want more? Try the Smithsonian for everything Americana. (Drill down for local content, such as an 1866 painting “Whiteface Mountain from Lake Placid” by Sanford Robinson Gifford, or ”Group skijoring behind 1920′s automobile“.)

Well, you get the point. It’s not that everything is, will be (or should be) available online. But more and more stuff is, from soup to nuts.

This week the Canadian Museum of Nature announced their own contribution to the world of online access. From this recent press release:

Ottawa, March 26, 2014—The Canadian Museum of Nature, Canada’s national museum of natural history, has launched a free scientific database featuring open access to more than 710,000 records of plants, animals, fossils, and minerals that are part of the museum’s national collections. The searchable online resource is accessible through the museum’s web site at

The digitized records represent about one-quarter (or 22%) of the museum’s estimated 3.2 million “cataloguable units” of biological and geological material. Overall, the museum estimates it manages more than 10.5 million individual specimens that have been acquired over more than 150 years. The collections, which cover Canada and other parts of the world, are stored and curated at the museum’s Natural Heritage Campus in Gatineau, Quebec.

Now, this museum’s collection encompasses all of Canada (and more), which may seem “foreign” in some respects. But Canada and the U.S. (including New York and Vermont) share vast similarities in the realm of plants, animals, minerals and so forth. Which means this very much counts as a local resource for NCPR country too.

As detailed by Tom Spears in the Ottawa Citizen (speaking with plant scientist Jeff Saarela):

“With the Internet, we can share the information with the world,” mainly researchers, says Saarela.

The high resolution shows tiny details needed to identify plants. “It’s almost like a microscope where you can zoom in,” Saarela said.

“But it’s also accessible to the public,” he noted.

This opens up information to amateur birders, gardeners, nature lovers, high schools and the merely curious.

Before he ended up in Hawaii, my maternal grandfather did a fair bit of botanizing in places like the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Sable Island and Newfoundland. He had the good fortune to be hired to do summer expeditions for the Canadian government while completing a PhD, circa 1912-17. Much of that work went to the Canadian Museum of Nature. Using the advanced search function of this new data base, I could almost instantly compile a list of plant specimens he collected – along with a map of where they came from. With apologies to Grandfather, and other plant scientists, I’m not actually very interested in taxonomy. But what fun to “see” his travels and imagine him as a more-wholesome Indiana Jones. (A fair number of natural scientists have Hollywood-worthy wilderness adventures – minus the Nazis, supernatural religious relics or grave robbing.)

I don’t know which part of exploring museum collections appeals to you, if any. I just think it’s amazingly cool that so much is now at our fingertips.

In the realm of natural sciences, there’s even a clearinghouse portal for online data:

The Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) is an international open data infrastructure, funded by governments.

It allows anyone, anywhere to access data about all types of life on Earth, shared across national boundaries via the Internet.

Happy browsing and successful research to all.

Stargazers: Earth Hour starts Saturday at 8:30 pm

Cities around the world dim their lights each year for Earth Hour--the better to see the stars. Photo: Christian Haugen, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Cities around the world dim their lights each year for Earth Hour–the better to see the stars. Photo: Christian Haugen, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Love it or hate it, it’s back. Earth Hour will be marked by many around the globe tonight from 8:30 – 9:30 pm, local time.

This hour of action represents a magnificent rallying point, silly symbolism, or something in between, depending on your own point of view. A side-effect of going dark is how well that makes light pollution more apparent. And with so many lights switched off, it’s a good opportunity for armchair astronomy.

Here’s an experiment from National Geographic to measure light pollution by working off the Big Dipper and the North Star – can you see the stars that make up the Little Dipper?

If you live within reach of Ottawa, the Science and Tech Museum offers periodic stargazing for the public, including a session that starts at 8 pm tonight:

Stargazers of all ages enjoy an evening of astronomy at the Museum’s Helen Sawyer Hogg Observatory. Weather permitting, visitors can look through the historic 15-inch telescope at the stars, the planets, and the Moon.

It’s free but donations are appreciated. If that’s your cup of tea, once things warm up a bit more, the Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society holds public stargazing events from May – Oct.

This is moving further and further afar from Earth Hour, but I also came across an obituary for John Dobson, who did much to popularize star gazing. As written up for the New York Times by Douglas Martin (1/21/14):

Mr. Dobson, who died last Wednesday at 98 — or, as he might have put it, 123 days into his 99th orbit around the sun — is credited with developing the first high-powered portable telescope that amateur astronomers could build inexpensively, and tens of thousands have done so. Dobsonian telescopes, as they are known generically, are still a popular item on the market, though Mr. Dobson chose not to benefit from them commercially.

It’s nice to recognize that sort of selflessness.

(Saturday morning postscript, 10 am) 

Here is more on why admirers praise the Dobson telescope, or how to build your own.

New Canadian app tracks vaccinations, outbreaks

Getting a flu shot. Photo: Lance McCord, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Getting a flu shot. Photo: Lance McCord, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

The fractious issue of childhood vaccinations is back in the news in Ottawa after health officials here recorded the first case of measles since 2011. (And it’s amazing how little the whole subject has changed since I was a new parent well over 20 years ago.)

The pro-science side decries those who refuse to vaccinate, whether the reason stems from complacency or opposition. The concept of community immunity (AKA “herd immunity”) is explained and re-explained. Conversely, those who question conventional medical wisdom are back to defending their views or their right to make that choice.

The whole tempest makes this an excellent time to introduce a new app to help track vaccinations. As reported by the CBC:

Ottawa Hospital researchers have developed a free app to help Canadians store, manage and access immunization information.

Dr. Kumanan Wilson of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute said the ImmunizeCA app will also alert users if there’s an issue in their area, such as the recent measles outbreak in Ottawa.

“So that would be in the outbreak section, they would see how close they are to the where the report is,” he said.

“They could see if their family is up to date. They may say, ‘Oh, time to get Johnny vaccinated. It’s time to get catch up the vaccine.’”

The app is privacy-protected and not accessible to any health agency.

The Ottawa Citizen details how Dr. Wilson came up with the app idea after a casual discussion with a neighbor in a park. He worked with an electrical engineering student, Cameron Bell, to come up with something better than the traditional shot card. According to the Citizen:

A prototype version of their app has been available for Ontario residents since 2012. As of this week, an improved version is available for residents across Canada at

The national app, which is a collaboration between the Canadian Public Health Association, Immunize Canada and The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, not only helps people to manage their own health information — letting them know when and if they are due for immunization — but provides information about vaccines.

It also links to a U.S.-based mapping system that can inform the user of any vaccine-preventable outbreaks in their proximity. Although recent measles outbreaks have been widely publicized, Wilson noted that members of the public often aren’t aware when there are nearby outbreaks.

An Internet search reveals a fair number of apps with similar functions in the U.S.

When I was at that stage of parenting, the official form was a yellow shot card issued by the State of Hawaii. The new Canadian app described above sounds like a useful aide, but I can’t see that it would serve as proof of immunization. What is the format for vaccination record keeping where you live now?

Just to throw gas on this already-hot fire, I straddle both sides. I think many (most?) immunizations are reasonably safe. Statistically speaking, shots have saved innumerable lives. But I also mistrust the push to immunize against each and every disease imaginable, at the earliest possible age. It seems to me that can be taken too far.

When it comes to health, I would argue one size does not fit all. I’d even go one further and say science is great, but it is not infallible.