Outmoded technology aids new research on Delaware Bay

Some days cutting-edge research, in order to move forward, needs a little blast from the past.

Penn State oceanographer Ray Najjar studies estuaries: coastal waters that mingle salt water with fresh, and are home to rich and complex ecosystems. In particular, he's interested in how these vital bodies may be impacted by climate change.

After years of focus on the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States, Najjar recently turned his attention to the neighboring Delaware Bay, and to possible changes in its salinity, which could have significant impacts on marine species and humans alike.

Predicting the future requires looking carefully at history. Some of the data Najjar needed to establish long-term trends for salinity were available online in routine water-quality records kept by the U.S. Geological Survey. For the rest, he turned to records gathered since the 1950s by Rutgers University scientists tracking the health of the bay's oyster beds.

When Najjar asked his colleagues at Rutgers for the oyster bed data, they were happy to oblige. "There was only one problem," he says, reaching for a cardboard box on a shelf in his office. The box sent from New Jersey is chock full of manila-colored computer punchcards.

Now it takes a certain maturity, shall we say, to remember this, but from the early 1960s to the mid-'80s, fat stacks of these cards were piled up everywhere, teetering on the edges of filing cabinets and bundled with red rubber bands. They were the standard currency for programming and data sets alike, feeding endlessly through gigantic, whirring mainframe computers. ("That was before my time," Najjar admits, "but just.")

Ray Najjar-punched cards 102

Ray Najjar, professor of meteorology, displays some of the punchcards that programmer Mike Loewen helped him to decipher. 

Image: Patrick Mansell

For today's desk-top jockeys, however, punchcard data might just as well be spelled out in Etruscan. "I had no way to read it," Najjar says. Undeterred, he mentioned the problem to Penn State IT guru Jim Leous, who in turn put him in touch with veteran programmer Mike Loewen.

By day, Loewen writes stingy (that's a compliment) code for Penn State's vast wage-payroll system. At night, however, with the only somewhat grudging acquiescence of his wife, he collects and refurbishes vintage computers. Loewen, who learned FORTRAN in high school in the 1970s, is "especially interested in 8-bit CP/M systems from the 1980s, before the IBM PC, but I'm also interested in other technologies."

Is he ever. His collection, catalogued on a nest of websites, includes several HP minis, a brace of Kaypro portables, an Osborne Vixen, and a whole slew of Tandy TRS-80s, among a score of other working specimens. "My wife is okay with it as long as it doesn't wind up in the living room," Loewen says. She can't really complain about the cost, anyway: He bankrolls his hobby playing trombone, tuba, and euphonium ("and trumpet, if pressed") in local and regional musical ensembles.

When Najjar came calling, Loewen had just the ticket: A fully functioning Documation M1000L tabletop card reader he had purchased on eBay. It had last been used to count election ballots in Harris County, Texas, he says, "and has the chads to prove it."

By itself this chunk of hardware would have been of little use, but Loewen had also built, from a fellow hobbyist's design, a USB interface that allows programs to read cards in a Windows environment. "So I got together with Ray and we spent an hour and a half running these cards through the reader," he recalls.

Some cards were warped, so they had to be fed in small batches. A few were simply unreadable, Loewen reports, " but I have an IBM keypunch as well [circa 1971], so we just repunched them." They checked the readout against entries the Rutgers researchers had kept in an old logbook.

The data that Loewen and Najjar thus recovered shows up in the June 2013 master's thesis of Najjar's student Andrew Ross, who combined it with those USGS numbers to feed a powerful new statistical model geared to predict water quality. Ross's results show that overall, the salinity of the Delaware Bay over the last 50 years has been holding steady. But after he discounts the increased flow of fresh water from rivers and streams over the same period, the bay's salinity looks to be increasing. The likely cause, Ross says, is rising sea level related to climate change.

This should raise flags for a couple of reasons, Najjar says. First, increased streamflow is probably temporary, a result of fluctuations in precipitation. Sea-level rise will eventually outpace it. That will mean increased salinity in absolute terms -- and that could be bad news for oysters, among other sensitive estuarine species.

The change will also affect humans directly, as Philadelphia and a hatful of smaller municipalities all depend on the freshness of the Delaware for drinking water, as well as for various industrial processes that could be gummed up by salt.

The Delaware River Basin Commission, the regulatory body charged with managing the river's water quality, is very interested in Ross's findings, Najjar says. He and other researchers at Penn State have joined with the commission on an NSF proposal for more in-depth study.

Loewen, meanwhile, is back to his programming and his bass trombone, but he still does the occasional data conversion job for a stranded researcher. Sometimes he picks up another piece of old hardware in exchange for his trouble.

And Ross, continuing on for his Ph.D. under Najjar's tutelage, is spending this year at the University of Maryland's Horn Point Lab, close by the Chesapeake Bay.

Ross, the youngster, wasn't around for the punchcard reading. "That actually happened before I started working with Ray," he says.

"I have seen the box in his office, though."

Raymond Najjar is professor of meteorology, rgn1@psu.edu. Michael Loewen is senior research programmer in Information Technology Services, mcl8@psu.edu. Andrew Ross is a graduate student in meteorology, acr5155@psu.edu. The research reported above was funded by the National Science Foundation and The Partnership for the Delaware Estuary.

Last Updated October 23, 2013