Just as every dune that’s washed away by the sea makes Cape Cod the less, a man’s passing has diminished the peninsula and its community of environmental champions.
Brian Howes Ph.D., who was a leading force in advocating for the health of the Cape’s water and environment, died unexpectedly on Dec. 13 in his Sandwich home. He was 70 years old.
His loss leaves a hole in the Cape’s defenses against the impacts of human activity and climate change. But his having been here created a legacy, a path toward environmental repair, and a legion of environmental caretakers both grateful for his work and determined to carry it forward.
“Brian was a pioneering, brilliant scientist who spearheaded the work that identified the nitrogen problem in coastal Massachusetts waters and led the development of nitrogen Total Maximum Daily Loads on which ongoing actions to deal with wastewater are based,” Denis LeBlanc, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey, said.
A chancellor professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology and founding director of Coastal Systems Group, Howes was renowned as a world expert on nitrogen in the environment, LeBlanc said.
“But those of us who knew him on Cape Cod also admired him for his deep commitment to the environmental health of his community,” he said.
Howes had an ‘infectious laugh and a sharp wit’
Zenas Crocker, executive director of the Barnstable Clean Water Coalition, said Howes “held himself and others to a high standard.”
“In conversation, he had an infectious laugh and a sharp wit,” he said.
Crocker saw Howes shortly before his passing and said “that meeting ended like all our others: he talked about his love for his family and especially his two daughters.”
Howes’ passion for the environment and love of family are highlighted in his obituary, posted via the Nickerson Funeral Home of Orleans.
“His passion for helping the environment was contagious,” the obituary reads and goes on to describe how the professor, who was born and raised in New Jersey, earned a degree at Rutgers University and a master’s and Ph.D. from Boston University, before going on work at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. There he met his wife, Karen, with whom he had two daughters, Hannah and Sarah.
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He went on to work at UMass Dartmouth in 1997 as a Senior Fellow in what was then the Center for Marine Science and Technology. He was appointed professor in 2001 before being named a chancellor professor in 2019. He was involved in the development of the marine science graduate program at the university, which is internationally recognized for its research.
While his scientific efforts mostly focused on Massachusetts, Howes’ work took him around the world, to five of the seven continents, North America, South America, Europe, Asia and even Antarctica, which he visited 8 times.
Howes played huge role in effort to restore Cape’s water quality
According to his obituary, “his research had a profound impact on the health of the environment and the well-being of surrounding communities.”
That statement is corroborated by fellow environmentalists with whom he crossed paths, both as a colleague and a friend. Among them is Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, who counted himself among Howes’ friends and colleagues for more than three decades.
He said Howes’ passing “has left a huge hole in regional efforts to restore water quality.”
“Brian was a giant in the field of understanding nutrient impacts on water quality and nowhere was the impact of his work greater than here on Cape Cod, his chosen home for decades,” Gottlieb said. “The basis of the entire nutrient management effort on Cape Cod is built on the foundational work Brian and his team led in the Massachusetts Estuaries Project.”
In that regard alone, he said, “Howes’ legacy is vast. But, as with all of us, there was more to Brian than the work side.”
While their conversations as friends often had a work element to them, “they almost always had a greater focus on kids and family,” he said.
With Howes’ passing, Gottlieb said he will miss “having the ability to bounce ideas off him and having the benefit of his expertise to ground my thoughts.”
“Cape Cod and all concerned with improving water quality will miss his acumen, historical insights, and persistent drive to make the environment better. While the work to improve water quality will continue because Brian helped start a movement that will not be derailed, it is going to be harder and a lot less fun without him,” he said.
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But when Cape Cod’s bays are restored and the environment has healed, Gottlieb said, “it will be in large part to the efforts of Dr. Brian Howes. The fact that he will not be here to enjoy the results of his work does nothing to diminish his centrality to the movement. All of us who value clean water will benefit from Brian’s work, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude.”
Howes was ‘exemplary member’ of UMass Dartmouth community
Mark Fuller Ph.D., chancellor at UMass Dartmouth, described Howes as an “exemplary member of our campus community as a colleague, educator at the School for Marine Science & Technology, and as an acclaimed researcher with a focus on coastal ecology and environmental stewardship.”
“Dr. Howes’ work related to the Massachusetts Estuaries Program has had a transformative impact on the nutrient management and water quality efforts in the South Coast and Cape Cod,” he said.
Howes was active in community service and outreach, he said, often offering his expertise on a consultant basis and giving public presentations about his work.
“Dr. Howes was also a leading investigator in establishing the Marine Biodegradability Laboratory at SMAST. This program is advancing the development of new, environmentally-friendly forms of biodegradable materials to address the growing plastic pollution problem that especially affects our marine environments,” Fuller said.
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A man who had “an incredible impact” on his students, the university, and the region,” he said Howes will always be remembered, “for his kindness and contributions to improving our world.”
Contact Heather McCarron at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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