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Local radiation safety specialist joins search for Amelia Earhart's remains, plane

Before she became America’s aviator, Amelia Mary Earhart was just a Midwestern tomboy who thought of planes as nothing more than jumbles of “rusty wire and wood.” Then, she became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic and instantly became a household name.
Although the first lady of flight’s fame still soars as high as ever, her legacy lacks a final chapter.
In 1937, the adventurous aviator declared she had “just about one more good flight left in (her) system.” The 39-year-old announced she would attempt a 29,000-mile around-the-world trip, making her the first woman to complete that particular feat. But it was not to be. With only 7,000 miles left on her perilous passage, Earhart disappeared July 2, 1937. The United States raced to the rescue, spending $4 million and scouring more than a quarter of a million miles to find her. It marked the most extensive air and sea search in naval history. All to no avail.
To this day, the fate of Amelia Mary Earhart — the girl who liked to hunt rats, climb trees and float among the clouds — remains unknown.
That could all be about to change, said a Flowery Branch woman and member of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery.
“Everyone likes a good mystery,” Lauren Palmer said. “And how often do you have a chance to solve one of the great mysteries of history?”
On a mission
In 1985, lovers of all things aviation formed a nonprofit group, TIGHAR (pronounced “tiger”) and dedicated itself to the task in its very name: recovering historical aircraft. Three years after its founding, the group turned its talents — including collecting and confirming reports of downed aircrafts, as well as investigating and performing recovery expeditions — on finding Earhart’s remains and those of her beloved Lockheed Electra plane.
Now known worldwide for its efforts, TIGHAR has led the Earhart charge, conducting several expeditions to the Phoenix Islands in the Pacific Ocean, specifically focusing on the atoll (an island comprised of coral) of Nikumaroro. TIGHAR is gathering evidence to support its theory that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, crash-landed on the tiny strip of land, also known as Gardner Island, and survived as castaways for several days before succumbing to the elements.
Thus far, the organization has accumulated a wealth of artifacts to bolster its claim, including a human bone believed to belong to Noonan, a piece of a plane and sonar readings indicating an underwater plane with the same dimensions as Earhart’s plane.
All of this information was broadcast in 2011, as reporters covered the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that rocked the Pacific Ocean and caused the Fukushima nuclear reactors to release radioactive pollutants into the ocean. Radiation plumes swept out to sea and encroached on the Nikumaroro atoll. Newscasters mentioned TIGHAR worried the catastrophe could contaminate its site.
Watching all of this was Palmer, radiation safety specialist for the University of Georgia’s Environmental Safety Division.
“When Fukushima exploded, I was following all the information about the plume, and then it was mentioned that this island might be where (Earhart) crashed,” Palmer said. “That caught my interest right there. I decided to investigate it, and it just got more and more fascinating the more I read about (TIGHAR.)”
Despite having no ties to the group, Palmer contacted the organization, wondering if it needed any environmental specialists to help with its upcoming 2014 mission.
The group said yes.
Two goals
From the moment she had the go-ahead, Palmer started studying the area’s environment, preparing herself for her role in the planned Sept. 15 expedition to Nikumaroro. But the trip was cancelled due to lack of capital. TIGHAR is renewing its fundraising efforts and plans to reschedule the trip for next year. Palmer intends on participating in the next expedition.
Her job will be to search for pollutants that could have possibly traveled from Fukushima to Nikumaroro and determine the potential effects the pollutants may have on the search site.
Palmer’s presence to the expedition marks a change in TIGHAR’s approach to finding Earhart. Previously, expeditions focused largely on finding evidence of Earhart and her plane. This trip, however, adds the second component of advancing environmental research.
For the first time, TIGHAR will have access to the University of Hawaii’s submersibles to search the deep water off the Nikumaroro atoll. The goal is to use technology to locate whatever remains of Earhart’s plane while collecting data to help scientists better understand pollution and the effects of climate change.
According to Dr. Les Kaufman, a TIGHAR affiliate and professor of biology at Boston University, the reason this atoll is crucial to environmental study is because the area has remained uninhabited. It will allow scientists to view the coral as it would have appeared a thousand years ago.
“The key is that these corals have most likely been undisturbed,” he said. “We think that there ... has been little or no human physical disturbance. Also, the corals are far removed from any local human impact, making the climate change signal clear and much more easily understood. (Thus far), scientific exploration has been limited to depths accessible to scuba divers, due to the remoteness of the area and the expense of deep-diving technology. The planned TIGHAR expedition affords us the opportunity to conduct (better exploration) of a relatively undisturbed deep atoll community.”
Rewriting history
While making an impact on environmental studies encourages TIGHAR, the main reason for the search — finding Earhart’s plane and potentially more human remains — still drives its members toward solving the ultimate mystery.
“For me, I would be very happy if we came away, first, not finding any contamination of any kind,” Palmer said, “and second, I hope that we find the airplane or a piece of the airplane with a serial number on it so it can definitively be matched to Amelia’s plane.”
Until the moment comes when the group can finish the carefully planned expedition, Palmer dreams of the day she can say she helped write Amelia’s final chapter.
“I’d like to finish the story,” she said.