Field Notes: The Forgotten Great Lake

Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

MONTREAL— Along the eastern shore of this island city, the water of the St. Lawrence River runs deep, clear, and fast. Montreal is more than 1,500 kilometers (1,000 miles) from the westernmost reaches of Lake Superior, but the river here feels undeniably of the Great Lakes, of the northlands, of a system so vast that it holds a fifth of the world’s fresh surface water.

I grew up a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan, drove many times across the green expanse of the Mackinac Bridge, passed the southern shore of Lake Erie every fall on my way to college, and ate my childhood breakfasts across from a large photograph of Niagara Falls. But, beyond a thin blue line on a map, I never imagined where much of that water eventually goes.

Certainly, I never pictured the St. Lawrence River as a waterway big enough to hold islands, cities, and strings of container ships so massive they make luxury yachts look like bathtub toys. In fact, 318 billion cubic meters of water (11.2 trillion cubic feet) flow down the St. Lawrence in an average year. Of the rivers in North America, only the Mississippi and the Mackenzie send more water to the sea.

I spent the last week traveling the river’s upper reaches and along the southern shore of Lake Ontario, where the system is on the edge of a dynamic change. Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River are the only portion of the Great Lakes where humans play a significant role in water-level regulation, but for the past 50 years those regulations have done little to take the upper river’s wetlands and fisheries into account. Last year, the international body that oversees waterways shared by Canada and the United States proposed a new regulation plan, Plan 2014, that would reintroduce the environment as a primary stakeholder—a move both supporters and critics say will create winners and losers.

This story originally appeared on Circle of Blue. Read the full article here.

Field Notes: Scrubbing Rocks, and Other Things Scientists Do

Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

TOOLIK, Alaska —Finding myself with a relatively open schedule yesterday, I spent my breakfast asking around the dining hall for any projects I could help with or observe. As luck would have it, the stream researches had a job for me: rock scrubbing. There are times when scientific research procedures require the use of advanced instruments and techniques. Then there are times when the procedures are mind-numbingly simple.

Rock scrubbing, which is exactly what it sounds like, belongs in the latter category. We arrived at the Kuparuk River armed with plastic tubs and wire grill brushes. Filling the tubs with a sampling of the dark, smooth stones that form the riverbed, we plunked ourselves down on the bank and proceeded to scrub the rocks clean with the grill brushes. The scrubbing roughs up a slimy brown film of what looks like mud, which we rinsed into a separate plastic tub. Then we scrubbed again, and rinsed again. Scrub. Rinse. Scrub. Rinse. Eventually, the scrubbing produced no layer of slime and the rock surface felt rough. At this point, we released the rock back into the river with a casual toss and the process began again with the next rock. After all the rocks had been scrubbed, we poured the resulting muddy water into carefully labeled bottles and stored them in a black garbage bag for later analysis in the lab.

This is how I happily whiled away the morning hours next to the idyllic Kuparuk, a clear sky bringing warmth, and a lively breeze keeping the mosquitoes at bay. From an outside perspective, it would have appeared ridiculous—three people scrubbing away at rocks and collecting the bathwater. There was, however, a purpose to our toil. The rock scrubbing releases diatoms, a type of algae that are at the very bottom of the food chain in aquatic environments. The stream researchers are trying to characterize the quantity of diatoms in the river, and how that quantity changes as a result of the nutrient levels in the water. In other words, if more fertilizer is added—either artificially as part of an experiment or naturally from thawing ground—how will that affect the food chain in a river?

This story originally appeared on Circle of Blue. Read the full article here.

Field Notes: A Crash Course in Urban Watersheds

Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

BALTIMORE — This past Tuesday, I arrived in Baltimore as part of the Logan Science Journalism program’s environmental course—a 2-week fellowship based at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. By Wednesday morning I found myself peering down not into the sunny blue waters of the Pacific, but into the foamy brown swirls of Gwynns Falls.

Not far from its confluence with the Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay, the river is fast-flowing and trash-ridden. It rushes under a concrete overpass carrying not only bottles and potato chip bags, but also nitrogen and pharmaceuticals and bacteria like fecal coliform. By testing the water in rivers like these, scientists can perform the watershed equivalent of a urinalysis, says Peter Groffman, an ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y. All that ails the greater watershed—sewer leaks, septic tank seepage, and fertilizer runoff, to name a few—ends up here in Gwynns Falls, and eventually in Chesapeake Bay. It is here that researchers hope to see improvements that will translate into a healthier bay.

Urban waterways have been channeled, diverted, buried and polluted for centuries, but they have only recently been studied as part of the larger urban ecosystem. Understanding urban ecosystems, and the rivers within them, is becoming increasingly important as climate change alters established patterns of rainfall, floods and temperature. Globally, more people now live in cities than in rural areas, and the United Nations predicts urban populations will reach 5 billion people by 2030. The Baltimore Ecosystem Study, part of the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) system, has been looking at how these changing social and biological processes interact since 1997.

This story originally appeared on Circle of Blue. Read the full article here.