Friday, September 05, 2014

Too Much of a Good Thing

The Greek word element eu signifies something good -- the good words of a eulogy, the good sound of euphony, the good speech of a euphemism -- but in the case of eutrophication, the nutrients are not just good. They are too good. Excessive nutrients in waterways lead to excessive algae, which in turn depletes oxygen and can also just look and smell nasty.

Those concerned with water quality recognize the seriousness of eutrophication. It is a major reason for the arduous Title V septic-system requirements in Massachusetts, and a major part of the secondary-school outreach of my university's Watershed Access Lab.

Because certain kinds of algae create toxins, though, eutrophication can actually be a matter of life and death, as in the recent contamination of the Toledo, Ohio water supply. On September 4, the PBS Newshour program included an in-depth discussion of long-term research on algae in Lake Erie. It is a very good introduction to the causes, consequences, and importance of eutrophication; it is for a general audience, though, and does not even use the word.

The story is from the point of view of experts on water quality itself, but also illustrates the interrelated nature of the environmental challenges we face. Human and physical geography are essential to understanding the linkages among climate change, agricultural practices, urban land use, and environmental regulation that end up determining what comes out of a kitchen faucet.


The story is also an example of the importance of long-term work in basic science. Consistent monitoring over decades is often tedious, lonely work, and work whose benefits may not be immediately obvious. The work at the center of this story has been conducted for decades at the OSU Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island. Zoom in and out of the map below to appreciate this unusual location, which Pam and I had the privilege of visiting when a fellow graduate student from Miami University was spending a summer at the lab. It is an island in a bay of an island in a lake -- and much closer to Canada than I realized. To visit our friend Carol, we had to drive to Port Clinton (near Toledo), take a ferry to South Bass Island, and then take one of the lab's boat from the vacationland of Put-in Bay to the lab itself. The tiny research boat was conspicuous among the gleaming yachts.

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