Water Quality

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Tidings from the Sunset Coast

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

How California’s Record-Setting Rains Are Reshaping the Ecology of San Francisco Bay

By Ryan Greene

Clouds hang over the San Francisco skyline.

The San Francisco skyline as seen from San Francisco Bay. Credit: Ryan Greene/SERC

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) largest west coast outpost sits on San Francisco Bay in Tiburon, California. The Tiburon branch, affectionately known as SERC-West, serves as the nexus of SERC’s research activities on the western coast of North America. At a whopping 2,462 miles from SERC’s main campus on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, SERC-West can feel a bit remote. In an attempt to bridge this distance, we’re launching Tidings From the Sunset Coast,” a summer story series about all things SERC-West. The first snippet is a story about the wildly wet winter California experienced this year and what all this fresh water means for the marine life in San Francisco Bay. Enjoy!

A big band of clouds stretches from Hawaii to the western coast of North America.

Image from NASA’s VIIRS satellite show one of many “atmospheric rivers” which slammed the California coast this past winter. Credit: Jesse Allen and Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory

When it comes to rain in California, the last few years have been a feast-or-famine affair. After a bitter drought that sported some of the driest years on record, this past winter brought more precipitation than the northern parts of the state have ever documented. To put it lightly, the weather has been extreme. And while the wet winter has refilled reservoirs and beefed up the snowpack, leading Governor Jerry Brown to end the drought state of emergency in all but four counties, it has also wreaked its fair share of havoc.

Here at SERC-West, scientists have been following another part of this story: the bombardment of freshwater runoff that inundated San Francisco Bay this winter. All the fresh water from the rain drastically reduced the saltiness (a.k.a. salinity) of the Bay. For many plants and animals used to saltier water, this was simply too much to handle. The devastation has been widespread, and according to ecologist Andy Chang, who currently heads up SERC-West, in some areas, the changes to the ecosystem might be less than fleeting.

“We’re kind of expecting to see local extinctions of some species that were here before,” he says. Click to continue »

Ten Reasons We’re Earth Optimists After 2016

Friday, January 13th, 2017
Dawn Miller in forest

Ecologist Dawn Miller surveys trees in a SERC forest. (SERC)

by Kristen Minogue

The Smithsonian has a new resolution for 2017: Earth Optimism. This is the year the Smithsonian is celebrating environmental success stories, and shifting the focus to how we can fight battles to save species and preserve our planet—and win. Despite breaking a wide swath of climate records, 2016 gave us reasons for optimism as well. In our 2016 Year in Review, we’ve pulled out the most encouraging stories and discoveries at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center from the previous year. Here are the top 10 that make us hopeful about the planet’s future:

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A Diverse Portfolio is Good for Oysters Too

Friday, December 2nd, 2016
Olympia oysters underwater

Olympia oysters (Matthew Gray/Oregon State University)

by Kristen Minogue

Act local. Diversity pays. Those two phrases could hold the key to saving young Olympia oysters, the only native oysters on the West Coast of North America. What they need are large networks of adult oyster beds to settle on—and a diverse “environmental portfolio,” finds a new study in Ecology.

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Westward, Ho! MarineGEO Enters The Pacific

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Hakai scientists selfie on boat

Margot Hessing-Lewis and the Nearshore Tech Team of the Hakai Institute, British Columbia, one of the newest MarineGEO sites on the Pacific. (Photo: Margot Hessing-Lewis,  Hakai Insititute)

Imagine gazing into the ocean off Maryland knowing what life is under the waves, what’s driving the food web, and how healthy the water is. Then, imagine being able to discover the same thing for another coast halfway around the world. That vision—of a network vast enough to take the pulse of coastal waters worldwide—began becoming a reality at the Smithsonian in 2012. It’s called the Marine Global Earth Observatory, or MarineGEO.

Back in 2012, it had only four sites, known as the “Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network” after Michael and Suzanne Tennenbaum, whose donation jumpstarted the network. Those original four were all on the Atlantic: The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Chesapeake Bay, the Smithsonian Marine Station in Florida, Carrie Bow Cay in Belize, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. Today, MarineGEO has nine sites, with three on the Pacific and memoranda of understanding for sites at Texas A&M University and the University of Hong Kong. And there is one more Pacific site still to come.

“The MarineGEO aspiration has always been to extend around the world … The ocean is connected everywhere,” said Emmett Duffy, MarineGEO’s director based out of SERC. Click to continue »

When the Going Gets Tough, Baby Oysters Get Growing

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Andrew Keppel

Andrew Keppel (Credit: Rebecca Burrell/SERC)

Baby oysters are a lot stronger than they look. Living mainly in shallow coastal waters, where oxygen plummets and acidity spikes on a nightly basis, building a decent shell should be a challenge. But after a couple of weeks, young oysters are often able to adjust to the harsh conditions—and, sometimes, even grow more quickly to make up for lost time.

The discovery came from a team of marine ecologists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), who published the new study in the journal PLOS ONE.

“It’s really impressive what these oysters are able to do in terms of acclimating to potentially harmful conditions,” said lead author Andrew Keppel, who worked on the project as a graduate student and later technician in SERC’s Marine Ecology Lab, before becoming an oceanography lab manager at the U.S. Naval Academy. Click to continue »

The Mystery of the Muddy Creek Restoration

Monday, August 8th, 2016
SERC intern Lauren Mosesso takes a water quality reading

SERC intern Lauren Mosesso takes a water quality reading (Photo: Emily Li/SERC)

by Emily Li

One year ago, a team of scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center set out to restore a stream running through its campus in Edgewater, Md. No one ever said it would be simple.

At first glance, the restoration of Muddy Creek seems to be a closed case. Before the project began, the creek’s severely eroded banks were disconnected from its floodplains, turning the stream into a raging river during storms that stripped nutrients from the system and dumped them in the Chesapeake Bay. Now, after a facelift in January, the creek is nearly unrecognizable. Its gentle banks cradle the wide, slow-moving stream littered with leaves, ferns, and an abundance of other plant life. Choruses of croaks fill the air, accompanied by the hum of insects, bird chatter, and the occasional splash of frogs retreating into the cloudy water.

But another layer of mystery is clouding the waters. A mat of red Leptothrix bacteria coats some sections of the site, leading SERC senior scientist Dr. Thomas Jordan and his colleagues to ask a host of new questions. Are the bacteria harmful to the ecosystem, or an important part of the food web? Are they a short-term phenomenon or a permanent fixture to the stream? Exactly how much area do they cover? One SERC intern is hoping to find out.

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Making Noise About Marine Sound Pollution

Thursday, August 4th, 2016
SERC intern Michelle Hauer sets up her soundscape ecology tank experiment

SERC intern Michelle Hauer sets up her soundscape ecology tank experiment (Photo: Emily Li/SERC)

by Emily Li

In high school, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center intern Michelle Hauer fell in love with sound. She discovered the cello, which she insisted on bringing to her internship this summer despite having limited space and housing. But her affair with sound didn’t stop there, even as she was exploring her interest in science. While still in high school, she wrote a paper on the effects of naval sonar on marine mammals. Then, while attending DePaul University, Hauer came across the relatively new field of soundscape ecology through a Chicago-based organization called Chicago Wildsounds—and she hasn’t looked back. Now, as a summer intern in SERC’s Fish and Invertebrate Ecology Lab, Hauer is studying the darker side of sound by researching how noise pollution can affect marine wildlife in the Chesapeake Bay and beyond.

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An Acid Test for the Coasts

Monday, August 1st, 2016
Graham cleans her equipment of marine organisms

SERC intern Jasmin Graham cleans her equipment of marine organisms (Photo: Emily Li/SERC)

by Emily Li

Watching educational programs like Animal Planet or That’s My Baby—a series that documents pregnant animals—might evoke memories of flickering classroom projectors for most. But for Jasmin Graham, an intern with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), these shows were her childhood. Her love for marine science and wildlife followed her through high school science fairs and university research on shark genetics at the College of Charleston. Now, at an internship with SERC’s Ocean Acidification Lab, she studies acidification not in the open ocean, but in a far more dramatic arena, where the marine celebrities she grew up with may be at risk.

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Acidification and Low Oxygen Put Fish in Double Jeopardy

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Inland silverside with reflection.

Inland silverside (Menidia beryllina) reflected in aquarium. When threatened with low oxygen, fish often swim to the surface, where oxygen is more abundant but predators can more easily spot them. (SERC)

Severe oxygen drops in the water can leave trails of fish kills in their wakes, but scientists thought adult fish would be more resilient to the second major threat in coastal waters: acidification. A new study published Tuesday from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) shows that is not entirely true—where fish are concerned, acidification can make low oxygen even more deadly.

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Hunt for a Missing Nutrient: Part III

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Image: Tom Jordan beside a V-shaped weir that tracks nutrients in a SERC stream. (SERC)

Tom Jordan beside a V-shaped weir that tracks nutrients in a SERC stream. (SERC)

For years, a team of scientists has been trying to solve a mysterious disappearance at a drainage ditch on the Choptank River Basin, on Maryland’s eastern shore. Every year roughly 32,000 pounds of human-generated nitrogen enters the ditch’s watershed, from fertilizers, air pollution and other sources. But less than a third of that nitrogen typically flows out of the stream.

Tom Jordan has seen it before. A nutrient ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), Jordan has wrestled with the mystery of the missing nitrogen for more than twenty years.

“It feels like a sort of fatal attraction,” Jordan said. Two decades of trial and error and dead ends only fueled his determination to find answers. Now, according to a new January study, Jordan and his colleagues finally have some.

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