Water Quality

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Six Reasons To Celebrate World Wetlands Day

Friday, February 2nd, 2018

by Kristen Minogue

SERC scientist Lisa Schile in a marsh in San Francisco. (Courtesy of Lisa Schile.)

February 2 is most widely known as Groundhog Day, the day people all over the U.S. look to a rodent in Pennsylvania to predict the future. But it also marks a less famous holiday: World Wetlands Day, celebrated around the world since 1997, to mark the first international agreement to protect wetlands on Feb. 2, 1971. Curious why anyone would make a holiday for wetlands? Here are a few reasons to celebrate the unsung guardians along our shores.

wetland covered by grasses and yellow flowers

A wetland by the Kenai River in Alaska (Dennis Whigham)

  1. They protect our homes from storms and floods. Standing between us and the elements, wetlands soak up destructive energy from waves and storm surges. In an extreme example, it’s estimated during Hurricane Sandy wetlands along the East Coast prevented $625 million in property damage.
  2. They help keep pollution out of Chesapeake Bay and other waterways. Wetlands are sometimes called the “kidneys” of the Bay, because they’re able to filter out pollution from fertilizers, sewage, pesticides and harmful toxins before it streams into the water.
  3. red-winged blackbird among reeds.

    Red-winged blackbird. Wetlands provide a home or resting point for many birds on their migrations. (Kristen Minogue/SERC)

  4. They’re good for our drinking water. Most of the water we drink comes from groundwater beneath the surface. But wetlands can replenish it as some of their water seeps underground. And because of their filtering powers, the water is cleaner after passing through a wetland.
  5. Birds and fish love them. Herons, egrets, ducks and bald eagles all pass through Chesapeake wetlands as visitors or year-round residents. Striped bass and other popular fish rely on them for spawning ground or nurseries, as do crabs and shellfish.
  6. They store carbon. Plants soak up carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, making them critical players in fighting climate change. “Blue carbon” is the official name for carbon stored in wetlands and other coastal ecosystems. At the same time, wetland soils can also emit methane, another powerful greenhouse gas, making it tricky to know how much carbon wetlands store overall. Scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center are helping devise better ways to calculate this. So far they’ve found wetlands with more saltwater generally emit less methane and store more carbon.
  7. They’re natural air conditioning. With their lush plants and high water levels, wetlands can radiate moist air, cooling down areas nearby. This makes planting wetlands especially valuable near cities in tropical or dry climates.

Learn more:

Wetlands Can Resist Rising Seas, If We Let Them

The Blue Carbon Market Is Open

Coffee, Carbon and Crime: 22 Reasons to Love Trees

Double Trouble? Tracking the Growth of Young Oysters Stressed by Acidity and Low Oxygen

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

by Cosette Larash

The eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) is one of the most important species in Chesapeake Bay. These shellfish filter the water, their reefs provide shelter for other marine species, and they’re an important seafood resource. But their numbers have hit a historical low due to overfishing, diseases like Dermo, and stressors such as hypoxia (low dissolved oxygen) and acidification (low pH).

Biologists with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) want to find out whether the double stresses of low oxygen and acidification can stunt oyster growth. Studies have shown that juvenile oysters grown under low oxygen are generally smaller than oysters grown under normal oxygen conditions. However, scientists still don’t know how these oysters fare over the long term. The answers could help aquaculture and oyster restoration projects all over the Chesapeake adapt to the often extreme conditions beneath the surface. Click to continue »

The Ocean Is Losing Its Breath. Here’s the Global Scope.

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

by Kristen Minogue

Dead corals and crab shells

Low oxygen caused the death of these corals and others in Bocas del Toro, Panama. The dead crabs pictured also succumbed to the loss of dissolved oxygen.
(Credit: Arcadio Castillo/Smithsonian)

In the past 50 years, the amount of water in the open ocean with zero oxygen has gone up more than fourfold. In coastal water bodies, including estuaries and seas, low-oxygen sites have increased more than 10-fold since 1950. Scientists expect oxygen to continue dropping even outside these zones as Earth warms. To halt the decline, the world needs to rein in both climate change and nutrient pollution, an international team of scientists asserted in a new paper published Jan. 4 in Science.

“Oxygen is fundamental to life in the oceans,” said Denise Breitburg, lead author and marine ecologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “The decline in ocean oxygen ranks among the most serious effects of human activities on the Earth’s environment.”

Click to continue »

Underwater Sound Reveals Hidden Creatures
on Reefs

Friday, August 4th, 2017

by Kristen Minogue

Fish swimming through a coral reef

A wrasse fish (Halichoeres bivitattus, striped) wanders through a coral reef in Panama. (Credit: Erica Staaterman/SERC)

Coral reefs are home to some of the most colorful, diverse life on the planet. And yet, for all their fame as biodiversity hotspots, it’s estimated that divers see less than half of the fish species that live there (and that’s not counting all the invertebrates like shrimp and crabs). The invisible or “hidden half” consists of fish that aren’t active until nightfall, or conceal themselves in the reefs’ many nooks and crevices.

“Even when you are in the water looking at an animal or a habitat, there’s a lot that you can miss because it’s cryptic or hiding,” said Erica Staaterman, a marine biologist and former postdoc with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

Click to continue »

Tidings from the Sunset Coast (1)

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:

Click to continue »

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.

Click to continue »

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.

Click to continue »