Tag: nitrogen pollution

Research: Can Restoring Oyster Reefs Combat Nitrogen Pollution?

Oysters filter nitrogen from water — and nitrogen pollution is a huge and growing problem along many coastlines, not just for the United States, but worldwide. So could restoring oyster reefs combat nitrogen pollution? And if the answer is yes, could that service generate enough funding for broad-scale oyster restoration?

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Long Island’s Elephant in the Room: Nitrogen Pollution

“How about we initiate a ‘poop at work’ campaign?”

My colleague Carl was kidding about how to improve water quality on Long Island, but his joke went right to the heart of the problem. Many Long Island residents commute to New York City for work every day. Carl’s idea would solve the problem that we are grappling with on Long Island, as are many estuaries around the world: There is too much nitrogen in coastal waters and much of it is coming from inadequately treated human waste.

Social science research the Conservancy has carried out tells us that the average person living on Long Island cares deeply about clean water, whether it is to swim or fish in, or live near, or it is clean, freshwater we drink. Our social science research also tells us that the average Long Islander does not know:

  • where their drinking water comes from (answer: groundwater);
  • where their waste goes when they flush the toilet (answer: mostly septic systems, which are not designed to remove nitrogen, or sewage treatment plants in the more urbanized areas); and
  • that nitrogen from human waste, fertilizer and burning fossil fuels are polluting Long Island bays and harbors.

And if we do not tackle nitrogen and nutrient pollution on Long Island, our work could fail.

The Conservancy on Long Island has a long-standing marine program focused on estuarine restoration and coastal climate change resilience and adaptation. And by many counts we have been successful. We re-directed land acquisition to better protect estuaries. We acquired 13,500 acres of underwater land and transplanted over 7 million clams in over 100 sanctuaries. We supported science and policy to protect and restore seagrass, and we developed a network of monitoring sites to determine whether salt marshes are keeping pace with sea level rise.

Yet the ultimate success of all these projects hinges on nitrogen: Excessive nitrogen loading will impede our efforts over the long-term.

Why? Because regardless of the millions of hard clams returned to Great South Bay, it suffers from harmful algal blooms hampering the growth and adequate recruitment of bivalves. Regardless of the availability of land to which salt marsh can migrate, excessive nitrogen loading is a key driver of marsh loss. Regardless of successful passage of legislation we crafted to protect seagrass, science has found that impacts from excessive nitrogen and warming sea temperatures together inhibit seagrass growth and expansion even when physical impacts are limited.

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Debate: What Good Are Planetary Boundaries?

Commissariat Point, South Australia, Australia. Image credit: Georgie Sharp/Flicker through a Creative Commons license.

Commissariat Point, South Australia, Australia. Image credit: Georgie Sharp/Flicker through a Creative Commons license.

Bob Lalasz is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy.

Does Earth have limits — limits to how far we can push its natural systems and deplete its resources, beyond which we will incur major blowback?

Almost every environmentalist would answer “yes” — and have pugnaciously strong opinions about what we should do (or stop doing) to avoid crossing them. But what does science tell us about those limits? Which are really science-based? Can innovation can stretch any of them?  Are they useful for motivating policymaking and behavior change?

A world-class panel of scientists grappled with these questions last Thursday’s during “The Limits of the Planet: A Debate” — the final forum in this year’s “Nature and Our Future” discussion series, sponsored by The Nature Conservancy and held at The New York Academy of Sciences headquarters in lower Manhattan.

The major disagreements of the evening came over whether outlining global limits for the stable functioning of nature (as opposed to tipping points for individual ecosystems) is good science — and whether “limits” are the correct approach to achieving environmental goals. On this point, not everyone was in the Bill McKibben/350.org camp.

“The evidence is incontrovertible that there are local tipping points — for coral reefs, for instance– but not so for global ones,” said Erle Ellis, a panelist and associate professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Baltimore, Maryland County. “It’s not a runaway train. Ecosystems change, but it’s not a domino effect. You can change all the systems on the planet. But does that constitute a global tipping point?”

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Forest Dilemmas

Too many deer. Logging one tree to save another. Beavers versus old growth. Welcome to forest conservation in the Anthropocene. Beginning Monday, July 21, join us for a provocative 5-part series exploring the full complexity facing forest conservation in the eastern United States.

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noun 1. Blog where Nature Conservancy scientists, science writers and external experts discuss and debate how conservation can meet the challenges of a 9 billion + planet.

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3. Home of Weird Nature, The Cooler, Quick Study, Traveling Naturalist and other amazing features.

Cool Green Science is managed by Matt Miller, the Conservancy's deputy director for science communications, and edited by Bob Lalasz, its director of science communications. Email us your feedback.

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