Countless creeks, streams and rivers flow into the Chesapeake Bay. For decades, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has measured the flow of the region’s rivers in order to forecast floods, spot low-flow conditions and estimate the amount of pollution running from the land into the water. While annual river flow has remained within its normal range for much of the last decade, our increasingly variable climate has fostered increasingly variable river flow, which has the potential to affect habitats and pollution levels in the Bay.
While river flow is tracked at 300 monitoring stations across the watershed, it is the data that are collected at stations along its three biggest rivers—the Susquehanna, the Potomac and the James—that are used to calculate total flow into the Bay. Data collected at these monitoring stations show that, on average, 51 billion gallons of water flow into the Bay each day.
Annual river flow that falls between 44 and 58 billion gallons per day is considered normal. But the last 15 years have seen extreme flow variability, which can affect the surrounding ecosystem.
While low river flow can dry up stream beds and threaten fish, high river flow has garnered much attention in the region.Excess river flow can damage stream banks, trigger sewage overflows and push pollutants—including nutrients, sediment and toxic contaminants picked up from farm fields, backyards, parking lots and roads—into the Bay. It can also lower salinity levels in the Bay itself, which has a direct impact on underwater grasses, fish and shellfish. Often, high river flow is linked to heavy precipitation, which has become a noted impact of our changing climate.
In 2014, the U.S. Global Change Research Program reported in its National Climate Assessment that heavy downpours have increased across the nation. The Northeast, in particular, has seen a 71 percent rise in the amount of precipitation that falls during heavy downpours: a higher jump than any other region in the United States. In our work to protect the nation’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay Program is taking these and other climate impacts into account.
Through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement’s climate resiliency goal, our partners have committed to monitoring climate trends and the effectiveness of our restoration policies, programs and projects under these changing conditions. Our partners have also committed to adjusting our work as needed in order to enhance the resiliency of the watershed against climate change. Because in building the resiliency of the Bay, we can increase the likelihood that its living resources, habitats, public infrastructure and communities will withstand the changes—to temperature, sea level and even river flow—that may come their way.
When it comes to scientific data, older isn't typically better. But when you are teasing out environmental trends, like temperature change, it helps to have a long record. The Chesapeake Biological Laboratory (CBL) in Solomons, Maryland, is the oldest state-supported marine laboratory on the East Coast, and it touts the longest continuous record of water temperature in the Chesapeake Bay.
CBL's 750-foot research pier on the Patuxent River was first built in 1936, and in 1938 scientists started walking out to collect thousands of daily temperature and salinity readings. Today, anyone can observe live water conditions at the pier online. In the 70 years after 1938, the laboratory documented a 2.7 degree Fahrenheit temperature increase in the water around the pier.
"And that's given a unique, long-term record that’s shown the essential elements of climate change,” said Dr. David Secor, a fisheries ecologist at CBL who first reported the trend. “That motivated our group to begin to look at how young fish that we collect here by the pier may change."
Secor’s lab has performed seining studies since 1999. His team first used a 100-foot seining net to focus on bluefish, which morphed into a project on menhaden. “We’ve basically shoe-stringed this effort along,” Secor said, describing short-term funding sources. “And I think we have a dedicated, motivated group of students and myself that will hopefully continue this on throughout my career.”
The most common species caught by the seine are Atlantic silverside, bay anchovy, and Atlantic menhaden. Another 10 percent is bluefish, blue crab, white perch, striped bass and spot. Secor said future observations depend on how well species can adapt to temperature change as well as seasonality—the conditions in spring and winter that “set the clock” for what fish are present later in the year.
“What we may see in the future, with warming, is a disruption of that clock,” Secor said. “Maybe we’ll see higher production of some things like blue crabs, but we may see diminished production of fish that don’t do so well in warmer waters such as striped bass, perch and black sea bass.”
“We saw a kingfish last year for the first time in our series,” Secor said. “These kinds of fish that we already see visiting the lower Chesapeake Bay will be coming up this way more frequently.”
Regardless of the fish that will be seen, one fair prediction for the future is that the CBL pier will be there to support the science.
“This pier has been here in purpose for 70 years but it’s been replaced several times, and that too is the result of climate events,” Secor said. “Hurricanes and tropical storms have really taken a bite out of this pier on occasion.”
In 2010, after several recent storms, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science received a $1.7 million grant to rebuild the pier from the National Science Foundation as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. In 2011, Hurricane Irene dealt additional damage before construction began the next year. The pier received several new pilings, an upgraded pump house, and new instrumentation to measure greenhouse gases in the air.
“It’s been rebuilt now,” Secor said, sitting on the pier’s new deck. The full length of the pier is now covered in a corrugated material designed to allow water—and fallen car keys—to pass through uninhibited.
“It’s made out of much more flexible, much more enduring materials.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Video, Images and Text by Will Parson
New techniques for modeling water temperatures have allowed U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists to better predict how climate change will affect the habitat of fish species like brook trout, according to a recent study.
Climate change is expected to bring warmer air temperatures to the Chesapeake region over the next several decades. And as air temperatures rise, water temperatures will also increase, threatening fish species like brook trout that are particularly sensitive to warming waters. Previous modeling has assumed water temperatures in rivers and streams would rise in a uniform manner, failing to account for the effect that cool groundwater has on warmer surface water.
“One thing that has been missing from other models is the recognition that groundwater moderates the temperature of headwater streams," said Nathaniel Hitt, coauthor of the study. "Our paper helps to bring the effects of groundwater into climate change forecasts for fish habitat." Accounting for the effects of groundwater will allow for better predictions of brook trout habitat loss, as well as more targeted approaches for habitat protection.
Species like brook trout are an essential part of headwater stream ecosystems, an important part of the watershed’s heritage and a valuable recreation resource. Chesapeake Bay Program partners committed to restoring and sustaining brook trout populations as part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
The article, “Accounting for groundwater in stream fish thermal habitat responses to climate change,” is available online.
Faith plays an influential role in the lives of billions of people in the world, with about 84 percent identifying with a religious group. As Ramadan, a month-long ritual focused on self-purification and refocusing attention to faith, comes to an end for roughly 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, it is a good time to reflect on the intersection between conviction and nature.
Green Muslims, a Washington, D.C., based organization with the mission of helping their community live in the environmental spirit of Islam, began with a conversation between a group of friends about how to ‘green’ their Ramadan. At first they took small measures, like switching to reusable plates and having zero-trash iftars, or evening meals, when they could break their fasts. Those simple actions set off a chain reaction of stewardship within the community that led to the formal establishment of Green Muslims as a volunteer organization in 2007.
The nonprofit works with a number of different Muslim communities in the D.C. area, but serves as a national resource for those across the country that are looking to tie their faith back to the natural world. “There is really a passion and a yearning for learning more about what our tradition is amongst the Muslim community everywhere, and we hope to provide those resources and incubate that energy to take it to the next level,” said Colin Christopher, Executive Director of Green Muslims.
With many youths spending an increasing amount of time indoors, exposure to and connections with the natural world are lost, often times leading to rises in health problems like allergies and obesity. In a push to alleviate nature deficit disorder, Green Muslims launched the ‘Our Deen is Green’ Youth Outdoor Education Program this year. The program offers a wide range of field trips to places like the Chesapeake Bay, farms and conserved lands to demonstrate real life examples of how Islam and the environment are intertwined.
Each trip offers themed lessons that cover subjects such as, water, food waste and renewable energy. The goal of the program is to reconnect the participants with outdoor spaces and encourage healthy behavior changes, like wiser food choices and increased awareness about human impacts on the planet. “In Islam, we understand that God has an amount of trust in us as Khalifas, or stewards of the Earth. We really see our responsibility as people who need to conserve and protect the natural environment; we are called to do so, it’s our responsibility,” said Christopher.
The final trip of the year was to Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., where the kids toured the historic Peirce Mill and learned how the Earth’s natural processes like water flow and wind create energy that can be harnessed with minimal negative impacts to the environment. Prior to touring the mill, all eight kids sat contently in a circle making windmills out of paper and pencils while discussing where their energy comes from. “Why are we always talking about water?” asks a young boy. “Because we are made of water,” replies Christopher. A look of awe falls over the children’s faces. The importance of water is a theme that weaves through all lessons taught during the program.
The Qur’an has hundreds of verses that talk about water, animals, wind and the sun, and Sharia, or Islamic law, directly translates into ‘the pathway to the water source’—meaning that protecting water is of utmost importance in the tradition of Islam. “Every part of our natural environment is integral to the greater whole. In Islam, we talk about, if you have one limb that is unhealthy then the entire body is unhealthy and sick. So, the Chesapeake Bay is a really integral part of that entire ecosystem and we can’t afford to neglect the Bay or other parts of our ecosystem," explained Christopher.
Although the organization aims to spread awareness about the link between Islam and the environment, Christopher believes that diversity is the backbone of the Muslim community and welcomes anyone, regardless of faith, to volunteer and participate in Green Muslim events. “I think that the challenges we face relate to education. There is a lot of misinformation about Islam and what Islam is,” noted Christopher. “We are trying to bring back the teachings of our traditions within our community and explain that conservation, moderation and love for creation are core components of our tradition.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images by Will Parson
Text by Jenna Valente
The effects of a changing climate are all around us. Monitoring data shows us that sea levels are rising, water temperatures are increasing and carbon levels are spiking. We can see the impacts of these changes in animal, tree and plant species as they migrate due to shifting conditions. Likewise, pests and diseases are showing up in places where they have never been seen before.
For years, members of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) have been advising us to take the effects of climate change into account as we develop plans and programs for our watershed restoration efforts. Similar recommendations and directives have been included in the President’s Chesapeake Bay Executive Order (13508) and in reports from the Government Accountability Office and the National Academy of Sciences. With the signing of the new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement in 2014, the issue of climate resiliency has moved front and center. Climate Resiliency is included as one of the ten overarching goals of the accord, with two specific outcomes for adaptation and for monitoring and assessment. The Agreement also recognizes that climate change will affect progress toward the achievement of other goals, requiring Bay Program partners to cross-coordinate among their Goal Implementation Teams.
Climate change is a big deal: it threatens to render less effective or even undo many of the restoration efforts we have made over the past 30 years. Fortunately, an interagency agreement with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has allowed for the establishment of a new position: Chesapeake Bay Program Climate Coordinator. The Bay Program has selected Zoë P. Johnson, previously the Director of Resiliency Planning and Policy for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, to serve in this position.
Zoë has been actively involved in sea level rise and coastal resiliency planning initiatives at federal, regional, state and local levels since 1998 and is the author of various reports and publications on sea level rise and coastal policy. She served as the Co-Chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program Partnership’s Climate Resiliency Workgroup and serves as key staff to Maryland’s Coast Smart Council and the Commission on Climate Change. The state of Maryland released its Strategy for Reducing Vulnerability to Climate Change: Sea Level Rise and Coastal Storms in 2008, and its Strategy for Building Societal, Economic and Ecologic Resilience in 2011. Using these strategies as a guide, Zoë was responsible for overseeing the development of state-level policy, as well as the execution of on-the-ground projects to implement a suite of natural resource adaptation priorities.
The impacts of climate change will affect the Chesapeake Bay and its ecosystem more dramatically than many other areas of the country—but Zoë is ideally suited to take on this very significant and important task. This is an exciting moment for the Bay Program partnership, and we are incredibly fortunate to have someone with Zoë’s background and breadth and depth of experience to be leading this effort. She knows the Bay Program, she knows climate change issues, she knows the players; she will be able to hit the ground running.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.
Warm weather is upon us, and that means people will be taking to the water to escape from the heat. Soon enough, the Chesapeake Bay will be dotted with bobbing watercrafts of all shapes and sizes. For those recreating on the Bay, the bright yellow Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS) markers may be a familiar sight, but they serve as much more than eye-catching aquatic beacons: they provide key insights into the health and safety conditions of the Bay.
The first buoys were deployed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Chesapeake Bay Office in 2007—marking 10 locations along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake Historic Trail—and have been collecting and transmitting real-time water quality and atmospheric data ever since. “It’s [the buoy system] interpretive because we work with the National Park Service as a partner to interpret John Smith’s trail, so there is a bit of a historical aspect to it,” said Katie Kirk, Senior Buoy Specialist at Earth Resources Technology, a contractor that supplies support staff and assistance to NOAA and other government agencies.
“Our main mission is to keep the 10 buoys that we have up and alive and transmitting as often as we can and deliver the data to as many users as we can,” said Kirk in reference to her and the field team’s work. Routine maintenance and repairs on the buoy fleet presents a swath of challenges that keeps the small team of CBIBS buoy technicians busy year-round.
The life of a CBIBS buoy technician differs from day-to-day and can be a physically demanding profession. Some days are spent in their Annapolis, Md., warehouse—affectionately referred to as the ‘buoy spa’—calibrating instruments, cleaning buoys, swapping out parts and working with computer systems. Other times, the team braves the wind, waves and elements to do onsite repairs and buoy maintenance.
As the summer and fall wind down and cold weather approaches, the team removes the three northernmost buoys from the Patapsco, Susquehanna and Upper Potomac rivers before freezing conditions set in to prevent ice damage. But this winter, the southern buoys succumbed to the frigid conditions: wind gusts exceeding 50 miles-per-hour and below-freezing water temperatures caused ice from sea spray to accumulate on and topple over the buoys, something the CBIBS team had never seen before. “The buoys that were off location tipped over, cracked and no longer had power, so we couldn’t track them on the GPS to figure out where they were. That was a pretty intense time trying to figure out where the buoys had moved to and how we could get to them,” explained Kirk.
After winter, the team’s short-term goals were to get all of the buoys repaired, online and transmitting data. With that completed, Kirk is now striving to see the data being analyzed and produced in scientific papers. “It’s been done before, but I want to get back to that and try to reach out to more teachers and researchers and see if they want more buoys or buoys in different locations,” Kirk said. “Then we can take the time and think about how our system reaches out to those users, what they need from us and what they would prefer.”
While many people accessing the data are local sailors and kayakers looking for information on the wind speed, currents, wave heights and local conditions before venturing out on the water, educators also integrate the data into their curriculum. Utilizing the data for educational purposes is of utmost importance to NOAA, so much so that they have an entire education team dedicated to reaching out to local schools to demonstrate how the CBIBS data can be used in the classroom.
In addition to live reporting of local water and weather conditions, the buoy data provides a snapshot into what is happening around the Bay, demonstrating in a quantitative way how each part of the ecosystem is interrelated. Information on water temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen can help researchers uncover important linkages between water quality and blue crab stocks, fish populations, bay grass abundance and more.
Despite the many challenges that the buoy technicians face, Kirk and her team exude an air of passion and commitment to maintaining the instruments that provide the most up-to-date information about the state of the Bay, all in the name of presenting the best science. For those working to restore the estuary and those interested in learning about the issues the Bay faces, the data can serve as a useful tool.
“I think we have an amazing opportunity to protect this watershed and this bay,” said Kirk. “It goes back to resources and taking pride in where you live. This is your home, why wouldn’t you protect it?”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Video and images by Will Parson
Text by Jenna Valente
As one of the most vulnerable regions in the nation to the effects of climate change, all aspects of life in the Chesapeake Bay watershed—from people and critters, to habitat and infrastructure—are at risk from its effects. Warming air and water temperatures, sea level rise and extreme weather events are expected to have a significant influence on the Bay region in the coming years, but many changes are already being documented. With recent record-breaking high temperatures, including last year and the first quarter of this year, some species are feeling the heat.
1. Cherry blossoms. Thousands of iconic cherry trees surround the Tidal Basin and national monuments of Washington, D.C., and their blossoms bring countless visitors to the area. Over the past 90 years, cherry blossoms have been blooming earlier, due in part to increasing average seasonal temperatures. Since 1921, Washington’s average March temperatures have warmed more than two degrees Fahrenheit, leading “peak bloom” for the cherry blossoms to shift five days earlier.
2. Chickadees. Two strikingly similar types of chickadees are common in backyards through the United States: in the Southeast, the Carolina chickadee is most common, while the black-capped chickadee dominates the northern states. A narrow band of overlap, called the “hybrid zone,” is where the two chickadees meet and interbreed—and it has been steadily moving northward as temperatures rise. According to one study, the zone has been shifting nearly 0.7 miles each year, moving a total of 7 miles in the past ten years.
3. Migratory waterfowl. The Bay region is a key stop for millions of migratory waterfowl during their seasonal flights. But milder winters have caused several bird species to visit in smaller numbers. Many canvasbacks have been stopping short along their migrations due to warming temperatures; one report shows the number of wintering canvasbacks in the Bay region declined from nearly 250,000 in the 1950s to 30,000 in recent years. Some tundra swans have been wintering on open rivers in Canada rather than the shallow waters of the Bay. These changes in waterfowl migrations can take a particular toll on recreational hunters, who are seeing fewer birds migrate through the region later in the season.
4. Fish. Nearly 350 species of finfish swim through the rivers, streams and open waters of the Bay region, and many of these species are particularly sensitive to changes in water temperature. Research suggests that the temperature at which native and migratory fish begin to spawn or migrate (typically 15 degrees Celsius) is occurring nearly three weeks earlier than it did in 1960. In particular, the black sea bass has been rapidly moving its range northward; communities in North Carolina who have typically caught a majority of the black sea bass catch have recently been traveling as far north as New Jersey to meet their quotas.
5. Bay grasses. Underwater grasses are a critical part of the Bay ecosystem, providing food and shelter for some of the Bay’s most iconic species, including young blue crabs. Bay grasses are particularly sensitive to excess rainfall and changes in temperature, meaning warming temperatures and more frequent, more extreme weather events are impacting their health. High temperatures during a 2005 heat wave are blamed for a massive die-off of eelgrass in the Bay, and while many areas have rebounded from the collapse, some eelgrass beds have not yet recovered.
6. Pine beetles. A changing climate doesn’t just affect the iconic, treasured species of the Bay region—it also make it easier for invasive species and pests, like the southern pine beetle, to move in. No bigger than a grain of rice, these beetles burrow under a tree’s bark and consume a layer of the tree, which disrupts the flow of nutrients and typically kills the tree in less than four months. Historically, the beetles were unable to survive north of Delaware. But warming temperatures, especially in the winter months, have allowed the pest to migrate northward along the East Coast, reaching as far as New York.
As environmental conditions continue to change, even more species will be threatened by rising seas, warming temperatures, extreme weather and habitat loss. Under the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, Bay Program partners are committed to building the climate resiliency of the animals, plants, habitats, infrastructure and communities throughout the region.
For more on what you can do, Take Action.
Solar energy is on the rise in the United States, and one jurisdiction in the Chesapeake Bay watershed has been named a leader in the solar energy revolution.
Image courtesy Mountain/\Ash/Flickr
According to a report released by Environment America, Delaware is one of the ten states that have installed the greatest amount of solar energy capacity per capita. At 82 watts per person, the state is in seventh place.
Since December 2008, Delaware has expanded its solar capacity from 2 to 59 megawatts. According to the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), the state has installed 1,600 solar energy systems on government buildings, businesses, schools and homes. What's driving this effort? Legislation, policies and financial incentives that support going solar.
Image courtesy Pacific Northwest National Library/Flickr
Solar energy uses the sun as fuel to create heat or electricity. It’s considered cleaner than coal- or natural gas-fired power plants because it doesn’t burn fossil fuels, which can release emissions that contribute to climate change.
Like other states in Environment America’s top ten, Delaware’s interconnection policies make it easier for individuals and companies to connect their solar energy systems to the power grid. Solar rebates and other financing options help lower the cost of installation, while "net metering" policies compensate consumers for the excess energy they return. The solar market is also moving forward in response to Delaware’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which calls for the state to draw 25 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2025, with at least 3.5 percent coming from solar.
“Encouraging solar power is the right thing to do for the environment and our economy,” said Delaware Gov. Jack Markell in a media release. “We are aggressively working toward a clean energy future in Delaware, demonstrating we can have both a strong economy and a healthy environment. That means creating a robust market for solar and other clean energy systems, creating clean energy jobs, expanding our solar industry and improving air quality.”
Two additional watershed jurisdictions received special mention in Environment America’s report: New York, whose solar energy market is growing quickly, and the District of Columbia, where new clean energy policies are set to make solar more attractive and accessible to consumers.
During summer months, Chesapeake Bay waters become home to a range of bacteria. One of the most talked-about bacteria is Vibrio, which occurs naturally in warm estuarine waters and can infect those who eat contaminated shellfish or swim with open wounds in contaminated waters. But illness can be avoided. Learn about the bacteria—and how to avoid infection—with this list of five Vibrio facts.
Image courtesy CDC/Wikimedia Commons
1. Vibrio is a naturally occurring bacteria. There are more than 80 species of Vibrio, which occur naturally in brackish and saltwater. Not all species can infect humans, but two strains that can have raised concern in the Bay watershed: Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus. The bacteria are carried on the shells and in the bodies of microscopic animals called copepods.
2. The presence of Vibrio in surface waters is affected by water temperature, salinity and chlorophyll. Because Vibrio prefers warm waters, it is not found in the Bay during winter months. Instead, it is common in the summer and early fall. When water temperatures are warm, algae blooms form, fed by nutrients in the water. These blooms feed the copepods that carry the Vibrio bacteria. When the copepods die, Vibrio bacteria are shed into the water. As climate change increases the temperature of the Bay, both algae blooms and Vibrio could persist later in the season.
3. Vibrio infections can occur in people who eat raw or undercooked shellfish or who swim with open wounds or punctures in contaminated waters. While infections are rare, they do take place and can be particularly dangerous for people with compromised immune systems. The ingestion of Vibrio can cause vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain, and in some cases can infect the bloodstream. If an open wound or puncture comes into contact with the bacteria, the area around the wound can experience swelling, redness, pain, blistering and ulceration of the skin.
4. Infection can be avoided. To avoid Vibrio infection, follow these tips:
5. Vibrio symptoms can start 12 to 72 hours after exposure. If you think you’ve been infected with Vibrio, seek medical attention. Make sure to let your doctor know that you have eaten raw or undercooked shellfish or crabs or have come into contact with brackish or saltwater.
Eight of the top 10 U.S. cities that have seen an increase in “nuisance flooding” alongside rising seas are on the East Coast, according to a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Four of the top 10 cities are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Annapolis and Baltimore lead the list with a 925 and 920 percent increase in their average number of nuisance floods since 1960. Washington, D.C., has seen a 373 percent increase, while Norfolk has seen a 325 percent increase.
According to the report, nuisance flooding—or minor flooding that closes roads, overwhelms storm drains and compromises infrastructure never designed to withstand inundation or saltwater exposure—will worsen as sea level rise accelerates. Indeed, nuisance flooding has become “more noticeable and widespread” because of rising seas, sinking land and the loss of natural flood barriers.
“As relative sea level increases, it no longer takes a strong storm or a hurricane to cause flooding,” said William Sweet, oceanographer and lead author of the report, in a media release. “Flooding now occurs with high tides.”
Image courtesy rwillia533/Flickr
The study was conducted by scientists at the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, who compared data from 45 tide gauges with reports of nuisance floods; whether or not a nuisance flood has taken place is determined at the local level by a National Weather Service threshold. It is hoped the findings will “heighten awareness of a growing problem” and “encourage resiliency efforts in response to” sea level rise.
An understanding of where floods are occurring is integral to building climate resiliency. Once coastal communities know where environmental threats and vulnerabilities lie, they can take steps to move growth and development away from the coast, enhance preparedness efforts to protect human health and protect and restore wetlands, buffers and barrier islands that might shield the shoreline from strong wind and waves.
The Chesapeake Bay Program has set a goal to increase the climate resiliency of the watershed’s living resources and public infrastructure, using monitoring, assessment and adaptation to ensure the region withstands the impacts of a changing climate.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its proposed Clean Power Plan this week, which EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy called a “vital piece” of President Obama’s plan to cut carbon pollution and slow the effects of climate change.
Image courtesy Rennett Stowe/Flickr
The Clean Power Plan aims to lower carbon emissions from the power sector to 30 percent below 2005 levels. According to the EPA, this would also cut emissions of particle pollution, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide more than 25 percent, lowering asthma attacks and medical bills and working toward justice for the low-income communities that are hardest hit by air pollution.
Fossil-fueled power plants are the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States, accounting for one-third of our greenhouse gas emissions. Left unchecked, carbon pollution leads to rising temperatures and sea levels and changes in weather patterns, ecosystems and habitats. It also worsens smog, which affects the heart and lung health of children, older adults and people living in poverty.
“This is about protecting our health and our homes,” McCarthy said in a speech celebrating the plan’s release.
Image courtesy francescopratese/Flickr
The plan would give states the freedom to chart their own course toward their own goals. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” McCarthy said. Instead, states can “mix and match” methods of electricity production—whether it is a low-carbon or “no” carbon source like nuclear, wind or solar energy—and pollution control policies to ensure a “smooth transition to cleaner power.”
Comments on the proposal will be accepted for 120 days after its publication in the Federal Register. The EPA will host public hearings on the plan in Denver, Atlanta, the District of Columbia and Pittsburgh during the week of July 28, and will finalize the plan next June.
Restoring tidal wetlands could lower the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and offset the impacts of climate change, according to research released this month by Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE).
In a report on research conducted in Washington’s Puget Sound, scientists show that the 1,353 hectares—or 3,300+ acres—of wetlands that are planned or under construction in the sound’s Snohomish Estuary will help remove at least 2.55 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the next century. This is equal to the annual emissions of 500,000 average-sized cars.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that can trap heat in our atmosphere and contribute to climate change. It is the top greenhouse gas emitted by human activities, but it can be removed from the atmosphere by plants, which need it to create food.
When wetlands take in carbon dioxide, excess carbon is stored in organic-rich soils. When wetlands are drained and developed, however, carbon is released back into the atmosphere. Restoring wetlands can reactivate this carbon sequestration process.
“This report is a call to action,” said Steve Emmett-Mattox, senior director at RAE and co-author of the study, in a media release. “We need to invest more substantially in coastal restoration nationwide and in science to increase our understanding of the climate benefits which accrue from coastal restoration and protection efforts.”
In addition to climate benefits, wetlands can improve water quality, support fisheries and reduce flood risks. But according to a 2013 report, the United States is losing wetlands at a rate of 80,000 acres per year, and the rising seas of climate change threaten to turn wetlands into shallow bays.
Related research from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center has shown that high levels of carbon dioxide can help wetlands create new soil faster, which could help the habitats move to higher elevations ahead of rising seas.
The intensive withdrawal of groundwater is causing land to sink in the lower Chesapeake Bay region, worsening the effects of sea-level rise and increasing the severity of floods along the Delmarva Peninsula and Virginia Coastal Plain.
Image courtesy PhotoSeoul/Flickr
Land subsidence, or the sinking of the land’s surface, is in part a natural phenomenon, occurring as bedrock responds to the melting of an ice sheet that once covered Canada and the northern United States. But according to a new report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), most of the land subsidence in this area is taking place in response to groundwater withdrawal, which could help explain why the region has the highest rates of relative sea-level rise on the Atlantic Coast.
When groundwater is pumped out of the earth, water levels in the area’s underground aquifers decrease. As these water levels decrease, the aquifer system compacts, causing the land above it to sink. In the southern Bay region, land subsidence has been measured at rates of 1.1 to 4.8 millimeters per year—close to the width of five stacked pennies.
Land subsidence can increase flooding, alter wetland and coastal ecosystems, and damage human infrastructure and historical sites. Some areas in Virginia—like the city of Franklin and the counties of Isle of Wight and Southhampton—have already experienced floods as the land around them sinks, and the low-lying Hampton Roads could experience similar episodes soon.
But according to the USGS, a change in water use—from moving groundwater pumping out of high-risk areas to slowing rates of groundwater withdrawal—could slow or mitigate land subsidence and relative sea-level rise.
More than $100 million in grant funding is available for work to protect communities affected by Hurricane Sandy from the growing risks of climate change.
Announced by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) on the one-year anniversary of the “superstorm” that affected the entire East Coast, raising river flow in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and causing significant damage to New Jersey and New York, the Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grants Program will direct funding to those states that declared a natural disaster after the storm, including all seven Bay jurisdictions.
In an effort to benefit humans and wildlife alike, funding will be directed to those projects that use natural ecosystems to protect coastal communities from strong storms, sea level rise and erosion. The restoration of marshes, wetlands and oyster reefs, for example, can build coastal resiliency in the face of climate change; so, too, can planting streamside trees, removing dams from rivers and streams, and better managing stormwater runoff.
“By stabilizing marshes and beaches, restoring wetlands and improving the resilience of coastal areas, we not only create opportunities for people to connect with nature…, but we can also provide an effective buffer that protects local communities from powerful storm surges and devastating floods when a storm like Sandy hits,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in a media release.
A new executive order calls on federal agencies to help the nation prepare for climate change, establishing a task force of state and local leaders that will advise the government on how to respond to the growing needs of climate-affected communities.
According to the Climate Consortium of Maryland, more than 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is happening. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, climate change will likely lead to heat waves, stronger storms and sea-level rise.
The executive order encourages the nation to cut carbon pollution now and to make smart, climate-resilient investments in the future. It is an important step toward President Obama’s three-tiered Climate Action Plan, which was issued in June and which involves reducing carbon pollution, preparing for the impacts of climate change and leading international efforts to address what is a global challenge.
A number of watershed communities have already begun to prepare for climate change, updating building codes, better managing natural resources and investing in stronger infrastructure. Baltimore, for instance, is replacing its aging stormwater management system; Norfolk plans to spend $150 million on tide gates; and Tangier Island will soon be shielded from strong waves with the installation of a $4.2 million jetty and seawall.
Learn more about the executive order on climate preparedness.
We know the environment is changing. There are visible signs all around us, and a substantial body of unambiguous data that confirms it. Sea levels are rising. Extreme storms are more frequent and destructive. Droughts and wildfires plague areas around the world. Wetlands are disappearing. Tree species are moving beyond their traditional range. Animal species are migrating at new times and to new places as average temperatures rise. Pests are showing up in places where they have never existed before. Environmental conditions are changing. It doesn’t really matter what you call it—it’s happening, and we must adapt.
One can argue about whether or not these changes have been caused by humans. I believe there is sufficient evidence to show that human activity is responsible for a good part of it. But the question remains: how can we minimize the negative impacts of these changing environmental conditions?
How do we respond? How do we address these changes within the context of Chesapeake Bay restoration? Chris Pyke, chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC), suggests that we look ahead, anticipate these changes and adapt our approaches to them. We need to look at the pollution control measures and management strategies we are developing and determine if they will continue to be effective in light of our changing future. The Bay Program has incorporated an adaptive management decision-making framework that uses scientific data as the basis for responding to these changing conditions. If we don’t continue on this adaptive management track, the money we have spent to control pollution will have been wasted.
Call it climate change. Call it global warming. Call it sea level rise. It doesn’t really matter what you call it. We know environmental conditions are changing. We ignore it at our peril.
On one of the last remaining islands of the Chesapeake Bay, generations of working watermen have found a home.
Settled in the late seventeenth century, Tangier Island spans a five-mile stretch of water and has never supported more than 1,500 people. Its small size and relative isolation have allowed its residents to maintain a close connection to the past, keeping old customs and a distinct Tidewater dialect alive.
Modern families—with surnames like Crockett, Pruitt, Parks and Dise—can trace their lineage back hundreds of years, and the island’s economy remains tied to the harvest of crabs, fish and oysters. But these tenuous traditions are threatened by worsening water quality and sea-level rise.
In December, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team called together decision-makers and watermen for a shared meal and stakeholders’ discussion at one of Tangier Island’s four sit-down restaurants.
Watermen from Tangier and neighboring Smith Island spoke of the problems they see in and on the Bay and how they might be more involved in the management decisions that directly impact their livelihoods.
Held in the community in which these watermen live and work, the meeting allowed many of them to speak and be heard in a new and significant way.
One of the most pressing problems for the watermen is the flow of sediment into the Bay. As sediment runs off of land and into the water, sand and silt block sunlight from reaching the grass beds that offer shedding blue crabs refuge when their soft shells make them most vulnerable.
Soft-shell crabs are critical to the Tangier Island economy. And a loss of grass beds—which one waterman called “the life blood of the Chesapeake Bay”—could mean a loss of soft-shell crabs. “The habitat,” a second waterman said. “It just ain’t there.”
Seawalls have been put in place to slow the erosion of the island. But as sea levels rise, the land sinks and storms like Sandy, Irene and Isabel grow stronger and more frequent, Tangier continues to wash away.
The northernmost portion of Tangier Island is called Uppards. Once home to a store, a school, a church and a collection of homes, the life of Uppards has disappeared, leaving behind one tumbledown trailer and stretches of marsh, sand and beach.
In October, a small cemetery was uncovered on Uppards by the winds and waves of Superstorm Sandy. Headstones in the graveyard bear the common surname Pruitt. The once-buried bones of those who died in the 1880s are now visible aboveground.
This fall, Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell and officials from the Army Corps of Engineers pledged to build a $4.2 million jetty that will protect the island’s harbor. Some see the long-awaited initiative as a beacon of hope, while others believe it serves only to slow inevitable erosion.
As Tangier Island shrinks, the costs of fuel and gear and living rise, placing further pressure on the island’s aging watermen.
But what career alternatives does a waterman have? Some take jobs aboard tug boats. Other host tours for visitors from the mainland. And still others have found work as captains and educators at island study centers operated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
But most Tangier residents would find it difficult to obtain work off the island, where a 45-minute ride on a ferry or mail boat is needed to make it to the nearest town. One waterman lamented this lack of options: “We don’t have the opportunity to get a land job.”
A dependence on the fish and shellfish of the Bay has created a conservation ethic in many Tangier watermen, including Tangier Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge. Eskridge spoke of the importance of restoration efforts in a time of environmental change, and of preserving natural resources in order to preserve Tangier careers and culture: “A sustainable resource is more important to a waterman than anyone else.”
Access high-resolution images of Tangier Island on the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
“You’re going to want to take those off for this.” Alicia points to my gloves.
Exposing my hands to the cold – the kind of bitter cold that strikes only in the middle of winter, in the middle of night, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay – did not seem like something I’d ever “want” to do. Why did I volunteer for this again?
But Alicia Berlin, leader of the Atlantic Seaduck Project, has given me the job of untangling something called a "mist net." The net’s delicate fabric is quick to catch on fabric as we stretch it forty or so feet across the Chesapeake Bay. So I reluctantly shed the gloves, exposing my bare hands to winter’s icy chill.
Alicia and her team hope to capture surf scoters and black scoters in the mist net, and then arm them with GPS-like trackers that allow researchers to monitor the ducks’ migration patterns and feeding habits.
Since sea ducks only visit the Chesapeake Bay in winter, and since they are most active in the pre-dawn hours, Alicia’s team works in the cold darkness to assemble the mist net and trap these vacationing birds.
I quickly realize that unraveling the mist net is the easy job. The other volunteer I’m working with is leaning over the edge of the raft, his bare hands in the water; his headlamp the only source of light to illuminate his task.
He’s huffing and puffing and shivering as he pulls our raft along the anchor line, waiting for me to untangle the net above him before we can move forward. I stand nearly on top of him, praying I don't trip and fall overboard into the black, bone-chilling water just a foot below us. It’s so cold I can smell it.
Minutes later, we’re staring at our end product: what looks like a large volleyball net floating in the middle of the water, surrounded by two dozen decoys (plastic fake ducks) bobbling on the frigid waves. The darkness is turning gray, so we rush to our second location and set ourselves on repeat.
Once we finish our setup, there’s nothing left to do but wait. I try to force myself to stay alert – to listen for ducks calling, to search the horizon for flying silhouettes coming towards our decoys – but I can't. The frosty weather is numbing every part of my body, even though I’m wearing a ridiculous-looking "survival suit," a garment reminiscent of Randy's snow suit in A Christmas Story.
I’m not the only one who’s falling asleep sitting up. I met Alicia and her team on the Eastern Shore at 1 a.m., giving me just three hours of sleep. The more consistent volunteers are completely exhausted, pulling all-nighters followed by eight-hour work days. This collective sleep deprivation leads to an interestingly honest team dynamic and contributes to a plethora of freak accidents. (Alicia somehow drove our boat directly into a mist net just minutes after we had set it up.)
One can only hope that our lack of sleep will pays off, but not a single duck has flown into the mist nets all week. Perhaps tonight will make up for team’s previous disappointments.
Apparently, mist netting isn’t the most effective technique to capture sea ducks. According to Alicia, night lighting is far more successful. A team goes out on the water in the middle of the night, preferably in rainy weather, and shines flood lights on the water to locate ducks. Volunteers then capture the unsuspecting ducks in nets.
Captured ducks are kept in cages on the boat until morning. Then they’re transported to Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, Maryland, where a surgeon implants the tracking devices in the ducks. (Alicia assures me the ducks can't feel the device.) The next evening, lucky volunteers set the sea ducks free on the Chesapeake Bay.
(Image courtesy Andrew Reding/Flickr)
The number of sea ducks wintering on the Chesapeake Bay has decreased in recent years due to food availability and the effects of climate change. Many sea ducks rely on bay grasses that only grow at certain depths and are affected by algae blooms and high temperatures.
I’m awakened at sunrise by honks and quacks. My raft mates and I scope out the skies in different directions, identifying packs of ducks that will hopefully visit our mist net. My eyes follow pair after pair flying toward the net; but at the last minute, each one goes over or around it. Perhaps these birds are smarter than we give them credit for.
The larger boat that’s watching the second net has similar bad luck. That team decides to sneak up on a pack and drive the birds in the general direction of our nets. After a mess of quacking and fluttering, the ducks head not for the net, but directly toward our raft!
We chase the ducks around the Bay until 10 or 11 that morning, but not a single sea duck gets caught in the nets we worked so hard to set up. 'Tis the unpredictable nature of wildlife biology, the team says. Everything is a constant experiment: from the team's capture technique to the location of the nets to the weather. Failure is simply part of the learning process. Alicia is confident that tomorrow will bring better luck, and that night lighting next week will guarantee results.
We disassemble the mist net and head toward the shore, just in time to beat the growing waves that signal an approaching rain storm.
I've never been happier to bask under an automobile's heat vents.
Every Sunday morning at 8, a handful of bird enthusiasts flock to Dyke Marsh, the only freshwater marsh along the upper tidal Potomac River. The Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, located south of Alexandria, Va., is home to almost 300 species of birds. The marsh is classified as a “globally rare” habitat, one that’s particularly unique in this dense, urban area just outside the nation’s capital.
(Image courtesy of Friends of Dyke Marsh)
Since 1975, the nonprofit volunteer group Friends of Dyke Marsh (FODM) has helped preserve, restore and celebrate this rare ecosystem. In addition to arranging weekly bird watching trips, FODM sponsors scientific surveys, leads school groups, removes invasive plants, organizes cleanups and builds public appreciation for the marsh.
FODM supports scientific surveys that illustrate the marsh’s irreplaceable habitat. Freshwater tidal marshes are flooded with fresh water with each incoming high tide, and include a variety of rare emergent grasses and sedges rather than shrubs.
“Dyke Marsh is a remnant of the extensive tidal wetlands that used to line the Potomac River,” explains FODM president Glenda Booth. “It provides buffering during storms. It absorbs flood waters. It’s a nursery for fish. It’s a rich biodiverse area in a large metropolitan area. We think it’s important to preserve what little is left.”
With the support of FODM, a Virginia Natural Heritage Program employee completed a survey of dragonflies and damselflies on the preserve in spring 2011. In addition, members conduct a breeding bird survey every spring. Last year, FODM recorded 78 species. The highlight? A confirmed breeding eastern screech-owl, the first documented in 20 years.
(Image courtesy of Friends of Dyke Marsh)
“Our biggest challenge is to stop that erosion and restore Dyke Marsh,” says Booth.
Dyke Marsh was already destabilized in 1959, when Congress added it to the U.S. National Park system. USGS scientists largely attributed this to human impacts: sand and gravel mining that gouged out substantial parts of the marsh and removed a promontory that protected the wetland from storms, leaving Dyke Marsh exposed and vulnerable.
FODM works with the National Park Service to enhance wetland habitat and slow erosion of the marsh’s shoreline.
Educating neighbors about their connection to Dyke Marsh and fostering appreciation of this scenic area are also essential components of FODM’s preservation goals.
(Image courtesy of Friends of Dyke Marsh)
Like most other parts of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, invasive plants are a problem in Dyke Marsh. “A lot of people plant things that are aggressive and not native, and these plants end up in the marsh.” And pollution that flows into streams throughout Fairfax County eventually empties into Dyke Marsh, threatening its wildlife and habitat.
Preserving Dyke Marsh is a goal that extends beyond the marsh itself, according to Booth. “We have to make sure that activities on our boundaries are compatible with preservation goals.” That means advocating for regulations that prohibit jet skiing, which disturbs the marsh’s nesting birds in spring.
Visit FODM’s website to learn more about upcoming outreach and educational opportunities and to find out other ways you can enjoy Dyke Marsh.
Hurricanes, earthquakes, a freezing cold winter and a blistering hot summer – 2011 has been an interesting year for weather in the Chesapeake Bay region. Scientists with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center have written some preliminary thoughts about the bizarre weather and its link to conditions in the Bay in a post on SERC’s blog, Shorelines.
While SERC tends to focus on the long-term picture rather than brief snapshots, this year has prompted more than a few raised eyebrows among our scientists. What does it mean for the environment? What does it mean for Chesapeake Bay? And can any of it be linked to climate change?
Visit SERC’s blog to read more about the link between 2011 weather and the Chesapeake Bay.
Image courtesy Iris Goldstein/Flickr
The Maryland Commission on Climate Change has released a report outlining strategies to reduce the effects of climate change on Maryland’s land, water and people.
The report, called the Phase II Strategy for Reducing Maryland’s Vulnerability to Climate Change: Building Societal, Economic and Ecological Resilience, includes a section devoted to the Chesapeake Bay and aquatic ecosystems. More than 80 experts worked together to develop the strategy.
Maryland state agencies will use the Phase II Strategy along with its companion, the Phase I Strategy for Sea Level Rise and Coastal Storms (2008), to guide and prioritize their policies on adapting to climate change.
With more than 3,000 miles of shoreline, Maryland is the fourth most vulnerable state to climate change and rising sea levels in the nation. Because the Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States, the effects of climate change here have implications for similar bays and ecosystems.
The report’s chapter on Bay and Aquatic Ecosystems concludes that climate change will alter the distribution of species and habitats in Maryland, and may in fact worsen conditions that are already putting stress on these species and habitats. Rising temperatures, precipitation shifts and sea level rise are all expected to affect aquatic plants, animals and their habitats.
Climate change is also expected to alter the interactions between humans and the Bay. Fisheries and recreational opportunities may diminish due to sea level rise. Wetlands in the state may become degraded, limiting the protection of sensitive shorelines during storms.
The report offers recommendations for Maryland to reduce current stressors on the Bay and aquatic ecosystems as well as proactive steps to stop future damage. These include increasing monitoring and assessment to guide future decision-making and assessing current management efforts used to protect critical habitats and ecosystem services.
In particular, the report recommends protecting coastal habitats and streamside forest buffers to address land use changes along the state’s waterways.
For more information about the report and the Maryland Commission on Climate Change, visit Maryland’s website.
A recently released report by the U.S. EPA shows that many areas around the Bay’s shoreline are already witnessing the effects of sea level rise and that vulnerable tidal marshes may erode more rapidly over the next century because of climate change.
The report, Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-Level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region, examines the impacts of sea level rise on the human communities and wildlife habitat of the Mid-Atlantic coast, including Chesapeake Bay. According to the EPA, the Mid-Atlantic region is one area of the U.S. that will likely see the greatest impacts of climate change due to rising waters, coastal storms and a high population concentration along the coastline.
At the 20th century rate of sea level rise (3-4 mm per year), extensive areas of marsh in the Bay (depicted in red in the image to the right) will become marginal, or only able to survive under optimal conditions. Other low-lying areas, depicted in blue, will be fully submerged at the current rate of sea level rise. The report cites evidence that sea level rise is increasing due to climate change, which would accelerate erosion of the Bay’s marshes.
A clear example of the effects of sea level rise can be seen on the Bay’s marsh islands, many of which have already been lost or severely eroded. These islands are vital to bird species like terns, black skimmers and American oystercatchers, which use the islands to nest and breed. On the mainland shoreline of the Bay, nearly all of the beaches are eroding, which has led many waterfront property owners to install hardened shorelines as protection.
In addition to the effects of sea level rise, the report details the efforts of state and local governments throughout the Mid-Atlantic to protect coastal communities against erosion. Maryland is noted as having the most stringent policies on development along the Chesapeake and coastal areas. The state’s Critical Area laws limit development within 1,000 feet of the shoreline.
“Our state is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change -- including sea level rise,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley in response to the EPA report. “We are making real progress in both preparing for the impacts of climate change but also in reducing the actions that contribute to it.”
However, the report shows that most shoreline protection structures are designed to protect properties from current sea level, rather than the anticipated increases. “Preparing now can reduce the eventual environmental and economic impacts of sea level rise,” reads a report highlight.
Waterfront property owners interested in learning more on how they can protect their shoreline from erosion and sea level rise can visit Maryland DNR’s website for more information.