Seagrass: Another Vital Carbon-Sequestering Ecosystem Threatened by Climate Change
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
The seeding effort eventually delivered more than 70 million seeds — and it paid off, creating some 9,000 acres of the underwater plants.
Now monitoring of these restored meadows reveals multiple benefits to their restoration, including substantial increases in fish and invertebrate abundance, improved water clarity, and significant trapping of carbon and nitrogen.
"Planting adult seagrass is very labor intensive, but we started looking at using seeds in the lab and found it was quite easy," said biologist Robert "JJ" Orth, lead author on a new paper about the project. "These areas have good water quality, are shallow and are near the ocean so they get bathed in cooler water — perfect conditions. It was a surprise how quickly it happened."
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0
The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.
Successful seagrass-restoration methods include transplanting shoots, mechanized planting and, more recently, biodegradable mats. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.
Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.
But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.
The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is accelerating in many regions.
The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.
All that damage comes with a cost.
The Value of Seagrass
As with ecosystems like rainforests and mangroves, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.
Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it accounts for 10% of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their high carbon burial rates. In Australia, according to research by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC
Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a paper from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.
"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."
In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly beach nourishments regularly conducted in tourism areas.
Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).
The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for roughly 20% of the world's largest fisheries — an estimated 70% of fish habitats in Florida alone.
Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread fish kill in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate
Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.
Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. Research published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and climate change.
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.
Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.
But There’s Good News, Too
Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a paper published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.
That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.
A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.
That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.
Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.
"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."
A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.
In the meantime, small actions can make a big difference — such as fertilizer ordinances, for example, Gardinali suggested.
"Nitrogen and phosphorus are the problem," he said. "It's an easy first step. We can change the way we do small things, one at a time."
Everything we do at this point will help, not only seagrass but everything that depends on it.
"These habitats are so vital," Hyman says. "Putting aside erosion control and all these benefits people might not find as important, they harbor juvenile stages of all these marine species we like to eat — blue crabs, for example. From that standpoint alone, seagrass provides countless benefits to the economy."
Those benefits have mostly gone ignored in favor of more visible, charismatic land-based habitats. That needs to change, the experts say.
"What the trees in the Amazon rainforest provide for that system is what eelgrass provides in estuarine systems," said Walter. "So many ecosystem services, beyond just being a beautiful grass."
One that, if we let it, will provide those services for hundreds of years.
Melissa Gaskill is a freelance science writer based in Austin whose work has appeared in Scientific American, Mental Floss, Newsweek, Alert Diver and many other publications. She is the co-author of A Worldwide Travel Guide to Sea Turtles and author of Pandas to Penguins: Ethical Encounters with Animals at Risk.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
By Frank La Sorte and Kyle Horton
Millions of birds travel between their breeding and wintering grounds during spring and autumn migration, creating one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world. These journeys often span incredible distances. For example, the Blackpoll warbler, which weighs less than half an ounce, may travel up to 1,500 miles between its nesting grounds in Canada and its wintering grounds in the Caribbean and South America.
Blackpoll warbler. PJTurgeon / Wikipedia<p>We used this information to determine how the number of migratory bird species varies based on each city's level of <a href="https://www.britannica.com/science/light-pollution" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">light pollution</a> – brightening of the night sky caused by artificial light sources, such as buildings and streetlights. We also explored how species numbers vary based on the quantity of tree canopy cover and impervious surface, such as concrete and asphalt, within each city. Our findings show that cities can help migrating birds by planting more trees and reducing light pollution, especially during spring and autumn migration.</p>
Declining Bird Populations<p>Urban areas contain numerous dangers for migratory birds. The biggest threat is the risk of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1650/CONDOR-13-090.1" target="_blank">colliding with buildings or communication towers</a>. Many migratory bird populations have <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw1313" target="_blank">declined over the past 50 years</a>, and it is possible that light pollution from cities is contributing to these losses.</p><p>Scientists widely agree that light pollution can <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1708574114" target="_blank">severely disorient migratory birds</a> and make it hard for them to navigate. Studies have shown that birds will cluster around brightly lit structures, much like insects flying around a porch light at night. Cities are the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2029" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">primary source of light pollution for migratory birds</a>, and these species tend to be more abundant within cities <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.13792" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">during migration</a>, especially in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2020.103892" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">city parks</a>.</p>
Composite image of the continental U.S. at night from satellite photos. NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
The Power of Citizen Science<p>It's not easy to observe and document bird migration, especially for species that migrate at night. The main challenge is that many of these species are very small, which limits scientists' ability to use electronic tracking devices.</p><p>With the growth of the internet and other information technologies, new data resources are becoming available that are making it possible to overcome some of these challenges. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-07106-5" target="_blank">Citizen science initiatives</a> in which volunteers use online portals to enter their observations of the natural world have become an important resource for researchers.</p><p>One such initiative, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird</a>, allows bird-watchers around the globe to share their observations from any location and time. This has produced one of the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ecog.04632" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">largest ecological citizen-science databases in the world</a>. To date, eBird contains over 922 million bird observations compiled by over 617,000 participants.</p>
Light Pollution Both Attracts and Repels Migratory Birds<p>Migratory bird species have evolved to use certain migration routes and types of habitat, such as forests, grasslands or marshes. While humans may enjoy seeing migratory birds appear in urban areas, it's generally not good for bird populations. In addition to the many hazards that exist in urban areas, cities typically lack the food resources and cover that birds need during migration or when raising their young. As scientists, we're concerned when we see evidence that migratory birds are being drawn away from their traditional migration routes and natural habitats.</p><p>Through our analysis of eBird data, we found that cities contained the greatest numbers of migratory bird species during spring and autumn migration. Higher levels of light pollution were associated with more species during migration – evidence that light pollution attracts migratory birds to cities across the U.S. This is cause for concern, as it shows that the influence of light pollution on migratory behavior is strong enough to increase the number of species that would normally be found in urban areas.</p><p>In contrast, we found that higher levels of light pollution were associated with fewer migratory bird species during the summer and winter. This is likely due to the scarcity of suitable habitat in cities, such as large forest patches, in combination with the adverse affects of light pollution on bird behavior and health. In addition, during these seasons, migratory birds are active only during the day and their populations are largely stationary, creating few opportunities for light pollution to attract them to urban areas.</p>
Trees and Pavement<p>We found that tree canopy cover was associated with more migratory bird species during spring migration and the summer. Trees provide important habitat for migratory birds during migration and the breeding season, so the presence of trees can have a strong effect on the number of migratory bird species that occur in cities.</p><p>Finally, we found that higher levels of impervious surface were associated with more migratory bird species during the winter. This result is somewhat surprising. It could be a product of the <a href="https://www.epa.gov/heatislands" target="_blank">urban heat island effect</a> – the fact that structures and paved surfaces in cities absorb and reemit more of the sun's heat than natural surfaces. Replacing vegetation with buildings, roads and parking lots can therefore make cities significantly warmer than surrounding lands. This effect could reduce cold stress on birds and increase food resources, such as insect populations, during the winter.</p><p>Our research adds to our understanding of how conditions in cities can both help and hurt migratory bird populations. We hope that our findings will inform urban planning initiatives and strategies to reduce the harmful effects of cities on migratory birds through such measures as <a href="https://www.arborday.org/programs/treecityusa/index.cfm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">planting more trees</a> and initiating <a href="https://aeroecolab.com/uslights" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">lights-out programs</a>. Efforts to make it easier for migratory birds to complete their incredible journeys will help maintain their populations into the future.</p><p><em><span style="background-color: initial;"><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/frank-la-sorte-1191494" target="_blank">Frank La Sorte</a> is a r</span>esearch associate at the </em><em>Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University. <a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/kyle-horton-1191498" target="_blank">Kyle Horton</a> is an assistant professor of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at the Colorado State University.</em></p><p><em></em><em>Disclosure statement: Frank La Sorte receives funding from The Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation and the National Science Foundation (DBI-1939187). K</em><em>yle Horton does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/cities-can-help-migrating-birds-on-their-way-by-planting-more-trees-and-turning-lights-off-at-night-152573" target="_blank">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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