Ghosts of estuaries present haunting our local waterways
By Arie Ostry, Mollie Russell, and Katie Tanner
It’s almost Halloween and we’re taking a deep dive into the scariest monsters haunting our local estuaries. From man-made intrusions to mother nature herself, there are plenty of threats to some of our most delicate and profitable ecosystems.
Some of these hauntings are clearly dangerous. Others have been sneaking up on us for years now. But unlike some of our favorite horror film classics, where the villains are supernatural and perplexing, we have the understanding and tools to fight back against these estuary scaries.
Pollutants of all kinds, including toxic potions of metals, pesticides, gas, and oil, creep into estuaries and make their way up the food chain from algae to fish to birds until they reach humans. Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous may seem harmless at first, but beware! Too many nutrients in the water can lead to eutrophication, which causes algal blooms that use up all the available oxygen in the water as they die, creating dead zones where no plants or animals can survive.
Dredging, although beneficial for travel and shipping, haunts estuaries with murky waters, altered tidal patterns, and reduced nutrient flow from marshes. While environmental dredging can remediate sedimentation, another significant estuarine issue, there is a fine line between dredging for convenience and dredging with care.
3. Invasive Species
Invasive species scare away the native flora and fauna that keep our estuaries healthy and prosperous! In the Chesapeake Bay, phragmites and zebra mussels have transformed the landscape of the estuary, with both species rapidly growing in number and dominating native plants and wildlife.
4. Reduced Freshwater Inflow
Estuaries cannot function without freshwater inflows – they are needed to maintain their structure and function. Dams, which block the natural routes of streams and rivers, reduce the amount of freshwater that can reach an estuary. Freshwater inflow is also being affected as humans extract water upstream and from aquifers to satisfy society’s water needs.
5. Sea Level Rise
Sea level rise is creeping up on us! As global temperatures climb, melting ice sheets in the Arctic have continually caused the global average sea level to increase. These rising tides can erode estuaries and increase coastal flooding, putting both wildlife and people who live in these coastal communities in a scary situation.
6. Oil and Gas Drilling
Drilling for gas and oil disturbs estuarine communities and can even lead to oil spills that turn the ocean and estuaries dark, murky, and uninhabitable. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the worst of these accidents and showed the urgent need for a transition to renewable energy sources to prevent future disasters.
Our estuaries have been receiving more tricks than treats lately, and it is up to us to take action to restore and preserve these ecosystems for generations to come.
Want to learn more about these estuary haunts, as well as the ever-present threat of climate change? Sign up for the RAE Newsletter today and learn about opportunities to help protect your local estuary!
Arie, Mollie, and Katie joined RAE as interns during the Fall of 2020. They are college students in various Mid-Atlantic states with aspirations for careers in estuary conservation and restoration.