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Earth Month: Water

Frothing water

Frothing water (Christoffer EngströmUnsplash)

Frothing water

Frothing water (Christoffer EngströmUnsplash)

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Discover the issues surrounding water today, and learn what you can do to help.

Water

Water is our most precious resource. Without it, human beings could not survive. The struggle to find and manage water resources has shaped migration, settlement, and the fabric of our diverse societies. This is still true today. There are still large parts of the world where people struggle to manage clean water. This includes Canada.

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls (Source: Sergey Pesterev via Unsplash).
Image - Text version

Shown is a colour photograph of Niagara Falls at sunset. 

The water at the top of the falls is dark greenish blue. There are lots of pale blue and green spots where it runs over rocks. The water drops over a sharp, horseshoe-shaped cliff that stretches from the bottom left corner across the photograph and back to the top left side. The water is pale blue and green as it falls. A cloud of mist rises up from the middle of the horseshoe. 

The sky above the falls is a pale pinkish orange that becomes deeper orange near the horizon. Lots of dark blue and pale blue clouds stretch across the sky.

Studies on climate change show that water will become even scarcer. Finding it will become a more important job. Managing it properly will take a huge collective effort. Even the stable sources we have, like the Great Lakes, will face increasing problems.

Water: An Overview

The Earth can be divided into different ecosystems. When we talk about ecosystems in water, we refer to them as aquatic ecosystems. These aquatic ecosystems can be further subdivided into freshwater ecosystems and marine ecosystems.

Freshwater ecosystems are water systems where water is not salty. These can be subdivided into two types: lentic ecosystems and lotic ecosystems. Lentic ecosystems are those where water does not flow. These include lakes and ponds. Lotic ecosystems are those where water flows. These include rivers and streams.

Pond in a valley
Pond in a valley (Source: Tony Savino via iStockphoto).
Image - Text Version

Shown is a colour photograph of a pond in green, forested landscape. 

The water is still, with a smooth surface. It appears dark and murky. Shrubs and other plants grow close in, all around it. The plants at the edge are brown, without leaves. The rest of the landscape is green. In the background is a low hill covered in deciduous and coniferous trees.

 

Marine ecosystems are water systems where there is a high concentration of salt in the water. These can include both open ocean areas as well as coastal areasCoral ecosystems are a good example of a marine ecosystem.

Coral reef
Coral reef (Source: ultramarinfoto via iStockphoto).
Image - Text Version

Shown is an underwater colour photograph of fish swimming around coral.

The background of the photograph is bright blue water dotted with hundreds of tiny fish. The foreground is filled with coral in different shapes, sizes, colours and textures. Most of it is shades of red, pink, and white. Bright orange, almond-shaped fish swim close to the coral.

 

Water and Climate Change

 is a significant problem in many parts of the globe. This is especially true in areas where water availability is already a struggle. Some of these  are:

  • Deserts

Drought in these regions can lead to long-term impacts on the environment and the economy.

Arid region of Spain
Arid region of Spain (Source: Bernard Hermant via Unsplash).
Image - Text Version

Shown is a colour photograph a beige landscape dotted with small plants.

The land in the foreground is pale brown and mostly flat. It is scattered with small, low, dark green shrubs and clumps of gold grass. In the background, bare, flat, beige land stretches to low darker brown and green hills at the horizon. The sky above is pale grey with wavy, darker grey cloud formations.

 

Did you know?

41.3% of the Earth is considered to be some type of dryland.

Droughts have been a concern in Canada in the past. The southern part of the Prairie provinces are places where drought has often happened. One example of a bad drought was the one that took place across Canada between 1999 and 2005. This drought was especially bad for farmers in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Farmers lost $3 billion to crop damage during this time.

Did you know?

60.98% of the continental United States is in a state of drought, which could last until 2030 in some parts. 

Climate change will have an impact on water in Canada. Canada is a big country with a lot of different climates. Different parts of Canada will experience different effects.

Lake Superior
Lake Superior (Source: standuppaddle via Pixabay).
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Shown is a colour photograph of an ice-covered lakeshore.

Most of the frame is filled with blueish grey sky. The sun is small and white in the centre near the top. On the right, a clump of coniferous trees appears black. In the foreground, the sun glints off dark grey water. There is snow on the land, and the boulders on the shore are coated in smooth, shiny ice.

 

 

In the Great Lakes, climate change may increase the amount of groundwater. This is because a changing climate includes increased rainfall. It also means earlier snow melting in the spring.

At the same time, the amount of groundwater will change in certain seasons. There will be less available in the summer, and more in the winter.

Ground Water Pump pumped into an irrigation canal
Ground Water Pump pumped into an irrigation canal (Source: rvimages via iStockphoto).
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Shown is a colour photograph of water pouring out of a pipe and into water next to green grass.

A pale grey pipe extends from the right side of the photograph, over dark greyish brown water. A thick stream of clear water flows out of the pipe, making a splash and white foam in the water below. In the background, a strip of green grass is visible at the edge of the water.

 

The Prairies, though, will continue to get drier. Warmer temperatures will evaporate more water. There won’t be enough rain and snow to make up the difference.

As an area dries up, there is less water to sustain forests. One consequence of a dryer western Canada is the loss of some of the southern boreal forest.

Prairie in Alberta
Prairie in Alberta (Source: Don White via iStockphoto).
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Shown is a colour photograph of gold prairie grass leading up to the Rocky mountains. 

In the foreground, fence posts stretch across the grass from the bottom right corner, to the left side of the image. The grass is a deep, luminous gold in the sun. 

The mountains are line of purple and blue pointed peaks along the horizon. The sky above is deep blue, growing paler near the horizon. There are a few high, wispy white clouds, and a few dark grey clouds near the peaks.

 

Climate change will likely increase flooding. Flooding occurs due to heavy rainfall. It can also result from early snow melting periods. These result from warm temperatures in the early spring.

Flooded forest
Flooded forest (Source: Roman Bjuty via iStockphoto).
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Shown is a colour photograph of water filling a path in a forest.

A wide, straight strip of water starts at the bottom of the photograph and leads into the trees in the distance. There is pale brown grass on both sides of the water, and tall thin trees without leaves. On the right, some green grass and plants growth through the brown.

 

In 2021, heavy rainfall led to a huge flood in British Columbia. Vancouver was cut off from the world by road and by railway. Scientists think that the flood was 50% more likely because of ongoing climate change. Recent research shows that up to 60% of Canada's most populated cities are at risk for more frequent floods.

Flooding at the Whatcom Road Interchange in British Columbia, November 2021
Flooding at the Whatcom Road Interchange in British Columbia, November 2021 (Source: British Columbia Ministry of Transportation [CC BY-NC-ND] via Flickr).
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Shown is a colour, aerial photograph of a landscape and highway mostly covered in water. 

In the foreground, a road leads from a hill with trees and buildings, into greyish brown water. The water covers most of the land in the foreground and background. The only things above the water are thin strips of trees and grass.

Flooding also poses health risks to human beings. Flooding increases the risk of exposure to disease. These can be viruses, like hepatitis A. These can also be bacterial illnesses like dysentery, and campylobacter.

Water Quality

It’s not always the amount of water you have, but also what’s in it. Water quality has become a concern for environmental science over the last decade. Two of the biggest concerns have been microfiber pollution and eutrophication.

Microfibre Pollution

Microplastic pollution is a pervasive problem everywhere on Earth. You can find microplastics in the soil, in the water, and in the air. These microplastics fall into five categories:

  • Fragments: larger pieces of plastic broken into smaller pieces. These often have jagged edges
  • Foam: like the packing polystyrene used in shipping
  • Films: thin material broken down from plastic bags and wrapping
  • Pellets: plastic spheres worn down from personal care items
  • Fibres: threads of plastic less than 5mm long

Of these, fibres are the biggest problem. There’s more of them than there are of the other four types. They also have long-lasting impacts on living beings, including us. Microfibres can be found everywhere. This includes the Great Lakes, where microfibres are estimated to exist in greater density than the Pacific Ocean.

An article of clothing in the wash can cause up to 100,000 microfibres to go into our waterways.

Synthetic fibres are a popular choice for making clothing. The microfibres they shed, though, are bad for our health, and the environment.

How microplastics can end up in drinking water
How microplastics can end up in drinking water (©2022 Let’s Talk Science).
Image - Text Version

Shown is a colour illustration of a factory near a house and a cross section of the ground underneath them. 

A grey factory with tall smokestacks sits on the left in a landscape of mountains and rolling hills. It has a sign with a picture of a t-shirt on it. A large pipe near the bottom of the building pours brown water onto the ground.

Underground, a white arrow points from the surface, near the pipe, through a channel between rocks and soil, to an underground stream. The stream is sprinkled with colourful microfibres. 

On the right is a house with a well outside. A white arrow points from the underground stream, up through the rocks and soil, to the well.

 

Did you know?

80% of tap water samples in the Great Lakes Basin contain synthetic microfibres.

Once microfibres get into the water, they can be eaten by fish and shellfish. These are then eaten by other animals, including birds and humans. Microfibres can release toxic chemicals into the bodies of creatures that eat them. In fish and shellfish, this can mean damage to their endocrine system. It can also damage their reproductive systems.

Illustration of microfibres on a shoreline
Illustration of microfibres on a shoreline (© 2022 Let’s Talk Science)
Image - Text Version

Shown is a colour illustration of a someone standing on a beach where microfibres are washing up onto the sand.

In the top left corner are a pair of bare feet with dark brown skin. The toes dig into the beige sand. Near the water, pink and purple microfibres dot the sand. Waves of blueish green water sprinkled with more mircofibres, roll up on the shore.

In human beings, the effects can include: cancer; organ damage; early onset puberty; and reproductive system damage. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical banned in plastic baby bottles under the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act. It is also present in a large amount of microfibres.

Did you know?

It has been estimated that approximately eight million metric tons of plastic enter our oceans every year.

Check out the first chapter of Protecting the Planet with Eric and Dominique - THE FALL OF DR. MIKE ROE PLASTIC. In it, Eric and Dominique learn more about microplastic pollution and take action to address this problem.

Educators can register for lessons and information about the impacts of clothing on water systems as part of the Clothing4Climate project.

Cover of The Fall of Dr. Mike Roe Plastic
Cover of The Fall of Dr. Mike Roe Plastic (©2022 Let’s Talk Science).
Image - Text Version

Shown is a colour illustration of two people chasing a fuzzy blue creature in a white lab coat around the globe.

In the foreground, the globe is ringed in wispy white clouds. Across the top, two people are chasing a third figure, who is running down towards the equator. The first person has black hair, a red top and blue jeans. The second person is wearing shorts and a pink top, and is holding a large butterfly net. The figure they're chasing is blue and fuzzy, with glowing eyes, a white lab coat and yellow gloves. 

The space behind the globe is shaded from bright purple at the top to dark purple at the bottom. A zipper is pulled open in a V shape at the top, to show that the background is a giant fleece jacket.

 

Eutrophication

Eutrophication is the overproduction of organic material in a body of water. This organic material comes from living things. These are plants and bacteria, as well as their byproducts. This process occurs when there are too many nutrients in the water. This normally happens over extremely long periods of time.

Cultural eutrophication happens when human beings put too many nutrients into the water. This often occurs due to phosphorus and nitrogen runoff from farming. This speeds up the eutrophication process quite a bit.

"Water Water Everywhere (And Some Of It Really Stinks)", by Dr. David McNabney (From Let's Talk Great Lakes)

One of the biggest problems of eutrophication are Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs). These blooms can grow thick enough that they block the light from entering the water. This causes plants to be unable to . The plants, and the other creatures depending on those plants for food, die off. HABs can also release  that are harmful to human beings and other living creatures.

Harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie, July 2011
Harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie, July 2011 (Source: NOAA [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons).
Image - Text Version

Shown is a colour photograph of water with a layer of thick green sludge on top.

The photograph appears to be taken from the back of a boat, showing the wake in the water behind it. The water on the right is flat and opaque green. The boat has cut a path through the water on the left, revealing dark blue water underneath. Light green waves splash up onto the dark green surface, creating a thick, gloopy texture.

Lake Erie, one of the five Great Lakes, has suffered through both. In the 1970s, eutrophication was bad enough that newspapers declared the lake to be “dead.” The amount of pollution entering the lake was reduced through government intervention. This has allowed life to return to Lake Erie on a large scale.

HABs have continued to be a problem for Lake Erie, though. In 2014, blue-green algae blooms cut off access to clean, safe drinking water for 400,000 people in the city of Toledo, Ohio.

What Can You Do?

Like most environmental problems, the issues with water don’t have a lot of easy answers. Even though it seems to be everywhere, microfibre pollution is one issue where you can actually have a direct impact.

One way is switching as much as possible over to clothing made from natural fibres. Natural fibres break down over time. They also don’t contain the same kinds of harmful chemicals as synthetic fibres.

Clothing tag showing size, material and country of origin
Clothing tag showing materials, size, and place of manufacturing (©2021 Let’s Talk Science).
Image - Text Version

Shown is a an illustration of a label reading 100% cotton, Made in the USA, size large, in English and French.

A close-up view of a label made with white fabric, printed with black letters, in front of a red background. From the top it reads: 

G
100% coton
Fabriqué aux É. U. 
100% cotton
Made in the USA
Large.

 

Another way you can help is by preventing microfibres from leaving with the laundry water. In France, laws exist to ensure that all new washing machines come with microfibre filters. You can even build your own!

Open washing machine
Front-loading washing machine (Andrey Matveev via Pexels).
Image - Text Version

Shown is a colour photograph of the front of a washing machine, with the door open and running shoes inside.

The round glass door of the washing machine is wide open to the left. The opening has a thick, grey rubber seal around it and the silver metal drum is visible inside. Two running shoes sit in the bottom of the machine.

 

As with anything, though, the best way to help fight problems like these is to get directly involved. There are many careers that deal with aquatic ecosystems. Take a look at some of them listed below. Start planning out what sort of career you want to have to help us manage and preserve our most precious resource.

 

Learn More

Water Quality Ontario
This dashboard, provided by Public Health Ontario, provides a number of resources regarding water quality, testing, and related subjects in Ontario.

Clothing4Climate
This action project from Let’s Talk Science works to get youth involved in thinking about climate change and water quality, and provides actions they can do to get involved in the solution.

Water Quality Testing
This video (8:39) from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation shows the process of testing groundwater quality, and explains what the various measurements of water quality mean.

Harmful Algal Blooms
This site, provided by the U.S. NOAA National Ocean Service, breaks down what Harmful Algal Blooms are and provides regionally-based resources for further research.

Reducing microfiber/plastic water pollution in Collingwood
This video (2:00) from Georgian Bay Forever discusses microfibre pollution in the Great Lakes and the 2021 washing machine filter initiative in Collingwood, ON.

What is Eutrophication?
This video (1:54) from FuseSchool explains eutrophication and the process that causes it.

A Future of Floods and Droughts as Climate Changes
This video (2:55) from the World Bank outlines the future problems with water under conditions of unchecked climate change and discusses some possible solutions.

References

Andrew, J. T. and E. Sauquet (2017). Climate Change Impacts and Water Management Adaptation in Two Mediterranean-Climate Watersheds: Learning from the Durance and Sacramento Rivers. Water 9(2).

Bonsal, B. R., D. L. Peters, F. Seglenieks, A. Rivera, and A. Berg (2019). Changes in freshwater availability across Canada. Canada's Changing Climate Report (ed.) E. Bush and D. S. Lemmen. Government of Canada: Ottawa: 261-342.

Bonsal, B. R., E. E. Wheaton, A. C. Chipanshi, C. Lin, D. J. Sauchyn and L. Wen (2011). Drought Research in Canada: A Review. Atmosphere-Ocean 49(4): 303-319.

Costa, D., H. Zhang and J. Levison (2021). Impacts of climate change on groundwater in the Great Lakes Basin: A review. Journal of Great Lakes Research 47: 1613-1625.

Huda, M. B., R. Kumar, M. A. Lone and F. A. Tantray (2021). Climate change and water resources of Himalayan region - review of impacts and implication. Arabian Journal of Geosciences 14.

Hund, S.V., I. Grossmann, D. G. Steyn, D.M. Allen and M.S. Johnson (2021). Changing Water Resources Under El Nino, Climate Change, and Growing Water Demands in Seasonally Dry Tropical Watersheds. Water Resources Research 57(11).

Jambeck, J. R., R. Geyer, C. Wilcox, T. R. Siegler, M. Perryman, A. Andrady, R. Narayan and K. L. Law (2015). Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science 347(6223): 768-771.

Kosuth, M., S. A. Mason and E. V. Wattenberg (2018). Anthropogenic contamination of tap water, beer, and sea salt. PLoS One 13(4): e0194970.

Lantz, V., R. Trenholdm, J. Wilson and W. Richards (2012). Assessing market and non-market costs of freshwater flooding due to climate change in the community of Fredericton, Eastern Canada. Climatic Change 110: 347-372.

Larocque, M., J. Levison, A. Martin and D. Chaumont (2019). A review of simulated climate change impacts on groundwater resources in Eastern Canada. Canadian Water Resources Journal/Revue canadienne des ressources hydriques 44(1): 22-41.

Le Moal, M., C. Gascuel-Odoux, A. Menesguen, Y. Souchon, C. Etrillard, A. Levain, F. Moatar, A. Pannard, P. Souchu, A. Lefebvre and G. Pinay (2019). Eutrophication: A new wine in an old bottle? Science of the Total Environment 651(1): 1-11.

Lusher, A. L., A. Burke, I. O'Connor and R. Officer (2014). Microplastic pollution in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean: Validated and opportunistic sampling. Marine Pollution Bulletin 88(1-2): 325-333.

Miller, R. Z., A. J. R. Watts, B. O. Winslow, T. S. Galloway and A. P. W. Barrows (2017). Mountains to the sea: River study of plastic and non-plastic microfiber pollution in the northeast USA. Marine Pollution Bulletin 124(1): 245-251.

Naidoo, T., D. Glassom and A. J. Smit (2015). Plastic pollution in five urban estuaries of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Marine Pollution Bulletin 101(1): 473-480.

Ray, P., S. Wi, A. Schwarz, M. Correa, M. He and C. Brown (2020). Vulnerability and risk: climate change and water supply from California's Central Valley water system. Climatic Change 161: 177-199.

Rivard, C., C. Paniconi, H. Vigneault and D. Chaumont (2014). A watershed-scale study of climate change impacts on groundwater recharge (Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia, Canada). Hydrological Sciences Journal 59(8): 1437-1456.

Silva-Cavalcanti, J. S., J. D. B. Silva, E. J. de Franca, M. C. B. de Araujo and F. Gusmao (2017). Microplastics ingestion by a common tropical freshwater fishing resource. Environmental Pollution 221: 218-226.

Veenema, T. G., C. P. Thornton, R. P. Lavin, A. K. Bender, S. Seal and A. Corley (2017). Climate Change-Related Water Disasters' Impact on Population Health. Journal of Nursing Scholarship 49(6): 625-634.

Yang, D., H. Shi, L. Li, J. Li, K. Jabeen and P. Kolandhasamy (2015). Microplastic Pollution in Table Salts from China. Environmental Science & Technology 49(22): 13622-13627.