Local bodies of water highlight need for climate change stewardship

A 20-year study on local watershed issues is defining the impact community growth is having on branches of the Twelve Mile Creek.

The ongoing project recently saw Brock University Earth Sciences Professor Uwe Brand and his Watershed Studies (ERSC 4P31) students venture out to sections of the local waterway to collect additional data.

“The impact of change is all around us,” Brand said. “The fieldwork inspires students to see every roadside stream, tilled farmers field or recent construction project as a clue to the health of nearby watersheds.”

Among the trip’s participants was Joshua Moraal, who is working towards his Bachelor of Science in Environmental Geosciences. Before taking Brand’s course, Moraal said he rarely noticed the impact humans have on local watersheds.

Students in ERSC 4P31 recently spent time collecting data along Twelve Mile Creek to examine the impact community growth is having on the waterway.

“Now, whenever I am driving, I notice the man-made ditches carrying water into creeks. I notice just how many streams and creeks are rerouted to better fit our roads and farmland,” he said. “When people take the course, they become more cautious about how to develop the land around us.”

The group’s latest site visit stopped at six locations along the Twelve Mile Creek, where students updated data for water temperature, dissolved oxygen, suspended sediment load and a host of other influencing factors.

“The crux of the research is how human influence and decisions have shaped the flow and quality of the water, leading to both positive and negative change in the ecosystem,” said Brand. “We deal with issues like erosion and the health of fish spawns, and the data shows which changes hold the largest impact.”

That human influence could be seen when the group compared photos previously taken of baseline conditions in one section of Twelve Mile Creek to conditions following a day of rain.  The comparison showed that overflow loaded with sediment and increased water pressure from a nearby stormwater pond muddies the creek and dominates flow during rainy periods — a clear sign of anthropogenic influence.

Students learn to analyze these events to interpret how overflow may cause bank erosion and how suspended sediment can inhibit fish life cycles by damaging egg spawn through suffocation.

“The most interesting thing that I’ve learned in this course beyond sediment and water flow analysis is the effect of thermal pollution,” said Moraal. “Before this class, I only considered physical, material things to be pollution. However, increasing temperatures in watersheds can have just as much of a detrimental impact.”

He explains that the clearing of vegetation around streams allows sunlight to penetrate the surface, heating up the water. The heating of rainfall on hot concrete may also raise the temperature of water entering the watershed, which can impact organisms who rely on a consistent temperature to survive.

Joshua Moraal, who is working towards his Bachelor of Science in Environmental Geosciences, looks at waterways differently after taking the ERSC 4P31 course.

“The inclusion of field trips, for me, is probably the best thing about this course. Going out into the field and taking our own measurements just reminds me of why I love Earth Sciences,” said Moraal.

Climate change research requires observation over long periods of time and careful collection of data, Brand says. City planning and community growth may negatively affect watersheds in unintended ways by failing to listen to the data and address the implications, he adds.

“Earth Sciences highlight the ramifications of man’s progress on the natural world,” said Math and Science Dean Ejaz Ahmed. “Our students and scientists benefit greatly from fieldwork components of their courses, so they can become the heralds and stewards of the changes happening around us.”

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