Why are the Green Challenges important and how do they relate to the environmental issues that we face?
Protection of the environment means protecting our air, land and water so that we and the flora and fauna that share our world can continue to flourish. The Green Challenges are personal actions that each of us can take to protect our air, land and water. Following is information which we hope will be useful to you in understanding how the Green Challenges relate to protection of our water.
Land Development and Urbanization
The clearing of native forests and increase in impervious surfaces due to human development are having a damaging effect on water quality. Increasingly, the natural filtration process of our native trees, shrubs and perennials is being replaced with compact lawn, buildings, roads and other impervious surfaces. This trend, along with the introduction of chemicals, sediment and toxins that accompany development, is degrading our water that we use for drinking, recreation and economic viability.
Impervious Surface. The increase in impervious surface (including roads, parking lots, buildings and compact lawn surfaces), as well as the reduction of native ground cover and deforestation, is polluting our rivers, streams, estuaries and oceans. Native plants, shrubs and trees maintain the natural filtration process that removes pollutants from the soil and helps maintain clean fresh water supplies. Increased land development replaces this natural and effective process with storm water systems that carry polluted water, often untreated, to our local water bodies.
Synthetic Fertilizers and Soil Erosion. The over-use of inexpensive and readily available synthetic fertilizers combined with the increase in impervious surface is causing severe damage to our streams, rivers and oceans. Storm water contains an abundance of nutrients from these fertilizers and dog waste, as well as sediment, that flows to local streams and rivers, which feed into the ocean. Fertilizers, containing nitrogen and phosphorus, easily wash over the compact lawn, asphalt, and concrete surfaces and enter the storm water system. The removal of complex root systems of forests and shrubs, which are replaced with shallow root systems of grass or even mulch, encourages soil erosion. The end result is the killing off of fish and other wildlife and a profusion of algae and jellyfish in the places we like to swim, fish and recreate.
Algal Blooms & Jellyfish. The over-abundance of nutrients in our waters (eutrophication) sets off a troubling cycle in our ecosystem. Just as fertilizers help plants grow in your yard, they promote algal blooms as they wash into the local water bodies and flow down river to the ocean. As algae decays, they absorb oxygen from the water leaving dissolved oxygen levels critically low (hypoxia) and unable to support life leading to what is termed a dead zone. The fish, crustaceans, mollusks and waterfowl die off in large numbers leaving the jellyfish to multiply unchecked in the murky waters without many natural predators.
Burning of Fossil Fuels
The use of fossil fuels has many adverse impacts on our water.
Ocean Acidification. A serious threat to ocean life is the ongoing decrease in the pH of the Earth's oceans, caused by their uptake of anthropogenic CO2 from the atmosphere, termed Ocean Acidification. It too is caused by the burning of fossil fuels and the of release carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, about one third of the CO2 released in the atmosphere by anthropogenic activities has been absorbed by the world’s oceans. Once dissolved in sea water, carbon dioxide is subject to two possible fates. It can either be used by photosynthesis or other physiological processes, or remain free in its different dissolved forms in the water. The latter leads to ocean acidification. The average pH of today's surface waters is 8.1, which is approximately 0.1pH units less than the estimated pre-industrial value 200 years ago. Modeling demonstrates that if CO2 continues to be released on current trends, ocean average pH will reach 7.8 by the end of this century, corresponding to 0.5 units below the pre-industrial level, a pH level that has not been experienced for several millions of years.
All this is happening at a speed 100 times greater than has ever been observed during the geological past. This drop in ocean pH would be especially damaging to marine animals such as corals that use calcium carbonate to make their shells. Under normal conditions the ocean is supersaturated with this mineral, making it easy for such creatures to grow. However, a more acidic ocean would more easily dissolve calcium carbonate, putting these species at particular risk. The last time the oceans endured such a drastic change in chemistry was 65 million years ago, at about the same time the dinosaurs went extinct. Though researchers do not yet know exactly what caused this ancient acidification, it was directly related to the cataclysm that caused the extinction. The pattern of extinction in the ocean is consistent with ocean acidification--the fossil record reveals a precipitous drop in the number of species with calcium carbonate shells that live in the upper ocean--especially corals and plankton. Scientists are already observing and recording devastating consequences for skeleton-building coral reefs and shell-building invertebrates such as crabs, lobsters, mussels and clams.
Global warming. Global warming will bring drought, dry conditions and intense strain on water resources.
For every rise of one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) in the West, researchers predict that snow levels will retreat upward by 500 feet in elevation.
Extreme weather events such as floods and large storms could increase in size and frequency, straining the limits of flood control systems and exposing some floodplains and low-lying coastal regions to damage reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina.
The IPCC predicts that sea level will rise by 7 to 23 inches by 2100, affecting water supplies, eroding wetlands, diminishing coastal protection from storms, and exposing residents to severe flood damage. This projection assumes no acceleration of ice flow in Greenland or Antarctica. A new study, published after the deadline for consideration by the IPCC, projects that sea levels will rise by 20 to 55 inches this century based on recent observations.
Higher temperatures will decrease salmon, trout, and other fish habitat, thereby increasing conflicts over water resources. Scientists estimate that up to 38 percent of locations currently suitable for coldwater fish could become too warm to provide habitat by 2090.
Oil Spills. The transportation and offshore drilling of oil inevitably leads to spills, as we are witnessing right now in the Gulf of Mexico. The International Tanker Owner’s Pollution Federation Limited maintains statistics on oil spills since 1970 and records that from 1970 to date a remarkable 1,734,000,000 gallons of oil have been spilled into the earth’s waters from oil tanker accidents. Some of the more notable spills in the recent past are the 144,000 gallons of diesel spilled into the sea around the Galapagos Islands in 2001, the 120 million gallons of oil spilled from an oil tanker off the coast of Spain in 2002 and the 11 million gallons of crude spilled by the Exxon Valdez into Prince William Sound in 1989. Oil spills present the potential for enormous harm to deep ocean and coastal fishing and fisheries. The immediate effects of toxic and smothering oil waste may be mass mortality and contamination of fish and other food species, but long-term ecological effects may be worse. Oil waste poisons the sensitive marine and coastal organic substrate, interrupting the food chain on which fish and sea creatures depend, and on which their reproductive success is based. Commercial fishing enterprises may be affected permanently.
Wildlife other than fish and sea creatures, including mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds that live in or near the ocean, are also poisoned by oil waste. The hazards for wildlife include toxic effects of exposure or ingestion, injuries such as smothering and deterioration of thermal insulation, and damage to their reproductive systems and behaviors. Long-term ecological effects that contaminate or destroy the marine organic substrate and thereby interrupt the food chain are also harmful to the wildlife, so species populations may change or disappear.
Mercury Pollution. Most of the electrical energy used in Millburn and Short Hills is produced from coal-fired power plants. Coal-fired power plants are the greatest single source of mercury pollution. Mercury in coal is released into the atmosphere and carried to the ground by rain. The mercury then accumulates in soils and aquatic sediments, where bacteria convert it to methylmercury, a form of the metal that is readily absorbed by small animals such as oysters. From there, mercury biomagnifies, working its way up the food chain. Big predators like sharks, swordfish and large tuna end up with extremely elevated levels of mercury.
Coal-fired power plants in the United States emit approximately 48 tons of mercury annually.
In adults, mercury poisoning can adversely affect fertility and blood pressure regulation and can cause memory loss, tremors, vision loss and numbness of the fingers and toes.
Exposure to mercury can be particularly hazardous for pregnant women and small children. During the first several years of life, a child's brain is still developing and rapidly absorbing nutrients. Prenatal and infant mercury exposure can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness. Even in low doses, mercury may affect a child's development, delaying walking and talking, shortening attention span and causing learning disabilities.
It is ill-advised today to eat tilefish, shark, swordfish, king and spanish mackerel, Chilean bass, halibut, and tuna because of mercury levels.
In New Jersey, 24,000 lake acres and 6,450 miles of rivers are under mercury fish advisories.
Acid Rain. Rain becomes acidic when it reacts with sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the air. In the United States, roughly 2/3 of all SO2 and 1/4 of all NOx come from electric power generation that relies on burning fossil fuels, like coal. When sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are released from power plants and other sources, prevailing winds blow these compounds across state and national borders, sometimes over hundreds of miles. The ecological effects of acid rain are most clearly seen in our streams, lakes, and marshes. Lakes and streams become acidic when the water itself and its surrounding soil cannot buffer the acid rain enough to neutralize it.
Many lakes and streams examined in a National Surface Water Survey (NSWS) suffer from chronic acidity. Of the lakes and streams surveyed, acid rain caused acidity in 75 percent of the acidic lakes and about 50 percent of the acidic streams. In upstate New York acid rain is a particular problem with studies showing that about 40 percent of Adirondack lakes are either always or sometimes acidic.
Acid rain causes a cascade of effects that harm or kill individual fish, reduce fish population numbers, completely eliminate fish species from a waterbody, and decrease biodiversity. Because of the connections between the many fish, plants, and other organisms living in an aquatic ecosystem, changes in pH or aluminum levels affect biodiversity as well. Thus, as lakes and streams become more acidic, the numbers and types of fish and other aquatic plants and animals that live in these waters decrease. Up to 25 percent of the Adirondack lakes surveyed have been declared essentially dead, supporting no fish life.
Coal Mining Slurry Ponds. Coal mining sites frequently contaminate local water sources — and the waste created from processing the mined coal poses a severe threat to the health, safety, and lives of local residents. Coal waste is stored in massive artificial ponds and lakes, which are located dangerously close to schools, businesses, and homes:
In 1972, a waste pond failed at Buffalo Creek in Logan County, W.V., causing a flood that killed 125 people, injured 1,000 others, and left 4,000 people homeless. In 2000, a waste pond failed in Inez, Ky., spilling more than 300 million gallons of pollutants into local waterways. People are still in danger today.
In Sundial, W.V., an elementary school sits just 400 yards downhill from a coal waste lake containing 2.8 billion gallons of toxic sludge. In December of 2008 over one billion gallons of coal ash sludge surged out of a containment pond in Tennessee. This spill was 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster and destroyed over 400 acres of land and countless miles of rivers and streams.
In December of 2008 over one billion gallons of coal ash sludge surged out of a containment pond in Tennessee. This spill was 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster and destroyed over 400 acres of land and countless miles of rivers and streams.