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Small streams tell us a lot about our ecosystems. But are we listening?

Jan 4, 2018

Scientists at Michigan State University have shown that streams can be key health indicators of a region's landscape, but the way they're being monitored can be improved.
Credit Ben Abbott / Courtesy MSU

Streams can tell us a lot about the health of an ecosystem. But some researchers say we can do a better job of paying attention to those streams.

Jay Zarnetske is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Michigan State University. He’s an author of a paper in the journal Ecology Letters.

“We need to do a better job monitoring streams because most nutrients and pollutants enter our waterways upstream of large rivers, in those headwaters, the smallest streams. So diagnosing problems in large rivers where we typically monitor, and our rules and regulations are imposed, requires actually studying those small streams," he says.

"Our new methods are illustrating that it’s very informative to periodically travel around the watershed, see what’s going on, grab samples from all those stream sizes from the smallest to the largest,” says Zarnetske.

Zarnetske stands on an aufeis – a seasonal mass of layered ice that forms when ground or stream water is exposed to freezing air temperatures during the long, cold winter months.
Credit MSU

Streams are excellent sensors, according to Zarnetske.

"Because they collect and integrate what’s occurring on the landscape around them. The real challenge for us is deciphering what that signal is that we see in the stream chemistry," he explains.

He compares it to what happens when we get sick. We go to the doctor, and sometimes the doctor will take a blood sample.

"In that blood sample, we see indications of different issues that might be causing us to not feel great, but more importantly, it tells the doctor where to target their next test, and where the problem might be arising in the body," Zarnetske says. "So that’s what we’re seeking to do with some of our new methods ... is say, 'Where can we most effectively address the root cause of these water quality issues?'"

You can listen to the interview with Jay Zarnetske above.

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