Team ORCA Innovates to Understand Indian River Lagoon Decline
June 26, 2013
Florida’s Indian River Lagoon is one of the most bio-diverse estuaries in the world: 4300 species of plants and animals, as well as the most diverse bird population in North America, call it home. Fish ranging from as far away as Chesapeake Bay use the Lagoon as a breeding ground and the adjacent beaches are one of the densest sea turtle nesting areas found in the Western Hemisphere.
Tragically this once flourishing ecosystem has hit a brick wall in the past few years. Over 40,000 acres of seagrass meadows have vanished since 2010. Dependent on the seagrass, manatees, dolphins and pelicans are now dying at an unprecedented rate, as well as other key species. Unlike other environmental disasters, where we can point to oil spills or overfishing, the Indian River Lagoon presents an enigma: there is no specific industry to blame. At best, we can surmise that damaging pollution from non-point sources — storm water runoff, sewage spills, leaky septic tanks, fertilizers, pesticides and more.
The mystery of Indian River Lagoon points to a larger problem in our water management methods. Often scientists take samples of sediment or water, analyze them at substantial cost and then publish papers that are then filed away and overlooked, never entering the public consciousness.
Dr. Edie Widder and Team ORCA are looking to change that paradigm by empowering communities to analyze their own waters for pollutants in an efficient, cost-effective manner. Indeed, the Indian River Lagoon is a prime example that taking confidence in Federal and State oversight is not always a wise decision.
One of the chief problems of analyzing sediment or water samples for toxins is the cost and time involved. Dr. Widder wanted to find a more efficient way to track the impact of pollution in coastal areas, and so she turned to an area in which she is an expert: bioluminescence. It turns out that bioluminescent bacteria living in the coastal sediments give off light in proportion to their respiratory activity. If you have healthy sediment rich in numerous, respiring bacteria, then luminescence will be high. If, instead, you sample polluted soil deficient in respiring bacteria, then there will not be much bioluminescence.
By mapping the bioluminescence of soil samples in an area along with community members and a local high school, Dr. Widder is able to create a pollution gradient map that shows — not what pollution is present — but where the most affected waters are. From there, she then takes targeted soil samples in the worst affected areas and analyzes them to understand what toxins are present.
From Team ORCA…
When Dr. Widder reviewed the pollution gradient map from the Indian River Lagoon, she was floored…the area was almost entirely red. Sadly, much of the analysis work is now a post mortem. Had realtime monitoring been going on, we may have been able to step in sooner to slow this decline. The public is unaware that no one is protecting their life support system. To support ORCA in their efforts to empower community’s to monitor their own waters, click here.
This moment — today — is critical in the Earth’s environmental history. Small changes right now are going to make a huge difference for what’s left for future generations. Empowering global citizens to understand what’s in their water is part of the equation. (How powerful would a Pollution Layer on Google Ocean be, for example?) With innovative science and real hope, we can still inspire humanity to save what’s left of Earth’s Blue Heart.