Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Silent Springs

Pause for a second and picture water… what do you see?

Visually, water is tremendously diverse: it can be pure white in the form of snow capping a mountain, deep blue as seen in the open ocean, or brown like the great Mississippi. It may boast the magical azure hue of the Caribbean or take on the brilliant oranges, reds, and pinks of the sky at dawn. But what is perhaps the most beautiful and mesmerizing is when it simply has no color at all - this is when it truly feels like you can fly.

In the clear water of Ichetucknee Blue Hole, you can make out the distant green treetops in the sky - it truly feels like you can fly.
Water also moves in incredible ways. Salty water ebbs and flows predictably under the influence of the moon, while rivers wander and pulse like beating hearts as they are fed by and then starved of rain and meltwater. In the chilly poles, water is bound as ice - seemingly motionless in its solid state but very vulnerable to a return to its fluid form with warming. Artesian springs flow from below while drops of rain careen from the clouds above.

Listening to the symphony of rain while underwater is one of my favorite sounds.
And it is these mesmerizing movements that create an addicting melody. A love for the ocean makes us long for the relaxing sound of waves on the shore, and flowing water calms the anxious soul, just like the pitter-patter of rain on a lazy Sunday afternoon. We can hear streams babble and waterfalls roar: while water is not silent, it has no voice. When it emerges from its mysterious passageways hidden beneath our feet, water has a story to tell. But in order to fully understand its language, we must do much more than listen with our ears.

Visually, we can tell a lot by looking at water. Here, clear/green spring water from Devil's Ear and Eye at Ginnie Springs mixes with tannic water from the Santa Fe River. As the sun shines through the mixing waters, it creates a beautiful reddish glow overhead.
Water’s story is often visual – over time, it may change color or begin to flow more slowly. What once fell as crystal clear raindrops can become dark brown as it picks up tannic acids from the leaves and organic matter surrounding a river, staining the water like tea; this is what colors the tea-brown tannic waters of the Santa Fe and Suwannee Rivers. Clear blue lakes can turn green when cyanobacteria bloom (1), and crystal clear springs can become choked with algae, as seen in Florida. While these visual clues are both telling and compelling, water also holds fascinating messages that we cannot see.
More compelling visual clues that there is something wrong with our water. Domination by the cyanophyte Lyngbya wollei near the natural well at Silver Glen Spring in January 2014.
Part of unlocking water’s story involves figuring out what nutrients are present. The results of lab tests run on a sample of water collected in the field can tell us how much nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium (and a whole slough of micronutrients, metals, etc.), are present in the water (see chart below). Because water quality has been measured at many sites throughout Florida for many years, we can compare current values to those measured in the past and piece together a picture of how the water has been changing over time (2).

An example of  water quality parameters that are measured in the field and in the lab (from Springs of Florida, Bulletin 66 - see the DEP website for a full copy of this document).
Another fascinating story bound up in water molecules requires different tools to decipher. Similar to the way trees hide their age deep within the rings of their trunks and fish hide their age in the rings of their ear bones (called “otoliths”)(3), water carries information that helps us unlock its approximate age. By measuring isotopes and chemical tracers, scientists can determine water's average age, which helps them answer the question of whether water emanating from a spring vent is rain that percolated through the ground from a storm the week before or water that is just now emerging after 50-100+ years underground. Similar techniques allow scientists to identify sources of pollution in the water and, for example, understand whether nitrate pollution in a given spring came from fertilizer or sewage (4).

Finally, what I personally find most fascinating is that we can measure how a river “breathes” (5). Scientists are like river doctors – but instead of using a stethoscope, we use sondes, devices capable of measuring dissolved oxygen (DO), pH, temperature, etc. over time. Measuring DO over time, allows us to calculate gross primary productivity and (along with other values) ecosystem metabolism (6). In addition, relatively new sensors (called SUNAs) allow us to measure nitrate levels over time as well, which helps us better understand how nitrogen uptake may vary depending on which plants and animals are present in a given spring ecosystem.

(Top) The main spring at Gum Slough. The dark colors underwater are massive beds of algae. (Bottom) Courtney and I have been working on a project at Gum Slough since fall 2013 that combines both of our interests: ecosystem metabolism/nitrate dynamics and grazers. Our two main questions are (a.) do increased densities of grazers influence levels of gross primary production and (b.) how do metabolism and nitrate uptake vary according to the type of vegetation present in the spring?
The ability to measure dissolved oxygen, nitrates, and flow over time has allowed scientists to demonstrate that our spring ecosystems have not been stable over time and that many are being degraded to an algae-dominated state (7).

(For a more comprehensive review of the science, you can watch this video that I made last semester:)

Algal Proliferation in Florida's Springs from Jenny Adler on Vimeo.

Final project for Algae Biology and Ecology, Spring 2014. A scientific literature review of the diverse array of factors leading to algal proliferation in Florida's iconic freshwater springs. Narrated Keynote presentation (all photos and videos in this presentation are by jenniferadlerphotography.com).

In short, our springs are threatened - those who understand the springs’ struggles and those who rely on and love water must be the voice of our springs. WE together must be the voice of our springs, because we all depend upon the same aquifer that feeds the springs. Our silent springs are crying for help, but their voice is not being heard, and ignoring their quiet message is only making them more silent over time – their once-powerful flows are being diminished and water that used to flow swiftly through spring runs is becoming quiet as well (8). Where crystal clear water once told a joyful story, tinted water and algae abounds. Water flowing from the springs today tells us a story about the present, and it also suggests what may be in store in the future; without change, there is no fairytale ending. But if we work together, the voice of the springs will be loud and clear, just like the water of our springs once was.

Fairytale in Blue Spring, Gilchrist County. A Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) takes a breath in the endless underwater world. Where the spring meets the sky, it extends to infinity, unlike our water supply.


(1) More information about (and pictures of) harmful cyanobacteria blooms can be found on the EPA website. Also, if you google "cyanobacteria bloom", you will see what I mean about the intense green color of the water.

(2) While nutrient levels have been increasing over time, Heffernan et al. (2010) demonstrate in the graph below that nitrate levels are not necessarily correlated with percent algal cover. For more information, see the video above - I explain more of the science background and research in the video. 
(3) For some neat information about dendrochronologists, see: http://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings and for more info about otoliths and aging fish, see: http://myfwc.com/research/saltwater/fish/age-growth-lab/aging-fish-otoliths/

(4) The science behind aging groundwater and determining the source of pollution can be complex and often times leads to inconclusive results. For an in-depth explanation, see this USGS webpage or Katz 2004.

(5) For more information and an interview with Dr. Matt Cohen, see this cool article in the Environmental Monitor from 2012.

(6) Basic info on stream metabolism is on Wikipedia. There are also many scientific papers on whole ecosystem and stream metabolism - if you're interested, I'm happy to pass some along. Most that I've learned about GPP and metabolism comes from Courtney :)

(7) Heffernan et al. (2010). Algal blooms and the nitrogen-enrichment hypothesis in Florida springs: evidence, alternatives, and adaptive management. Ecological Applications 20 (3): 816-829.

(8) Figure from a 2013 Wetland Solutions Inc. report demonstrating that the annual average discharge at Rainbow and Silver Springs has been declining since the 1950s.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Mermaid Inspiration

Her eyes widened and sparkled as an adorable smile spread across her face.
All she could whisper was an awe-struck “Wow.”

Waterlust had just released a teaser for their “Fountain of Youth” Florida springs video, which involved mysterious music and about 10 seconds of a mermaid swimming in the impossibly crystal clear sky of Blue Spring. I had driven out to Jax beach to hang out with Greg while he was dog-sitting for his friend’s sister and before she left, we showed her 3-year-old daughter the quick video.

Having not been around kids on a regular basis for several years, I had forgotten that mermaids are totally mesmerizing to little girls. That being said, I’m not sure if the feeling of wonder ever dwindles for a girl raised by the sea – I’m going on 25 and definitely didn’t think my ocean-and springs-filled life was even remotely close to being complete until I first swam in a tail in May 2012. 

The mermaid in the video is me, and I will certainly never forget my magical first swim 2 years ago nor will I ever forget the wonder in the little girl’s eyes as she looked up at me after seeing the video. Nobody at any scientific meeting, water outreach event, or casual conversation involving water or my research over the past 3 years has ever looked at me with such wonder or interest. In the eyes of this little girl, I was better than a celebrity - I was a mermaid. And whatever I had to say was pure gold.

This all unfolded a few months ago, but right now I’m fresh off a cover-to-cover non-stop reading of Randy Olson’s awesome book Don’t be such a scientist, 1 and I can’t help but let my imagination run wild. One of the main themes of the book is that in order to be more effective communicators, scientists need to (among other things) become more likable; the book gave me insight into what a general audience will take away from a presentation, interview, or argument, and I learned that it doesn’t necessarily have to do with what is said. In fact, being a successful communicator doesn’t always involve being the one who can rattle off endless accurate facts or present the most data, or even present the most logical argument. Olson reiterates a point by Richard Lanham, 2 arguing that “today, style is the substance.”

I began thinking of this mermaid encounter when Olson brings up the hypothetical idea of a clown on stage at a scientific conference. He says that scientists have an uncanny ability to see through the clown costume and get at what the clown is saying – if he is presenting falsifiable hypotheses, rigorous science, and legitimate results, scientists can somehow be okay with his crazy appearance. But it’s not this easy in more mainstream media - people have information overload and are often too overwhelmed or busy to pay close attention, so they really just rely on their gut instinct i.e. who seems to come across as being more likable. In order for heady and academic scientists to gain the interest of the masses (and not just preach to the choir), they need to get the attention of those who wouldn’t normally care about their topic. They must do what Olson calls “arouse and fulfill”- this involves creativity, skilled storytelling, and maybe some charm.

Preaching to the environmental choir in regards to water issues in Florida has proved to be a big dilemma, as is springs science communication. Meeting after meeting, I see basically the same people. There is fascinating and cutting edge springs and river science going on (a lot of it at UF), but when you talk to people about water - even those who are genuinely interested in the springs and water resources - they don’t necessarily know about a lot of the science. This is understandable because it’s not exactly readily available.4

Last week, I tweeted an article in the Gainesville Sun titled "Lack of springs funding upsets environmentalists." The article upset me... maybe more than it should have. Don't get me wrong, the article itself was great - very informative and an accurate snapshot of what the funding and money side of things looks like for springs. What struck me was that the lack of funding upset only "environmentalists" - shouldn't we all care that our springs and water are not getting a lot of funding? Shouldn't everyone ("environmentalist" or not) be upset and fighting for one of the most (if not the most) basic human necessity? The "crazy" upset environmentalists need to find an effective way of making everyone care and get upset as well - this is when real change will happen.
There seems to be a genuine disconnect between most Floridians and our water – we literally live on top of our water in the underlying aquifer and we should be protecting it as if we were mermaids who depend on clean and abundant water to survive – while we are not in fact mystical underwater creatures, we are inextricably tied to water; we depend on clean and abundant freshwater for drinking, agriculture, energy, recreation, etc. Over 90% of Floridians rely on groundwater, whether it comes from their own private well or from a hookup to city water. Just as endless shopping at grocery stores somehow make it seem as if broccoli is grown in the produce section (how dare they not have broccoli and fresh salad greens in the summer when it’s actually too hot to grow them locally?!), we see water as originating from our tap – BUT where did that water come from? “A pipe” or “city water” are not good answers – it came from the aquifer. Therefore what else is “competing” for this water? Our beloved springs, which are also fed by water from the aquifer under our feet.

So, what does this have to do with mermaids?
I’m not saying I’m about to quit my day job as a PhD student and start swimming around in a tail every day, but I do think this, as well as other creative and interactive ideas,5 have tremendous potential for engaging the public – specifically in outreach and education events with elementary school kids. Talking about water isn’t just about communicating facts and trying to wow people with intellect and cutting edge science – it’s about inspiring. We must inspire others to love the water and instill a love for our threatened water resources in the next generation. We must find out what water means to people individually6 and play to their emotions so that they understand what is really at stake if we pollute and overpump our water.

Thinking back, when the little girl looked up at me, maybe I should have said something like “did you know that just like mermaids, we rely on water in the springs to live?” and “did you know that we are using too much water from the springs?” Or was the connection and shared love for water enough?

I had her attention – she was all eyes and ears, and I can’t help but wonder if it would be the same for other young kids. Would kids listen to a mermaid at a summer camp or school field trip? Would swimming with a mermaid at the springs (and maybe hearing the mermaid mention a few things about her watery home afterwards) inspire them to learn more about water and grow up with an appreciation of our fragile and endangered water resources that they will soon be tasked with managing and (hopefully) preserving for future generations?

Jacques Cousteau’s famous words “we protect what we love” are ringing in my head. If we can raise a generation that loves springs and cherishes our water and the creatures (mystical or not) that live in it, we will have done something truly revolutionary and amazing. As of right now, we are pretty much on track to kill off all of the mermaids that live in the springs (and simultaneously our drinking water and tourism economy which is based on our springs and rivers) – but I’m not quite willing to let that happen and I’m not sure that other Floridians are either.

So don’t take water for granted - think about what water means to you and share it with others: inspire your friends, neighbors, and coworkers to understand how important water is to them personally and our society as a whole. You really don’t need to be a scientist to do this. I did ask the little girl if she’d like to swim in a spring with me, which I think has the potential to change someone’s world – I can tell you firsthand that even minus the mermaid, it changed mine.

This little boy at Blue Springs yesterday was adorable - he had an engaging smile and a love for mermaids and water.  He and his dad were standing in the shallows as I was swimming around and seeing how engaged the little boy was, I went over to say hi. Thanks to Greg for capturing this amazing moment - I was talking to them and asked if he wanted to touch my sparkly blue tail - his eyes lit up just like the little girl who saw the video. I hope it's kids like him to grow up to protect our water and save our springs.

1 I couldn’t put the book down until I had read every word – it arrived in the mail one afternoon and later that night, I found myself staring at the last blank page, ready for more. It addressed many of the themes of a Science Communication course I took during my senior semester at Brown as well as the Scientific Thinking in Ecology course I took during my first fall as a grad student at UF. It is both witty and inspirational – it is a book about science communication that has you laughing, contemplating, and learning from page one, and I highly recommend it to all fellow scientists/wannabe science communicators.

2 Richard Lanham is the author of The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. He coined the "substance is style" catchphrase that Olson talks about in his book - Olson basically says that Lanham means there are two different parts of a message: the substance and the style. You can either look at a what is being communicated or through it - if you're looking at it, you're getting caught up in the style of what is being said, whereas if you're looking through the message, you're getting past the style directly to the substance (see p. 141 in Olson's Don't be such a scientist). Olson goes on to say that scientists are well able to look through appearance to what is actually being said, but this is not necessarily the case in the mainstream media (Olson p. 141-142).

3 The "arouse and fulfill" strategy - basically, get peoples' attention and get them interested in what you have to say then give them information (i.e. fulfill their expectations). Olson's alternative shorthand version is "motivate then educate" (Olson p. 69). He also discusses limitations and exceptions to this model (i.e. academia and the "pre-aroused" audience of students).

4 The science isn't necessarily readily available to the general public, but Cynthia Barnett's wonderful books about water should (as I've said before) be required reading for everyone in Florida. She is a gifted storyteller and does an amazing job of relaying scientific and historical information in a readable and enjoyable way. Also, this is not to say that scientists and outreach programs are not starting to do great things in Florida - the Springs Eternal Project spread springs and water awareness via an exhibit at the Florida Museum of Natural history, the Urban Aquifer project, and the springseternalproject.org website; the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department (along with other organizations) does a lot of water education and outreach with local elementary and high schools; there are many springs working group meetings open to the public, etc.

5 Springs Challenge - Carmine (from the Florida DEP) has an awesome interactive exhibit that he brings around to different outreach events and environmental fairs that helps people see that we have a very limited supply of water and a seemingly endless list of things that require a lot of water. It sheds light on the important and often forgotten things that require water: electricity, meat and dairy production, paper products, local produce, etc. Each participant gets 4 votes (i.e. 4 ways to use their precious limited amount of water!) and has to pick their top 4 uses of water out of 9 choices. Votes are tallied by seeing the amount of water in the jar for each designated use. I've seen him at many outreach events and his Springs Challenge is always a hit - educational and fun at the same time.

6 Waterlust is doing a cool project called #watermeans in honor of World Ocean's Day (today, June 8). They reached out to all of their Instagram followers and asked them to share a photo of themselves, one word describing what water means to them, and their hometown. Check out Waterlust's Instagram page and the #watermeans tag on Instagram to see what water means to different people worldwide. And stay tuned to see what Waterlust does with all of the submissions - they've promised something cool!