From the Mountains to the Sea: Urbanization and the flow of water by Nathan Weaver

Over the past few years, we’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with some very inspiring people and organizations across the globe, dedicated to the conservation of the natural world. We’ve decided to invite some of these people to share their stories and projects with all of you. The first guest blog is written by Nathan Weaver. Thank you, Nathan!

Nathan is a wildlife biologist and is near completion of his Master’s degreenweaver at Clemson University in South Carolina. He is interested in the intricate role that humans play in the environment. As a wildlife biologist he seeks answers to the question, “How can man and nature coexist?” understanding that we are not separate from nature, but fully part of it. He has worked with salamanders, sea turtles, hawks, mice, and prairie dogs. Nathan loves to run, swim, and eat “good ole North Carolina BBQ.”

All water flows downhill. The ocean is downhill from everything. These may seem like obvious statements, but the implications of what they mean are often overlooked. Water that flows over the land from near and far can influence marine ecosystems. Today I’m going to talk about urbanization both away from and along the coast.

Urbanization is increasing across the southeastern United States, often near bio-diverse areas like mountains or the ocean. My current research focuses on urbanization in the southern Appalachian Mountains. I am interested in determining how retirement/vacation homes in the mountains influence the quality of Appalachian streams. We know that this form of urbanization has negative impacts on streams, but we want to know if they can recover with time. I’m also interested in knowing exactly what factors lead to their recovery. We do this by studying stream salamander populations, water chemistry, and vegetation in developments of different ages. We’re finding, along with other researchers, that maintaining some kind of forested buffer is essential in preserving the integrity of the streams. To some degree a good forest buffer can mitigate the harm that a development may do. Changes in headwater streams can lead to changes in downstream rivers, which all flow to the ocean.

A tale of two streams: Both streams are in urban areas of similar size near Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

I’m sure you can think of lots of urban areas near the ocean. When cities, or even dense housing developments, encroach on the ocean there are several things that occur. Much of our coastal land is marsh that is important habitat, but also serves as a buffer against sea level rise during storms. In order to build near coastal areas, these marshes have to be filled in. Development also causes sedimentation. This sediment washes down to the ocean and causes the water to become cloudy, blocking sunlight over kelp beds and coral reefs. This reduction in sunlight decreases photosynthesis, which means less plants, which means less animals!

Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t allow development. It’s just important to consider the potential costs of each project. Also, we should encourage urban planners, politicians, and developers to use best management practices and SCIENCE to inform development policies and regulations.

You can read more about Nathan’s work on his blog, found here.

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