Increasing salinity throughout U.S. waters

A study published in January of this year, takes a close look at what is causing increased levels of salinity and alkalinity in waterways across the nation. The freshwater salinization syndrome, as they call it, has the potential to impact ecosystems, infrastructure, and the quality of our drinking water. The syndrome can be linked to multiple factors, but human created factors are most influential.

As observed by 232 United States Geological Survey (USGS) sites, 66% of streams and rivers show a statistical increase in pH. This increase is caused by excess salts being dissolved in the water from human use of brines and agricultural fertilizers. This phenomenon is most common in the eastern and midwestern U.S., but also very prominent in other regions. In the northeast, this has caused a trend of increased sodium and chloride levels in surface and groundwater, most likely due to the heavy amount of brine that is applied in the winter months. For the midwest, this increased pH comes from fertilizer and irrigation runoff with high a potassium content, from agricultural lands. In other regions, weathering and mining waste can cause such elevated pH.

High levels of pH caused by increased alkalinity and salinity, can have adverse effects for humans, plants, and marine life that depend on the water. Road salts, a contributor of this, are known to have far reaching ecological impacts, such as reduced fish size and inability to support vegetation in waters and on land. This study acknowledges the harmful effects of excessive use of salts and their unfortunate existence in our streams and rivers. Only 2.5% of water on the planet is fresh, drinkable water for humans, so we ought to care a lot about keeping that small percent clean. Treatment plants can only remove so many pollutants from our waters, and the process of removing salt from water is even more difficult and costly. When applying fertilizers in the spring, or brine in the winter, it is essential that you use as little as possible to prevent further harm to our streams and rivers.



Sources: Kaushal, S. S., Likens, G. E., Michael, P. L.Utz, R. M., Haq, S., Gorman, J., and Grese, M. (2018) Freshwater salinization syndrome on a continental scale. PNAS 115: E574-E583.

Invasive bug causes concern in Pennsylvania

An adult Spotted Lanternfly can be 1” long and 1/2” wide. Photo from Rutgers Entomology.

The Spotted Lanternfly, Lycorma delicatula, is an invasive insect that has made its way to the Eastern United States. Originally from China, India, and Vietnam, this pest has proved destructive in Korea and now possibly Pennsylvania too. Officials warn that it could greatly impact agriculture and logging.

A study recently done in Korea, determined the potential distribution of the Lanternfly based on existing data from its native homes and in Korea. Researchers observed that the plant hopper has been increasing in Korea since 2006 due to the warm climate and increasingly warmer winters that allow for their eggs to survive. In 2008 and 2009 it was responsible for severe damage to agriculture, particularly sappy fruit trees.

The study used the software CLIMEX to determine where the pest might invade next, based on the effects of climate change. They saw increased settlement in warmer climates and higher, faster hatching rates. With a warming climate, more areas of the world are going to prove hospitable to the invasive insect. That may be the cause of the bugs appearance in Pennsylvania, which was also indicated to occur from the study. 

A group of nymphs and adults on a tree. To grow, the nymphs must feed on host trees. Photo from Penn State.

In 2014, the existence of Lycorma delicatula was confirmed in Berks County, Pennsylvania and it has now invaded several neighboring counties. It prefers woody plants, such as trees. Using its sucking mouth parts, the insect will remove sap from plants, leaving behind a substance that can cause mold. The Tree of Heaven is a known host, and the weeping wounds they develop after a visit from the Lanternfly may attract other insects. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has reached out to locals to identify and report sightings of the insect. Visit their website to see what you can do to help prevent the Spotted Lanternfly from spreading even further across America.


Sources: Jung, J., Jung, S., Byeon, D., Lee, W. (2017)  Model-based prediction of potential distribution of the invasive insect pest, spotted lanternfly Lycorma delicatula (Hemiptera: Fulgoridae), by using CLIMEX. Journal of Asia-Pacific Biodiversity 10: 532-538.





Irrigating for the Future

New research from the University of California may have uncovered a way to simultaneously  irrigate crops and refill the groundwater table below. The groundwater in California provides its residence with water in times of need. During dry years, groundwater provides 46% of the water supply for Californians. In the last two dry spells, groundwater well levels have dropped some 10 to 50 feet. The state has enacted plans to sustainably manage the groundwater, but at the rate groundwater is being used, who knows how long it will be until there isn’t any left to rely on.

That is why researchers are trying to refill these groundwater reserves. By intentionally flooding fields in the winter months, they hoped to see water percolate deep into the soil and replenish the reserves below. While attempting to do so, they also needed to be aware of the health of the crops in those fields. Researchers noted that over watering the soil could cause disease, damage the roots, and therefore, have a negative economic impact. That is why they decided to perform this experiment with alfalfa. Alfalfa is widely used, nitrogen fixing, and a low economic risk. Since it is nitrogen fixing, it does not require the use of fertilizers and also eliminates the problem of runoff and leaching. Using two well established fields for the experiment, researchers began applying water in 2015 and continued at the second field until 2016.

Once both studies were complete, the data was analyzed and the researchers found that much of the water applied made it deep into the ground. At the first site, 95-98% of the water left the upper root zone of the top 2 feet of soil as deep percolation, traveling 5 feet below into the ground. The second site showed 93-99% of the water entering the ground as deep percolation. There was only one instance where there was a negative relationship between yield and amount of water. This shows that flood irrigating alfalfa fields may be a sustainable possibility to achieve crop yield and manage underground reserves. Although, certain factors may enhance the success of this method. It is recommended that before farmers take up this method, they ensure that their soil is suitable. Soils in this study were very fine, with high porosity. Researchers estimated that 300,000 acres of alfalfa fields in California have soils that would take well to this method.

It would be interesting to see how these results vary from the norm. Groundwater is very important for agriculture and human households, although there isn’t much being done throughout the country to help maintain these reserves. That is why it is so essential that we conserve water when possible, especially if you source your water from a well.

Source: Dahlke, H., Brown, A., Orloff, S., Putnam, D., O’Geen T. (2018) Managed winter flooding of alfalfa recharges groundwater with minimal crop damage. California Agriculture 72(1):65-75.

Photo: Flickr

Poaching: How bad is it?


On March 19th, 2018 the last male Northern White Rhino died. Two of his kind remain, but both are older females that are unable to reproduce. The decline in the Northern White Rhino population is much attributed to uncontrolled mass hunting and poaching. Although, rhinos aren’t in this alone. An increasing number of large mammals are being threatened for their meat and skin. Elephants, are among those.

A recent study examines just how horrific elephant poaching is in the nation of Myanmar. The Asian Elephant population here has declined drastically over the last couple of decades due to poachers who hunt the animals for their meat and skin, which is thought to have medicinal purposes. Researchers collared 19 elephants with a goal of better understanding where conflicts with humans arise and educating local communities on how to live in proximity to the elephants. They studied elephants from three different areas in Myanmar. The first was the Bago Yoma foothills where the creation of two dams and the settlement of dam workers is causing conflicts with the elephants who reside there. Second was the Ayeyarwady Delta where elephants have been displaced due to the increase of agricultural land and highway construction. The last location was in the Tanintharyi region where elephants were also affected by an expansion of agriculture. After a year of GPS tracking the animals, 7 out of 19 were lost. 5 of the 7 elephants bodies were found, with the other 2 unable to be located. Researchers were not able to identify the age or sex of the carcasses because their deaths were so brutal. By the end of the study, the team of researchers and associates had come across numerous elephant carcasses and kill sites throughout the areas of study.

This work shows the need for better management practices and policy geared towards illegal poaching and trafficking of elephant parts, meat, and skin. With 25 known elephants poached in 2016 alone, the population is sure to come to the fate of the Northern White Rhino if nothing is done. In addition to collecting survival data of several elephants in Myanmar, researchers also conducted community outreach programs in all three areas of study. Hopefully people will learn to live with the animals and protect their species from another anthropogenic extinction.


Source: Sampson, C., et al. 2018. New elephant crisis in Asia- Early warning signs from Myanmar. Plos One 13 (3): e0194113.

Image: Flickr


The Comeback of the Chesapeake Bay

Once known for its beauty and abundance of seafood, the Chesapeake is now known for its poor health and struggling ecosystems. Excessive pollution from the areas within the Bay have caused the collapse of fisheries and the creation of dead zones. The neglected health of its waters has come with a hefty price tag, costing the economy and those who depended on the Bay as a way of life. Recognizing the urgent need to save the Chesapeake, the government and scientific agencies have come together to take on the huge task presented.

A new study explains how 30 years of environmental policy governing the Bay has led to the successful recovery of its aquatic ecosystems. Researchers observe the increase in Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) due to declining nutrient pollution. This proves as an example of how recovery can be achieved through management of nutrients and human stressors. Since 1984 the amount of nitrogen in the water has decreased by 23% and in return, there has been a 316% increase in SAV. To understand how nutrient pollution affects SAV, they conducted two analysis. The first observed 120 subestuaries that could impact local watershed nutrient loads and the second linked environmental conditions to SAV populations. Both of the analysis demonstrate that increased nutrient pollution from nonpoint source and point source reduce the amount of SAV. This is due to excess nitrogen that causes either increased algae cover or the accumulation of sulfides and excess phosphorus that causes phytoplankton bloom and therefore, decreased sunlight penetration.

Using aerial surveys, biogeochemical monitoring data, historical information, and watershed models the researchers concluded that the Chesapeake is indeed improving and without a doubt, due to the conservation and restoration efforts put in place. The recovery of SAV is especially important because these grasses provide habitat for crabs and fish, and are a clear indicator of healthy water quality. Slowly but surely, the Chesapeake will make a full recovery. Results from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s “State of the Bay” assessment show that 2016 was a record year, with the highest score of Bay health in 18 years. Both the CBF and the researchers agree that though this is promising news, there is still much more to be done and efforts should continue to strive for more.

If you live within one of the six states that the Bay occupies, consider how your actions can benefit or harm the amazing ecosystem that is the Chesapeake Bay. Visit for more information.


Article Sources: Lefcheck, J.S., et al. 2018. Long term nutrient reductions lead to the unprecedented recovery of a temperate coastal region. PNAS.

How to Feed 7.6 billion People

Can our current farming systems keep up with a growing population, while also protecting the land we eat from? It’s a tough question, but a study published earlier this year suggest it is possible. The research focuses on farms in the Northern Plains of the United States, specifically those under a conventional corn production system versus those under a regenerative agriculture system. Farms included in the study that were using regenerative agriculture practices never tilled their fields, did not use insecticides, grazed their livestock on the cropland, and grew a mix of cover crop species. The conventional farms included in the study practiced tillage, used insecticides, and left the soil bare after harvest.

Researchers collected soil cores from each farm to determine the amount of organic matter within. This, along with the abundance of pest, yield, and profit were assessed. Yield in this case was the gross revenue. The study found that regenerative agriculture systems had 29% lower grain production, but had 78% higher profits- two times that of conventional agriculture. In addition, there were ten times the amount of pest on fields treated with insecticides, than those that were not. All of this is because regenerative agriculture allows for nature to do its job. Spraying insecticides on a field is not only harmful to the environment, but is ineffective. Insects can adapt to new chemicals and will persist even more when their natural predators are eliminated by insecticides. Biodiversity within cropland can reduce the amount of pest and their persistence. Regenerative agriculture raises organic matter in the soil which in return allows for increased soil infiltration, diverse soil life, less fertilization, and lower input costs. Also, systems that incorporate livestock and cropland can see higher profits from the livestock as they can feed on the cover crops, reducing fodder input and allowing more of the corn harvested to feed humans.  Conventional farming sees smaller profits because of the high seed, fertilizer, and insecticide investments.

Regenerative agriculture has become a sustainable alternative to traditional farming because it provides ecosystem services, while producing higher profits than the more input intensive conventional system. Like many recent studies, the outcomes favor the unconventional farming method and show increased profitability and farm health for those using regenerative agriculture. The abundance of new research in agriculture shows that we can feed the world if we simply change how we grow our food. There needs to be a shift in farming values that prioritize the land, resources, and the quality of food over high yield numbers.

Source: LaCanne, C.E., and Lundgren, J.G. 2018. Regenerative agriculture: merging farming and natural resource conservation profitably. PeerJ 6e4428.

Photo source:  Flickr

Ditch the Plastic

A study done in July of 2017 reveals the short life cycle of plastics and our excessive production rates on a global scale. Researchers found that 6.3 million metric tons of plastic waste has been created as of 2015. Of that, only 9% has been recycled and 79% has entered either the landfill or environment. By 2050 the amount of plastic waste to enter the landfill or environment is likely to double. This is alarming because plastic is not biodegradable. However, plastic will break down over hundreds of years into very small pieces. These pieces can contaminate oceans and the natural environment. In fact, somewhere between 4 and 12 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean in 2010 alone.

The excessive amount of plastics produced globally is used mainly to package goods. The study found that 42% of all non fiber plastics have been used for packaging, primarily composed of PE, PP, and PET. PE, PP, and PET are also known as plastics #2, 5, and 1. Though most plastics can be recycled, they are often not. And even if they are, recycling just delays the amount of time before the plastic ends up in the landfill as waste. As if plastic waste contaminating our lands and oceans isn’t enough, the fossil fuels used to create plastics pollutes our air and contributes to climate change. If we continue to generate as much plastic as we currently do, plastic will account for 20% of all oil production by 2050 (

Every year Americans throw away 35 billion plastic bottles (, use 380 billion plastic bags (Anderson), and recycle only a small percentage of both. One of the worst daily use plastic items are straws, which 500 million are used a day and often can be found accumulating in oceans ( This is why society needs to move away from single use items and harmful plastic. The throwaway economy needs to transform into a circular one where goods are reused and re-purposed not used and disposed. To live a sustainable life and reduce the amount of waste generated we can take part in several meaningful actions. These include: using reusable bags when shopping to avoid plastic bag use, investing in a reusable water bottle to save hundreds of plastic bottles from contaminating the environment, not using or buying plastic straws, and purchasing less plastic packaged goods or plastic goods in general. Our everyday actions can make a big difference. Choosing to avoid plastics and encouraging others to do the same, can help bring the mass production of plastics to a halt and save billions of tons of plastic waste from contaminating our environment.


Sources: Geyer, R., Jambeck, J.R., and Law, K.L. 2017. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances 3: 7.

Marcia Anderson. 2016. Confronting Plastic Pollution One Bag at a Time.

Plastic Polution Coalition. 2017. Fueling Plastics: New Research Details Fossil Fuel Role in Plastics Proliferation

Photo Source: Flickr user Emilian Robert Vicol

Turning Food Waste into Usable Energy

A recent study discovers the potential and reality of transforming waste fruits and vegetables into usable electricity for citizens in Indonesia. In an effort to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels for energy and make best use of the waste generated by a population, researchers have created a system that takes in leftover food, creates biogas, and produces electricity as a final product. This system is much more sustainable than processing food waste in a landfill and releases roughly half of the emissions. In addition, the creation of biogas for electricity has a smaller processing cost than that of a landfill and the owner of the biogas system can earn a profit by selling the electricity made.

A diagram explaining how the process works. (Ariyanto et all., 2017)

Biogas is a form of biofuel that is created via anaerobic digestion when bacteria breaks down organic matter and releases gases such as methane and carbon dioxide. The methane produced can then be turned into gas for your home or electricity.

Researchers used organic waste from one of Indonesia’s largest markets, evaluated it, and conducted an experiment to determine how they would create a pilot biogas system for the local government and its partners. During the experimental period, mango was used in conjunction with cattle dung and water to determine the correct amount of solids and liquids in the biogas digester. The amount of waste produced by the market was analyzed to find an appropriate amount that the biogas plant should be built for. The market varied from producing 4 tons to 20 tons of food waste per day depending on seasonal factors. Therefore, researchers decided to build the system to digest 4 tons per day.

The plant generated 733 kWh of electricity per day, which is slightly smaller than the amount a typical U.S. home uses per month. Once the gas is produced and electricity made, some residue remains in the digester. This residue can be used as a fertilizer or as a form of irrigation, such as in the study where the leftover liquid was used on nearby farms to irrigate fields.

Making the most of what we have is one way that society can curb the effects of climate change and limit our use of raw natural resources.


Source: Ariyanto T., et al. 2017. UTILIZATION OF FRUIT WASTE AS BIOGAS PLANT FEED AND ITS SUPERIORITY COMPARED TO LANDFILL. International Journal Of Technology 8: 1385-1392

Hot or Not: How Pollinators Choose Which Flowers to Pollinate

Hoverfly by flickr user Neil Mullins.

Pollinators are essential for hundreds of thousands of plant species and over a thousand crop species. Without them, our agricultural system would suffer immensely. That is why it is so important to understand these creatures and the variables which attract them.

A study published in 2017, takes a deep look into what influences site choice by pollinators, specifically the Hoverfly. Researchers observed Hoverfly behavior in hemiboreal, alpine, and tropical environments in India and Sweden. For two years they collected data that observed which flowers Hoverflies were attracted to and which ones they did not care for. The Hoverflies are called generalists pollinators, meaning that they will take pollen from a range of plants, not just a specific species. Those studying the Hoverflies wanted to know more about the numerous plants that the pollinators would provide their services to. They tried to determine if the plants most attractive to pollinators had any common traits that would give them this advantage. These traits could include color, scent, or pattern.  

During the first year in 2015, researchers collected data from real flowers. In the second year of 2016, they created lures- artificial flowers- to attract the Hoverflies. Flowers which the pollinator visited and seemed attracted to were called “hot” and flowers which the pollinator thought of as less attractive but not repellant were called “cold”.

The study found some surprising results that conflict with existing ideas about pollinator preference. Hoverflies, and potentially other pollinators, can compensate for changes in their environment and locate a few specific traits that they favor. It was found that often floral color didn’t make a difference in preference. This shows that pollinators are versatile yet sensitive if changes within their environments occur.

Understanding the various characteristics across environments that attract Hoverflies is useful in many ways. For example, plants which contain likable characteristics could be planted in agricultural fields to increase wild pollination. In addition, the results can be used to maintain plants which will increase pollination and population growth of Hoverflies. Managing our pollinators has become a critical task as we recognize their importance and their threatened status.

Source: Nordström, K., Dahlbom, J., Pragadheesh, V. S., Ghosh, S.,Olsson, A., Dyakova, O., Suresh, S.K.,Olsson, S.B. 2017. In situ modeling of multimodal floral cues attracting wild pollinators across environments. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 14:13218-13223.

Photo Source: flickr


Coffee, Cocoa, and Cost Efficiency


A group of researchers from the Netherlands have conducted a study comparing the outcomes of coffee and cocoa farming in a shaded agroforestry setting versus a conventional full sun plantation setting. Agroforestry is the practice of integrating trees and shrubs with crops to create environmental and economic benefits, without the use of agrochemicals and high densities of monocultures. The 2017 study attempted to compare the two methods of farming by calculating price per kilogram, yield, net return and revenue, and biodiversity performance.

After analyzing 23 studies, the researchers found some promising information. Profit and cost efficiency was greater for small, shaded farms. The average net return for shaded systems was 23% higher than conventional systems, resulting in a higher profit per hectare. In addition, the price per kilogram was 18% higher from shaded farms- potentially due to higher quality and environmental certifications. However, the conventional non-shaded farms had a greater yield. The lower yield produced by shaded farms, however, is said to be compensated for by the increased biodiversity and protection provided by the trees. The addition of trees in the growing of coffee and cocoa can prevent crop disease and enhance the soil fertility, acting as a natural fertilizer and soil stabilizer.

The study concluded that more research would need to be conducted to further demonstrate the relationship between biodiversity and shaded systems, as well as the financial relationship with shaded systems. Information from this study may serve to induce similar studies so we can fully understand how agroforestry may benefit an agricultural system, the environment, biodiversity, and income of the 30 million coffee and cocoa smallholders predominantly from developing countries.


Source: Rosalien E. J., Pita A. V., Maria J. S., René G.A. B. 2017. Shaded Coffee and Cocoa – Double Dividend for Biodiversity and Small-scale Farmers. Ecological Economics 140: 136-145

Photo Source: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 

Saving Soil: Case studies from the Great Plains

soybean field

They say you don’t know what you have until it’s gone, and that may very well be the case of Great Plains farmers and ranchers who are experiencing significant losses of soil due to erosion. A recently published study uses numerous case studies from the Great Plains states to highlight the importance of soil health to ensure soil security. Soil security recognizes the role soil has in meeting today’s global challenges of food security, water security, and climate change. Soil health influences the goods and services we receive from the soil, so it is necessary that we understand how soil is being both compromised and sustained. By making growers and consumers aware of the externalities of degraded soil health, we can hope to better the agricultural system. 

Land used for cultivation has increased over the last several years in the area of interest, drastically changing the landscape. Clearing land for crop use by conventional means, entails the removal of grasslands and perennial crop cover such as grasses and trees. In doing so, the soil becomes loose as it is no longer held together by roots and the topsoil becomes exposed. This allows for erosion by wind or water to occur. Wind can carry the soil into the air, creating dust storms capable of blocking sunlight. Water that runs off of the land can create gullies and carry sediment to nearby streams, affecting water quality and life within the streams. A gully formed 25 m wide by 95 m long and almost 10 m deep at a ranch in Texas.

The ranch owner notes,

“We’re still fighting erosion up here on all our land, is a constant battle, and we’re consistently losing creek bank after storms due to the severity of runoff upland of us…most creeks here hadn’t moved 5 feet [≈1.5 m] in decades, but now they’re moving 50–60 ft per year [≈17 m].”

The need for sustainable agricultural practices and improved land use planning with incentives for farmers to adopt soil or water conservation practices, is necessary. Conservation agriculture practices include no tillage or reduced soil disturbance, diversifying crop rotations, maintaining high levels of crop residue between plantings (corn stalks and stems left on the field between growing seasons), incorporating cover crops into crop rotations and integrating livestock into the cropping system. Soil is essential for nutrient cycling, biodiversity, and water regulation- not to mention, providing our world with food. Traditional farming practices cannot feed the world in a way that is both good for humans and the environment.





Benjamin L. Turner, Jay Fuhrer, Melissa Wuellner, Hector M. Menendez, Barry H. Dunn, Roger Gates. 2018. Scientific case studies in land-use driven soil erosion in the central United States: Why soil potential and risk concepts should be included in the principles of soil health. International Soil and Water Conservation Research. DOI.