Dirty weather, dirty water

October 5, 2012 | 5:00 pm | , Solutions Fellow

Yellow River
© 2011 Ali Eminov/Flickr cc by nc nd 2.0

Global climate disruption messes with our water. As sea levels rise, we get more water in the places we don’t want it. But what about the water we do need? Scientists are finding that the impacts of climate change make freshwater inhospitable for fish and wildlife.

It starts with dirty energy — the fossil fuels that pollute the atmosphere. Dirty energy leads to dirty weather — more frequent and more extreme floods, storms and droughts. As storms become more intense and frequent, sewers overflow — washing sediment, pollutants and nutrients into our rivers and lakes. Rising sea levels can contaminate nearby freshwater with salt.

Now, scientists at Yale have found that hurricanes and other large rainfall events may alter the water quality of rivers and lakes by transporting large amounts of dissolved organic matter (carbon and nitrogen) downstream. In moderate amounts, dissolved organic matter provides important nutrients for the base of the food chain. But in excess, this organic matter can block pathogen-killing UV light, transport metal pollutants, and potentially lead to the formation of carcinogens.

In another recent study, scientists found that warming temperatures, thawing permafrost, and lower water tables are the underlying cause for increased concentrations of heavy metals in the Snake River watershed in Colorado. The metals, which can drain out of abandoned mines or through oxidation of sulfide minerals in rocks, are recognized as one of the biggest threats to water quality in the western United States. If the levels reach toxicity thresholds, the waters may become uninhabitable to fish and toxic to humans.

Toxic metals are bad news for our water. So that’s why we need to move away from dirty energy and stop the dirty weather in the first place. Be sure to tune in on November 14 for 24 Hours of Reality: The Dirty Weather Report and join with millions of others across the world to learn more about how climate change is connected to extreme weather and what we can do about it.