Youth are talking about water quality in northeast Michigan – Part 2

Youth are learning about and using basic water chemical monitoring to discuss water quality across northeast Michigan.

Youth across northeast Michigan have spent time outside the classroom this spring and fall through place-based education projects collecting water quality data to be shared across the region through the National Geographic FieldScope Great Lakes site. Youth collected both biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) data incorporating inquiry and experiential learning through partnerships developed within the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative (NEMIGLS).

For abiotic (non-living) factors

Youth began by discussing four key questions:

  1. What are abiotic factors?
  2. How are abiotic factors important to the ecosystem?
  3. How do they get into the water?
  4. What level of each parameter do you think we will find today (high, moderate, low)?

Youth used the Lamotte Pondwater Tour to test for the abiotic parameters of ammonia, nitrates, dissolved oxygen and pH.

After making a variety of observations, youth engaged in a discussion answering the last three key questions. They learned that ammonia and nitrates are forms of nitrogen that exist at typically low levels in aquatic ecosystems, but are essential to plant life. Ammonia and nitrates enter aquatic ecosystems via natural processes like the decomposition of animal and plant matter (both aquatic and terrestrial), and by runoff from agricultural land. When ammonia levels are too high in an aquatic ecosystem, the environment can become toxic to fish and other aquatic animals.

Nitrate is a vital building block for plants. However, high levels of nitrates in aquatic ecosystems set in motion a long, complicated chain of events. First, higher than normal levels of nitrates can accelerate plant growth and can alter the balanced diversity of plants, often resulting in increased algae growth. Lots more algae may block sunlight from submerged plants, ultimately reducing the oxygen levels within the water because of limited photosynthesis. A second contributing factor for low oxygen levels is that all these extra algae die and the process of their decomposition uses up a lot of oxygen. Reduced oxygen levels negatively impact virtually all organisms within the ecosystem. However, the thing people notice is “fish kill.” The fish die because they can’t get enough oxygen 

The primary sources for dissolved oxygen are photosynthesis by aquatic plants and the diffusion of oxygen into the water due to turbulence and pressure. The levels of dissolved oxygen vary based on location, time of day and the presence of aquatic plants.

The water pH (how acidic or alkaline the water is) determines the amount of nutrients that can be dissolved in the water (solubility), and therefore how much of a nutrient is available to aquatic life. Water pH also determines the solubility of heavy metals (lead, copper, cadmium, mercury, etc.) and their toxicity to aquatic life; in general, the lower the pH, the higher the toxicity. Fortunately, northeast Michigan has an abundance of limestone which helps balance the pH.

As in any ecosystem, a balance of all components leads to diversity of life and stability of the ecosystem. In this case, our Great Lakes and our northeast Michigan watershed.

Exploring these basic abiotic indicators, ammonia, nitrates, dissolved oxygen and pH, via inquiry-based experiential learning, are exemplar ways for youth to learn about and have detailed conversations about the quality of the water in their watersheds.

To learn more about inquiry and experiential learning, visit the 4-H National website. To find ways 4-H youth can explore STEM fields, visit the Michigan State University Extension Science and Technology page.

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