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Decades-Old Pollution is Being Unlocked by Sea Level Rise Into Chesapeake Bay

Source: Hakai Magazine/Roberta Kwok - January 12, 2018 in Science/Tech

Decades-Old Pollution is Being Unlocked by Sea Level Rise Into Chesapeake Bay
Photo: Bob Burkhard/Unsplash

In 2015, Kate Tully visited farms near the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. She was investigating whether sea level rise had caused brackish water to move upland, a process called saltwater intrusion—evidence of which she found in the form of increased salinity in the fields and surrounding ditches. When the researchers viewed the sites on Google Earth, they could even see white rings around the farms where water had evaporated and left salt.

“It’s crazy,” says Tully, an agroecologist at the University of Maryland, College Park. “You can taste it. You put your finger on the field, and it’s salty.”

Saltwater intrusion was killing the area’s soy, corn, and wheat, which couldn’t tolerate the rising salinity.

But as Tully and her team worked in the fields, they discovered an even more worrisome process that was well underway. Their studies suggest that the inundating seawater is triggering chemical reactions in the soil and releasing a long-dormant pollutant: phosphorus. The researchers worry that the phosphorus could reach the Chesapeake Bay and fuel oxygen-sucking algal blooms that kill fish and crabs.

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