Source: The Great Lakes have the potential to become a dead zone due to nitrogen pollution.
“Rain, rain go away/ Come again another day!” This nursery rhyme resonates a lot with me considering the heavy downpour that Ontario has been experiencing this summer. The heavy rain has gone so far to cause record-breaking water levels in various regions across Canada, such as Lake Ontario! Unfortunately, there is nothing the rhyme can do because the rain is here to stay as a result of climate change.
The warmer weather onset by climate change has resulted in more rain, which, unfortunately, has increased nitrogen pollution in Canada’s water supply. The following tweet made by Catherine McKenna sheds light on the issue:
Nitrogen is a naturally occurring element that is necessary for the survival of all plants and animals. However, as a result of the industrial revolution, humans have invented a reactive form of nitrogen that has enabled the food production process to keep up with the growing population.
According to the N-Print Project, “humans create over two times as much reactive nitrogen as nature. In contrast, human activity contributes just 5-10% of CO2 emissions. Much of this reactive nitrogen has accumulated in the environment, where it causes a series of negative impacts to human and ecosystem health.” This reactive nitrogen stems from agriculture and the burning of fossil fuels and causes various environmental impacts such as smog, acid rain, coastal ‘dead zones’, biodiversity loss, stratospheric ozone depletion and increased greenhouse gases. It also affects human health, including respiratory disease and an increased risk for birth defects.
The increased rainfall as a result of climate change has caused more nitrogen run-off from agricultural activities to pollute the water supply, thus exacerbating algae growth and expanding dead zones in coastal areas. A study in the Science journal reveals that the amount of nitrogen pollution in American rivers can increase by 19 per cent by the end of the century if countries continue contribute to produce GHG emissions at a high rate, thus severely impacting various water bodies, most notably the Great Lakes.
It is clear that nitrogen pollution has significant and negative implications for the environment – the most pressing being the one for Canada’s water supply. Canada is more susceptible to the impacts of climate change and resource development interaction since it is warming more rapidly than equatorial regions due to its northern location and economic reliance on resources. Hence, urgent action is required to prevent degradation and destruction of Canadian freshwater ecosystems as a result of the effects of climate change and resource development.
Fortunately, action has been taken in the form of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative which was launched in 2010 by the U.S. federal government. The action plan has a major focus on the following:
- Cleaning up Great Lakes Areas of Concern
- Preventing and controlling invasive species
- Reducing nutrient runoff that contributes to harmful/nuisance algal blooms
- Restoring habitat to protect native species
However, President Trump recently attempted to cut the budget of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative from $300 million (U.S.) to $0 as his administration argued that “state and local groups are engaged and capable of taking on management of cleanup and restoration of these water bodies.” Thankfully, his proposal was rejected by his party, the Republicans, because everyone, but Trump, recognizes the great importance of safeguarding water and the environment. Under his administration, I expect a significant increase in nitrogen pollution and the degradation of the environment due to his encouragement of coal fuel. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is the only thing in place to help protect the water otherwise.
In my opinion, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is a great short-term plan as it focuses on cleaning up the water body, but long-term plans involving the reduction of the output of excessive nitrogen is imperative. Proposed solutions put forth by University of Victoria researchers Sybil Seitzinger and Leigh Phillips for reducing nitrogen include genetic modification of grains to reduce their nitrogen levels, switching to lab-produced meat, and more basic measures like improved sewage treatment and more efficient application of fertilizers. I think Canada should adopt a limit on nitrogen output and implement incentives for farmers to reduce the usage of nitrogen in their production. Also, as hard as this idea may be to propagate, the Canadian government could encourage people to reduce their intake of foods that output a lot of nitrogen in its production, such as livestock. They could encourage it by advertising different foods to people or running a campaign about the downsides of eating meat. I personally am a meat eater, but I would not mind eating alternative foods if it means saving the environment. We must all work towards saving our finite resources somehow!