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The Chesapeake Bay is the world’s third-largest estuary (CBF) and is located in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. The estuary is approximately 200 miles long and connects waterways from six states including Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York. It is also home to over 3,700 species of plants and animals, with new discoveries made each day. This body of water is vital in sustaining aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, regulating air and climate in surrounding areas, and for tourism and recreational use.
The distinct geographical formation of the bay is a result of a collision of an exploding meteor on Earth's surface that dated back 35.5 million years ago. The meteor was said to hit the lower tip of the present-day Delmarva Peninsula and created a large depression crater, eventually leading to nearby bodies of water and valleys to drain and convene. Additionally, the movement in these waterways also resulted in erosion and moving sediment to form the shape of the bay.
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The Chesapeake Bay is also heavily affected by the changes in climate and weather conditions. Recent studies show that there is an exponential rise in sea level and water temperature. Specifically, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found that within the last century, the water levels in the bay rose about a foot, and are predicted to increase around 1.3 to 5.2 feet in the next century. Similarly, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) projects that the temperature would increase anywhere from 4.5 to 10 degrees in the 2080s. These changes would cause a negative rippling effect on the bay’s surrounding ecosystems and biodiversity.
The Chesapeake Bay’s wetlands and marshes help protect our communities and ecosystems from experiencing extreme weather conditions. Because the bay acts as a giant water basin, it protects surrounding areas from flooding and storm surges and filters out polluted air.
The conditions in the Bay are ideal for sustaining extensive biodiversity because it connects and mixes freshwater rivers and stream systems with saltwater ocean systems to create a variety of salinity zones. The Bay is home to over 350 species of fish and provides an economic outlet for people residing in the region. The Upper Bay is a freshwater system and is home to common fish species like perch, bass, and shad. The Lower Bay, however, is a saltwater system and sustains crustacea such as oysters and crabs. Submerged aquatic vegetation, or SAV, is crucial in the aquatic system because it’s considered a food source for animals and increases dissolved oxygen to help sustain life underwater. Some plants found in the Bay include wild celery, sago pondweed, redhead grass, widgeon grass, and eelgrass.
The Bay not only sustains wildlife but also opens up the possibility of economic potential and gain. Some of the strongest commercial industries in the Bay include fishing, tourism, real estate, and shipping.
The Bay is often associated with fishing because of the quality and diversity of aquatic life found there. Typically in the Bay the peak fishing season begins in the fall because the water is still warm and there is an abundance of oxygen and food in the waters. Some of the common fish in the region include striped bass, catfish, halibut, white fish.
The diverse environment, historical significance, and breathtaking views of the Chesapeake influence tourism in the region. The Bay attracts tourists by providing them the opportunity to engage in recreational activities and enjoy the scenic view. Tourism, in turn, generates revenue for the watershed by helping to support local economies and providing jobs to local residents. It also helps increase real estate in the region and ultimately strengthens the economy in nearby regions.
There are a multitude of ports and harbors in the Bay region that make it convenient and efficient to transport goods to other metropolitan cities and countries. Historically, common exports in the region included cash crops like tobacco, cotton, indigo, and in the present-day, seafood is a prevalent commodity.
The Chesapeake Bay watershed provides drinking water to around 75% of the 18 million residents living in surrounding regions. The Susquehanna and Potomac River provides surface water to residents residing in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington DC. Water from these rivers is kept in a reservoir and is filtered and fed into the public water supply in large cities. Aquifers collect and filter rainwater and supply rural residents with their water supply.
The agricultural industries in nearby states significantly influence water quality and clarity in the Bay. The main forms of nutrient pollution in the Bay are nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment. These nutrients are crucial to the growth of the aquatic ecosystem, as they feed algae and support the continuing food chain. However, in recent years, due to an increase in human activity and land use in the region, the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus have significantly increased, and are polluting the waterways. Some of the main factors that cause nutrient pollution include runoff from sewage treatment plants, industrial facilities, agricultural fields, and lawns, and naturally in the atmosphere.
Toxic chemicals are another form of pollutants that negatively affect the water and surrounding air quality. These chemicals are often released into the air as a result of industrial power and coal fire plants in the nearby regions. Some common chemicals in the region include but are not limited to mercury and small particles produced through burning coal. Another way chemicals can make their way into the waterways is through stormwater runoff. This occurs when there is heavy rainfall in which the rain flows over the grounds and pushes any particles along the way as it drains into a nearby stream or smaller tributary.
Overfishing occurs when the fish are removed from streams at a faster rate than they are able to naturally reproduce. Changes in the population of fish are significant to the ecosystem because they will no longer be able to operate normally and naturally (CBP). Overfishing persists in the Bay because there is a large variety of fish and aquatic animals in the region. An example of a fish population that decreased significantly in the 1970s and ‘80s was the striped bass. Striped bass were keen predators in the Bay and helped manage pollutants of fish and smaller organisms. However, because of their economic value, these fish were removed at an alarming rate, which impacts populations of producers and primary and secondary consumers.
Increased human activities in the region also lead to an influx of invasive species in the region. Invasive species can enter ecosystems both intentionally and unintentionally. Some of the ways they can be introduced in new ecosystems include arriving shipments, under ships, intentionally released, and through natural forms like the wind. These species are often considered threats to native populations as they instigate competition for resources, habitat, and ultimately reduce biodiversity in the region. Some of the invasive species in the Bay include the blue and flathead catfish, mute swans, northern snakehead, nutria, phragmites, water chestnuts, and zebra mussels.
The Chesapeake Bay is in danger of becoming a dead zone because of an increase in nutrient pollution and climate change caused by human development in the region. The agricultural industry, including small farms and large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs are responsible for approximately half of the nitrogen and phosphorous pollution in the Bay. Common agricultural practices like tilling, irrigating, and applying manure and fertilizer exacerbate the problem of nutrient runoff (CBP). When the soil is overworked and over-fertilized, it is unable to absorb the nutrients properly and efficiently, leaving excess on the surface. This is problematic because storm runoff pushes these nutrients downhill into valleys, eventually pushing them into our streams. In the Chesapeake, there are increased levels of sediment from over-tilling, nitrogen from animal waste runoff, and phosphorus from poor sewage treatment plants.
Factory farms are particularly detrimental to nutrient pollution in streams becayse if the size of these operations. When large populations of animals are contained in a small area, the land becomes heavily degraded and contaminated by animal manure. In CAFOs, animal by-products are often collected and stored in lagoons for future use in fields. Because there are extreme amounts, farmers tend to over-fertilize their fields, leading to more runoff into streams.
Increased nutrient runoff eventually leads to poor water quality and kills aquatic life in the regions. Specifically, extreme nutrient concentrations in the Chesapeake lead to algal blooms or excess algae growth in the waterways. Algae can be toxic to sealife. When there are increased algal blooms, the region is at an increased risk of becoming a dead zone. Dead zones often have little to no oxygen, which eventually kills the living ecosystem. In addition to being the prime contributor to dead zones in the Chesapeake, excess nutrients also raise the risk of contaminating waterways and spreading novel diseases from animal byproducts.
To help reduce nutrient pollution in the Bay, the EPA is initiating regulatory programs at the state level to track the effects each operation has on the Bay Additionally, the EPA is funding projects and research to help farmers implement designs to reduce runoff. Recently, research has found that encouraging the implementation of forest buffers like trees and shrubs will help reduce and delay runoff.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is spearheading multiple projects to help restore the Bay from human impact and destruction. Some projects include planting trees and aquatic vegetation, restoring native oysters, and reestablishing the natural filter system in the aquatic ecosystem. Additionally, other community science initiatives and nonprofit organizations are also joining the efforts to restore the Bay and track the changes to ensure accountability and sustainability in the future.
Practicing sustainability and going green is a great way to start. While you may be miles away from the Bay, you can help by reflecting on your personal values and practicing sustainability in whatever way feels right for you. Some practices include composting, the three R’s, conserving energy, using renewable resources, and eating plant-based.