I collected six Arctic water samples while I was in Norwegian Svalbard with a Lindblad Expedition (with gratitude to the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship). I had planned to collect just one sample to compare the phosphate levels in the Arctic to that of my backyard’s Lake Erie. My mentor naturalist on the National Geographic Explorer, Eric Guth, suggested that we collect water from the harbor of the settlement, Longyearbyen, where the ship was docked before departure. Then, on the first tundra hike, I asked the naturalist if the group could wait to move forward for me to collect water from a snowmelt stream. I had planned to quickly take this sample as to not interrupt the naturalist’s guided hike. Instead, he encouraged me to share why I was collecting the water sample since they expressed curiosity. That night (and several other nights) at dinner, other guests initiated discussion on clean water issues in their hometowns. The discussions had a global perspective since the expedition’s guests were from the US, Canada, Europe, Thailand, Turkey, and Australia. The next day, I collected water from a fjord where there was visible algae. I shared how a harmful algae bloom in Lake Erie, by water treatment plant intake led to a drinking water crisis when it released microcystin. This sparked discussion on comparing and contrasting this naturally-occurring sea water to the harmful algae bloom in the Great Lakes.
On another hike, a Swedish naturalist shared that hikers in Scandinavia drink flowing stream water in the backcountry because it is unpolluted. So I drank it! When the ship’s doctor found this out, he became interested in the water discussions and tested that water sample for bacteria. He compared it to testing the drinking water that the ship uses. The test results took 24 hours, plenty of time for me to discuss water quality issues with the ship’s guests. The guests and I were all relieved that the water I drank was indeed bacteria-free (phew)! I also went on a plankton tow/ ROV (remote operated vehicle, an underwater camera) drive to see aquatic life a little closer. The three of us Grosvenor Teacher fellows tested for sediment and water temperature. Even once I knew how cold it was (28 degrees F), I jumped into the Arctic Ocean (see polar plunge blog link). Another guest even participated by collecting a water sample for me while I was away on the plankton tow! There were so many water connections made during the Arctic expedition!
During a tundra hike, we landed on a beach far from civilization. We were some of the few visitors it ever receives. This desolate beach was covered in trash, and it was not from visitors like us. The Gulf Stream ocean current flows to this beach and likely brought plastics and fishing gear from lands far away. Here was proof that waterways connect – that what one person does far away impacts water several countries away.
Another example of connecting water ways is right in my backyard. Millions of people source their drinking water from the Great Lakes. Looking at a map it’s easy to see that the Great Lakes flow into the St. Lawrence River, which flows in to the Atlantic Ocean. All oceans are connected. Thus, the Great Lakes connect to entire world. All life on planet earth ultimately shares one global resource of water. Human beings are linked across the continents with a common need – access to clean water.
I was first motivated to investigate water during a Lake Erie Beach clean up with a group of Wildwood Environmental Academy students. At that time, they said that they would “not swim in this water because it’s too polluted.” Additionally, in response to the Toledo Water Crisis, some Toledo citizens wondered if they could just continue to buy bottled filtered water or “maybe melt a freshwater glacier from the North Pole.” Next year’s lesson plans will show connections that caring for their backyard is linked to clean drinking water. The ultimate objective is to teach where drinking water is sourced from and issues surrounding it.
Inspired, or rather troubled by, the trash on the arctic beach, I am creating a project where teachers from anywhere in the world can investigate their local water sources and issues. Then they can compare and contrast their water source to other communities world wide. The first examples will be from the Maumee River (a tributary of Lake Erie), the Arctic, and India -places I’ve been this summer. I hope that showing myself collecting water samples and information will be an example for my students to inquire about the natural world. It will also initiate discussion on water conservation and the struggling global issue of access to clean water.
Please stay tuned to this blog for the next steps of this water project AND how I piloted this project in rural India with my 5 awesome fellow yoga teachers-in-training!