James River at Pony Pasture, a volunteer monitoring site in Richmond. Photo credit: Sophie Stern

Welcome to Below the Surface of Monitoring, a four-week series in which we will dive deep into the nuances of the Alliance’s Water Quality Monitor program. Follow along as we release fun trivia and information on our social media and blog as we take the numbers off of the data sheet and out into the world!

When people think of the climate crisis, most immediately identify oceanic origins of surging seas and ghosts of glaciers as the keystone of our modern catastrophe. However, it is surprisingly much closer to home that water temperature is changing, inviting a slew of problems with the heat. In just half a century, the water temperature of the East Coast’s most beloved bay rose an average of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, which is an unimpressive statistic until compared to global ocean temperature accelerations. For every one degree ocean temperature increases, the Chesapeake Bay increases two. And while the ocean’s temperature change is mitigated by the sheer volume and diversity of waters, the Bay has experienced consistent warming in 92% of its waters. As the coastal body with the largest land-to-water ratio in the world , global warming has impacted the Bay to an unprecedented extreme, in a concentrated yet decentralized crisis.

One of many participatory science-based projects in the region, Alliance’s RiverTrends water quality monitoring program mobilizes a robust crew of community scientists to survey their local streams on a monthly basis, collecting specific data that acts as indicators of water quality. One of the most simple measurements is also the most important: water temperature. Temperature indicates how fast liquid molecules are moving, which is dictated by how much energy they have. Because water temperature affects all of the other water quality indicators—including pH, dissolved oxygen, salinity, and turbidity—it is a keystone measurement. On a large scale, water temperature varies with air temperature on daily and seasonal cycles, directly affected by the availability of the sun’s, which changes with the Earth’s rotation and axis tilt as it orbits. Rising water temperatures over time in the Bay mean lower dissolved oxygen levels, more acidic water, higher levels of turbidity and salinity.

One of the primary environmental impacts of water temperature change is on the realized niche of flora and fauna. While the fundamental niche indicates the conditions in which an organism could survive, the realized niche is the actual space that a species occupies in the wild. Because most organisms are sensitive to water temperature in their habitat, global warming typically narrows their realized niche. For example, brook trout, popular among anglers, have a habitat limited by thermal niche. Waters just above 70ºF are inhabitable for these iconic fish. They also require high levels of dissolved oxygen for survival, which is limited directly by warming temperatures. Severe storm events and heavier rains, promoted by climate change, can also disrupt their nesting areas by increasing sedimentation and stream flow velocity. But it isn’t only anglers’ favorite fish that have been impacted by this niche predicament. Over 60% of the northwest’s fish stocks have shifted to colder northern waters. Even the bay’s part time residents are packing their bags, as warming forces migrating wildlife to shift their wintering grounds further north. Meanwhile, invasive species take advantage and occupy the space that native species can no longer survive in.

Menhaden fishing on the Chesapeake Bay

But it isn’t just the birds and the bees who are impacted by the tumultuous waters of climate change. Humans, to a lesser extent, also experience the pressures of realized niches that encroach with climate. The Chesapeake Bay watershed is an area of the U.S. where governments underestimate the severity of extreme storms. This is in part due to precipitation estimates not yet accounting for climate change, in a world in which 100 year storms (which have a 1% chance of occurring every year), will happen every 25 years in 20% of the country. Climate change increases storm severity because for every degree Fahrenheit increase, 4% more water is retained in the atmosphere. There is growing concern that flooding prevention infrastructure is not being designed to account for our rapidly changing climate, and will waste billions on ineffective projects.

Downtown flooding in Anne Arundel County, Maryland

In 2022, a study titled Inequitable patterns of US flood risk in the Anthropocene outlined the disproportionate effect that flooding—past, present, and future—has on Black communities, in which their flooding costs increase at double the rate of predominantly white ones. For many, this issue is close to home. Northern Virginia and the James River corridor from Richmond to Norfolk are identified as key areas of this injustice. In 2020, a $112 million project was initiated to address eroding shorelines and bolster flood-resistant infrastructure, but has been a long, fraught process. While high-end real estate attracts the most attention, counties like Norfolk require upwards of $1.8 billion to enact meaningful climate protection. In Chesterfield Heights, multigenerational families never experienced damaging floods until 2009, when flooding started plaguing their community annually.

Lafayette River in Norfolk, Virginia

The climate crisis is one that can only be addressed by viewing the full picture, applying perspectives of environmental science equally with environmental justice. This picture is one that starts and ends with our delicate water cycle, in which the seemingly simple measurement of temperature affects where humans, along with organisms of all shape and size, call home.

By Kate Marston, Summer 2023 Water Quality Monitoring Intern, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay