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Woods Hole Research Center
Environmental Solutions

Just as a physician analyzes blood to learn about the health of an individual, so too can river water provide insights into the health of the Earth and its watersheds. With AVDF funding, the Woodwell Climate Research Center (WCRC) plays a leading role in understanding and improving the health of rivers worldwide.

The health of rivers worldwide is influenced by many factors. In the Arctic, the “diagnosis” of recent environmental changes is often related to climate variations and permafrost thaw. In the tropics, a primary driver of change is deforestation. On Cape Cod, elevated nitrogen levels in streams that are affected by human activity contribute to a cascade of negative environmental impacts on downstream coastal waters.

In 2018, AVDF funded a two year, $275k grant to the WCRC to improve research on and public understanding of river health. The project has already made important research advances on river health. Woodwell Senior Scientist Max Holmes reports, “Our grant from AVDF is allowing us to stitch together the loosely knit collection of projects that we collectively refer to as the Global Rivers Observatory. As such, the Arctic Great Rivers Observatory and the Cape Cod Rivers Observatory, along with our work on the Amazon and Congo rivers, are now being treated as elements of a unified project that use trends in river discharge and chemistry to provide insights into the health of Earth’s watersheds. This coordination among the different elements of the overall project allows us to frame each of the efforts in a broader context.”

WCRC is now sampling 11 rivers as part of the Cape Cod Rivers Observatory. The work is generating an unprecedented data set that will allow detection and evaluation of trends in water quality over time, something that has never before been possible on Cape Cod.

The project also aims to provide opportunities for future environmental scientists to enter the field. In 2018, Woods Hole hosted two African American undergraduate interns, Ellis Lyles (Loyola University) and Aquanette Sanders (University of North Carolina Wilmington). Each was accepted into the Polaris Project in February 2019, and they traveled to the Arctic in July to conduct river-related research in the Yukon River Delta. Sanders was accepted into the PhD program at the University of Texas, and she began her Arctic-focused PhD research in fall 2019. Given the shortage of black women in the Arctic research community, the fact that Sanders is now accepted into an Arctic-focused PhD program at Texas is an exciting and important development.