The Research - Characterize the distribution of anthropogenic litter at Great Lakes sites

FreshWater Watchers from Buffalo and Chicago assisted with the ‘Great Lakes Beaches’ project, an in-depth study building on two decades of work undertaken by the Adopt-a-Beach™ program operated by the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

The wider program has engaged thousands of volunteers in litter removal and tracking and the assessment of the health of beaches across the Great Lakes, the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth.

Accumulation of litter in the natural environment is an increasingly recognised conservation concern for ecologists and the general public. However, the abundance of litter and the effect that it has on ecosystems is not well understood. The ‘Great Lakes Beaches’ project seeked to address this by:

  • Identifying the type and distribution of litter at developed or urbanised areas of the shoreline where ecosystems are already known to have been impacted.

  • Investigating seasonal variations in the litter found to assess whether there are differences specific to location, driven by local land use and the management of stormwaters.

  • Assessing the relationship between water quality and the presence of litter.

The project ran from 2012 to 2016. Watch our Four years of success video.

Meet the Co-ordinator: Nate Drag

Tell us about yourself

I grew in a small city on Lake Erie called Dunkirk, NY, went to college near the Adirondack Mountains at SUNY Potsdam, and moved to Buffalo to attend the University at Buffalo for my Masters in Urban Planning.

I have been a lifelong Buffalo Bills fan, enjoy the foods of Polish and Italian heritage, and have a dog named Kaya. My hobbies include kayaking and sailing, traveling, and vintage cloth shopping.

Why did you choose to study water?

When I was in high school, I spent my summers lifeguarding on the shores of Lake Erie. While there were days of sunshine and refreshing dips in the lake, there were also instances of dead fish washing up on the beach and many days of closed swimming water due to bacteria contamination. My affection for the lake, and desire to solve the problems impacting it, lead me to study water.

Why did you want to start this project with Earthwatch, and why should people care about it?

Working with Earthwatch has allowed the Alliance for the Great Lakes, to both work collaboratively with researchers around the world and interact with citizens of our communities here in the Great Lakes. Because of the size and scale of the problems facing fresh water, it is essential that research and policy work be done on both of these levels. People should care about this research project, and hopefully its results, because water is the most vital part of life.

What kinds of outcomes are you seeing so far?

For the global research question on nutrient pollution, it has been interesting to compare the results in the Great Lakes to those around the globe. Compared to other regions, the nitrate and phosphate levels have been lower here in the Great Lakes. However, when you consider the size of the lakes as some of the largest bodies of fresh water on the planet, you can begin to see how they are very different from even the world’s biggest rivers. To really get an understanding of the sources of nutrient pollution, additional research would need to be done throughout the basins of each Lake, especially inside the tributaries.

What excites you about the participation of citizen scientists in your research?

In addition to the amount of data sets citizen scientists can generate, leading to more in depth research, I get excited knowing that we are helping citizens across the Great Lakes develop a deeper relationship with their environment. Visiting the same shoreline throughout the year allows citizen scientists to see changes in the ecosystem, get to know them on a more intimate level, and develop an ethic of care that many people miss during their busy lives. While data collection and site visits do take time, it results in a bond between a citizen and their environment.

What do you expect FreshWater Watchers will enjoy the most about this research?

I think FreshWater Watchers will be surprised how dynamic the Great Lakes, or any environment for that matter, really is. I encourage them to visit their favourite site throughout the year and in different types of weather, not only to collect data from different conditions but also to see the changing personalities their local ecosystems have. A sunny July day on Lake Erie could not be more different from a November storm blowing in or a frozen landscape of February. 


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