May 22

Multiplying Mussels Attack!

Invasive mussels muscle their way into the Great Lakes—listen up for the scoop on why that’s scarier than it might sound.

quagga mussel NOAA

Don’t be fooled by its size — the tiny quagga packs a big punch to the Great Lakes ecosystem. (Mike Quigley/NOAA)

You might think a creature the size of a dime is no match for a freshwater system the size of Texas, but quagga mussels are prolific breeders. Multiply one by trillions, and you get mussels that can wallop even a big body of water.

Native to Eastern Europe, quaggas—like their cousins the zebra mussels—barged in through the ballast water discharged from ships, and were first spotted in Lake Erie in the late ’80s.

Quagga mussels feed year-round on plankton and other organisms, depleting food supplies for native fish, which can create a devastating domino effect in the food web.

And that, friends, is why finding a way to knock out these invaders is critical to preserving a healthy Great Lakes ecosystem.

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May 21

Why We Should All Swoon for the Common Loon

There’s nothing common about common loons in the Great Lakes—listen up:

An ode to the loon

Common loon sits at water's edge

Call me, maybe…or if you’re a common loon, then definitely. (via US FWS)

With their distinctive red eyes, black-and-white coloring and eerie call, the uncommon loon might be a better moniker for these wonderfully unusual birds.

What else is cool about this aquatic migratory creature? Its solid bones make for champion diving, and it has an uncanny ability to change direction underwater in a flash.

But in addition to being decidedly non-boring, loons are also a barometer for water and habitat quality, thanks to their high sensitivity to pollution and pickiness in nesting location. During the mid-twentieth century, for example, loons were forced to move their breeding grounds north—an early sign of the impact of shoreline development and poor water quality in the Great Lakes region.

So, if you hear a common loon’s haunting call today, let it remind you of the importance of good, clean water.

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May 20

Great Lakes, Great Magic

There’s a magical, rich resource right in America’s backyard—listen up, Great Lakes lovers:

It’s no illusion that the Great Lakes are awesome.

Lake Michigan shadows at sunset

Magic moments are standard fare along the shore of any Great Lake. (D. Simmons)

Anthropologist Loren Eiseley wrote, “If there is magic on this planet, it’s contained in water.” If so, the Great Lakes are among the most magical places on earth. They hold six quadrillion gallons of fresh water, or one-fifth of the earth’s surface freshwater.

That translates to drinking water for 40 million people, habitat for fish and other wildlife, and stopover sites for millions of migrating birds. The lakes help keep the economy afloat, too, by supporting agriculture, industry, shipping, fishing, recreation and tourism.

But here’s the thing: All that human activity can take a toll on water resources. So cheers to the many individuals and groups working across the region to protect and restore the Great Lakes—and keep all that magic alive.

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May 19

Native and Invasive Crayfish Square Off

Non-native crayfish upset the natural balance in streams:

Rusty crayfish (via USGS)

Crayfish are an important part of the food web in streams. But in Pennsylvania, an invasive species called rusty crayfish is taking over. And in some areas, they’re so dense they stack on top of each other.

Dave Lieb with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy says rusty crayfish are bigger and more aggressive, and they’ll eat just about anything, including fish eggs, algae, and insects.

“When you have an exotic crayfish invasion ultimately fish populations tend to decline,” says Lieb.

Rusty crayfish were introduced by people dumping bait or unwanted pets into waterways. So today, it’s against the law in Pennsylvania to move crayfish from one body of water to another.

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Hear Dave Lieb describe the challenges to removing invasive crayfish populations:

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May 18

Crayons and Clean Water

The colorful side of water remediation.

Acid mine drainage pollution (via EPA)

In Pennsylvania, abandoned coal mines have left a dirty legacy… thousands of miles of streams polluted by acid mine drainage.

Wetlands can be used to treat the water. But in the process, they accumulate a lot of metal sludge that has to be removed – often at great expense.

Bob Hedin of Iron Oxide Recovery says “And so I ended up exploring the idea that this pure sludge might have a marketable value.”

He found the rusty colored material could be used to make pigment for paint and crayons.

“If you get a burnt sienna crayon out of your sixty-four color Crayola mix, it is iron oxide from mine drainage,” he says.

By turning a liability into an asset, his company makes remediation projects more economically sustainable.

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How did this business venture start? Hear Bob Hedin discuss:

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Learn more about treatment of acid mine drainage (via The Heinz Foundation):

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