The concept of a widespread toxin in a pristine scenic environment is difficult for us to reason: ‘Why can’t my family eat fish I catch from a lake in the Adirondack State Park? How is it possible that this beautiful montane landscape is contaminated?’ Mercury is a legacy contaminant present in the Adirondack Mountains, because of past atmospheric deposition – and not due to regional industrial activity.
Mercury enters into food chains because of microbes and the interplay of temperature and rainfall. With increasing annual temperature in the northeastern North America, escalation of this toxic metal in food chains is expected. It follows that responsible environmental governance in this region requires a recognition that future changes in the environment will likely create increased threats to ecosystem integrity and human health due to mercury.
This fall, a dozen Clarkson University students will tackle this problem. They are enrolled in the Adirondack Semester, an intensive semester-long project with supporting courses designed to address a difficult problem, and will be led by Clarkson professor and chair of biology Michael Twiss and Evie Brahmstedt, a graduate student in his research laboratory. “The 2020 ADK Semester cohort will become broadly informed on the scope of the issue - from mercury chemistry to experimental design, national environmental policy, public engagement, and global climate change impacts on toxic element cycling using the ADK as a focus”, states Twiss. The experimental design proposed by Brahmstedt will use vernal pools, depressions typically found in forests that fill up with rainwater periodically and support a wide range of animals and insects, except fish, to assess mercury accumulated by biota across the landscape – from the St. Lawrence River Valley to the interior of the Adirondack State Park. The aim is to understand factors that cause this toxic element to move into the food chain, which can ultimately affect humans.
Through its Institute for a Sustainable Environment, Clarkson University offers an off-campus, semester-long study in sustainability that examines the affairs of society and the natural environment of New York’s Adirondack State Park. Stephen Bird, political science professor and the director of Clarkson’s Adirondack Semester program, says: “This program provides an excellent understanding of different disciplinary approaches to the study of the Adirondacks. The 2020 cohort will be educated in the threat of mercury in the ADK environment and actively participate in the collection, synthesis, and analysis of environmental data that they will use as a platform from which they can speak with authority to address this ongoing significant issue.”
Professor Twiss has received funding to support this research from the T. Urling and Mabel Walker Research Fellowship Program. Evie Brahmstedt, a doctoral student in environmental science and engineering received a student research grant from the Great Lakes Research Consortium to apply to this project and the Clarkson University Center of Excellence in Healthy Water solutions has provided matching funds that will enhance the analytical capacity of this project. Twiss concludes, “The funding received shows support for our need to understand this complex problem that faces our region – from the Adirondack Mountains down to the waters of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system. We are fortunate to have the funds and the student involvement to help make this project happen with a number of partners including SUNY-ESF., Paul Smiths College, New York State Parks, and the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne”.