See the longer blog post with photos here.
This is the abridged version:
When referencing the recent catastrophic fires on the west coast and flooding on our shores, multiple news broadcasters have referred to them as ‘the new normal’. But, can something ever be normal on our planet that’s constantly changing?
This episode is the first of a series telling the story of “shifting baselines” and describing how our idea of what is “normal” often changes across generations. When it comes to environmental restoration or conservation, this means we’re missing a huge piece of knowledge. I had the unique opportunity to travel with Adventure Canada and the Explorer’s Club to Newfoundland, to interview fishermen about how a changing fish stock has influenced their lives.
When we do something like observe a change in the natural world, in order to notice or realize that some sort of change has happened, we have to have a baseline that we refer to to base this difference off of. The problem with this arises when we start to move around our baseline and change what we consider to be ‘normal’. This happens all the time, especially across different generations. Each new generation has a tendency to think that the world they are born into - and the first environment they witness - is their normal.
This concept of a changing definition or perception of what we think is ‘normal’ is called shifting baselines, which was coined by scientist Dr. Daniel Pauly in 1995. In short, our baseline of what a normal world looks like is however we first experienced it. The concept of shifting baselines gets a little tricky when you start to think about its role in natural science.
When a pond or public land is being restored, what is it being restored to? What it looked like 50 years ago? 10? 200? When we restore something, we create some sort of baseline of what we think the ecosystem or place is supposed to look like. The problem is that lots of the time, our sense of the supposed “normal” for a place stems from very recent knowledge and creates inaccurate reference points for management.
For Dr. Pauly, the failure to create a baseline representative of what a natural system looked like before major human influence was extremely evident in the fisheries industry, with cod.
The case of cod is one of the most tragic stories of shifting baselines. Dr. Pauly actually coined the term because of historical anecdotes from cod fishermen around the Grand Banks of Canada’s Newfoundland. Dr. Pauly found these historical anecdotes in a book titled “Sea of Slaughter”, written by Farley Mowat. In this book, he chronicled the destruction and depletion of the creatures on the north-eastern shore of north america, beginning with the European settlers. Some of the first Europeans to the Atlantic coast were blown away by the sheer quantity of fish they encountered, captured in quotes in this book:
“Cod were once so abundant that fishermen would say they could walk across the Atlantic on their backs”
What made these anecdotes so jarring to Dr. Pauly is because of the stark contrast to what we see today from current Newfoundland fishermen, who say they can hardly catch a reasonable amount of stock.
To understand how far we’ve come, we have to go way back to the European colonizers of Newfoundland. When they came to Newfoundland, it was not by accident. They were lured by the anecdotes from the early explorers who had seen the promise of the bounty of the sea of Newfoundland.
Cod was king. Boats of men came over to Newfoundland and the abundance of fish stocks quickly made it into a bustling port. Newfoundland was founded upon fish, and much of the culture and economy in recent times has still revolved around the fishery.
To see this, I made the trek to Newfoundland, hopped on a big boat, and circumnavigated the island. I interviewed fishermen - both retired and currently in practice. I wanted to see if they had noticed different changes over the course of their fishing careers. I wanted to see if maybe we were more cognizant of the shifting of baselines nowadays than back when it was first coined. Although their answers were laden with complications I had never originally thought off, they did all start off by speaking earnestly of the role that fishing has played in their lives and family legacy.
Cod was the foundation and the lifeblood for generations of families in Newfoundland, so much so that “in cod we trust” became a sort of national slogan. It was one of the world’s most productive fishing grounds for centuries. It was too big, some thought, to ever fail.
Yet on the infamous day of July 2nd, 1992, the Canadian government closed the Newfoundland cod industry. They imposed a moratorium, which prohibited the fishing of any cod, eliminating the jobs of 40,000 thousands of Newfoundlanders and stripping the livelihoods from countless others who relied on a booming cod industry.
They closed the industry that had been the reason for settlement there in the first place. This birthright of Newfoundlanders was taken away from them; however, the government had no choice. The stocks had been exhausted to a dangerous level, teetering on the edge of what could be a perpetual depletion. Fishermen had been, more or less, scavenging in the sea of slaughter. Because of shifting baselines, most hadn’t realized.
Listen to the next episode of the ‘shifting baselines’ series to hear how the combination of fishing technology and fisheries management added to the shifting perception of fish stock, from the voices of Newfoundland fishermen and natives.
Many Newfoundlanders have generously contributed to this story. Those featured in this episode are: Tony Oxford, Lee Tremblett, Sam and Dawn Dredge, Ceryl from Little Bay Islands. Dr. Daniel Pauly contributed his voice to explain the idea of shifting baselines.
The intro/outro music is made by Peat bogs. Additional music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions.
& a special thank you to Adventure Canada and the Explorer’s Club, who ultimately made this series possible.
When you think of salt and water, the first things that probably pop into mind are either the beach or gargling a heavily salted concoction to stave off a sore throat. Either way, one of the first images that doesn’t pop up - at least for me - is salted winter roads:
When it snows or gets icy, towns will blanket roads and sidewalks with those little chunks of salt to prevent slick spots while walking or driving. But what is put on land doesn’t stay on land. When salt is put on pavement to prevent slick spots, after it’s done it’s job of preventing those slick spots - it has to go somewhere. And that end destination is often our freshwater.
This episode discusses a concept that’s starting to garner some well deserved attention: our inland bodies of water (streams, lakes, ponds, rivers) are getting saltier. This is called salinization, as the water gets saltier. Although this sounds like a distant, foreign topic, it’s actually been suggested as the cause of lead leaching in Flint, Michigan. But what’s causing it, what does it mean for the environment, and why does it matter to you?
Ok, so let’s start at the beginning: streams do naturally have some salt in them, but are receiving way more of it than they’re accustomed to, especially after storms. All because of runoff - water sweeps down asphalt roads or sidewalks, picks up the salt, and dumps it into the body of water it eventually flows into. Like a salty, accumulating snowball.
Stream salinization has the potential to wreak havoc for humans. To see this, all you have to do is look at what happened in Flint, Michigan.
Starting in April of 2014, the residents of the city of Flint were exposed to lead levels dangerous to human health, through their water supply. But what spurred this dangerous lead leaching? In sum, what started it all was a combination of economics and negligence. You see, Flint was broke - and under Michigan law, an emergency manager was appointed to help balance the books and bring the city back ‘out of the red’. One potential solution to their financial woes: adjusting their water supply.
They decided to switch from Detroit water - some of the best drinking water - to the Flint River, and use a treatment facility that hadn’t been in operation in decades. So the problems begin to accumulate fast - switching to a new water source, with new water chemistry, on a tighter budget, and switching back to an old, outdated treatment facility.
But what made the river water so corrosive that it led to massive amounts of lead leaching wasn’t just the fact that industry was dumping some of the byproducts of production into the stream. Instead, it was that much less sinister sounding suspect: salt.
High chloride levels in Flint River meant the water was very corrosive - leading to the corrosion of the pipes that transported drinking water to people’s homes. Because Flint was broke, they hadn’t implemented corrosion control. Corrosion control works by creating the natural buildup of mineral deposits lining the insides of pipes, which prevents the exposure of the pipes to corrosive contaminants found in surface water (and found in especially high concentrations in the Flint River).
I asked some scientists looking at the issue about the solution to freshwater salinization. One thing, they all suggested, was simply: dump less salt.
Remedying this problem isn’t just a function of putting less salt, however; it goes deeper than that. It’s about spreading the awareness that our actions on land influence what happens in our waterways. We don’t act in a vacuum; the things we put out in the environment - whether it be salt, fertilizers, oil spills, or medicine - often end up in our local streams and rivers after rains wash them away. They can end up in the same rivers and streams that we frequently look to for drinking water.
The saying is that you shouldn’t, well, poop where you eat ... what about where you drink?
If you’d like to read more about freshwater salinization, here is an open access (read: free) research article to check out by Kaushal et al. 2018.
Special thanks to Anurag Mantha for describing the science behind the Flint water crisis.
Human civilizations have frequently found themselves congregated around water sources. Proximity to bodies of water means easier access to drinking water, irrigation, hygiene, etc. Because of all the services that freshwater bodies provide, you’d typically regard these bodies as likely a ‘good’, sort of benevolent aspect of the natural world. But in one area of the world - in the Cameroon Grassfields - lakes have historically had a pretty bad rap...and for good reason.
Indigenously classified as ‘bad’ lakes, the folklore of some lakes in this region told ominous tales of fatal, exploding lakes. Bodies of water here are where the death dwelt. Lake Nyos, in the northwest region of Cameroon, is one of the lakes that bears the title of a ‘maleficent’ water body, capable of producing harm (Shanklin 1989).
The legend went that every couple of years, evil spirits would emerge from the lake to take the lives of those around it. As it is for many myths and legends, there’s some truth to this tale. In 1986, Lake Nyos erupted - not ash, or lava, but a suffocating concentration of invisible gas in an event called a limnic eruption.
In this episode we’re recounting the historical limnic eruption at Lake Nyos, explaining what it is and the steps being taken to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself.
The original legend of Lake Nyos and the evil spirits that haunted the valley was grounded in geomythology - when cultures craft a myth to explain geologic events, especially catastrophes (volcanic eruptions, meteor impact, etc.).
Scientific awareness of geologic events can keep such folklore as merely a legend, preventing the cyclical disasters from wreaking havoc again.
If you'd like to read more about limnic eruptions, here is an open access (read: free) journal article to check out by Halbwachs et al. 2004.
Special thanks to Dmitri Rouwet for answering questions in regards to all things volcanic lakes.
References for this episode:
Le Guern, F., E. Shanklin, and S. Tebor. "Witness accounts of the catastrophic event of August 1986 at Lake Nyos (Cameroon)." Journal of volcanology and geothermal research 51.1-2 (1992): 171-184.
Shanklin, Eugenia. "Exploding lakes and maleficent water in Grassfields legends and myth." Journal of volcanology and geothermal research 39.2-3 (1989): 233-24