Researcher studies how phosphorous travels

Focus on Missisquoi Bay

By Tom Benton

Staff Writer

Just
The Facts

Owned by

ST. ALBANS — A University of Vermont (UVM) researcher has received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study a key driver of algal blooms in the Missisquoi Bay.

Andrew Schroth, an Assistant Research Professor of Geology at UVM and a Science Leader for the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), received the $247,774 grant to study phosphorous-ion dynamics in the sediment and water of the Missisquoi Bay.

Phosphorous is a major waterway pollutant, responsible for the spread and survival of cyanobacteria, the toxic “blue-green algae” that has begun regularly cropping up in local water bodies.

With this grant, Schroth will study how phosphorous and iron minerals interact in the Missisquoi Bay during different times of the year and under fluctuating conditions over a three-year period.

The program’s goal, according to the abstract submitted to the NSF, “is to develop a conceptual framework of the environmental conditions that maximize phosphorous mobility in sediment-water systems.”

The findings of Schroth’s research could provide insight into containing and preventing algal blooms in our waterways.

It could also offer possibilities for an idea that might seem foreign in a state where “phosphorous” has become a dirty word — how to recover and recycle phosphorous.

Despite the element’s prevalence here, there are significant shortages of phosphorous in other parts of the world.

Schroth said a better understanding of the coupling between phosphorous and iron, as well as factors promoting and reducing phosphorous mobility, could benefit engineering schemes to harvest phosphorous.

Schroth’s research aims to show how phosphorous molecules move from land to water and within the water over time by analyzing phosphorous in sediment to determine which molecules it is part of – for example how it combines with iron and what molecules they create – and how easy it is to extract the phosphorous from those molecules.

The study would also use nuclear magnetic resonance techniques to help determine what forms phosphorous from organic sources – such as animal waste or decaying plants – is taking.

The Missisquoi Bay became the designated location for Schroth’s research due to EPSCoR’s Research on Adaptation to Climate Change (RACC) in the area over the past five years. That research provides a strong foundation for experiments and further research.

Schroth said he regularly presents his research findings to local outreach groups such as the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain (FNLC), and he expects to do so as this project develops.

He said community members frequently ask him the same question: “Because we’ve had trouble reducing the phosphorous load from the rivers to the lakes, and that requires sacrifice from certain components of the community, why don’t we just do something like dredging or geoengineer phosphorous removal from the Missisquoi Bay, or the St. Albans Bay?”

Schroth said he thinks geoengineering may be a piece of the solution. “But people have to consider the scale of the problem,” he said, “and how much that’s going to cost, and weigh that with the fact that if you try to geoengineer a solution to these problems without getting the watershed loading under control, you’re just going to have the same thing over and over again and keep coming back to the same place.”

The need to scale back phosphorous loading in local watersheds only becomes more pressing as the climate changes, he said. “Irrespective of what we do on the landscape, the changes we’re seeing in the climate and the conditions in Lake Champlain due to anthropogenic climate change all promote increasing frequency and severity of widespread cyanobacteria.” The warmer the climate becomes, the more cyanobacteria we see, Schroth said.

He also said getting the affected ecosystems under control will require “more aggressive management action.”

Schroth’s research may help illustrate just which actions to take. The project began Aug. 1.