Ontario’s Far North is well known for De Beers’ Victor Mine and the high-quality diamonds it produces. But what many don’t realize is that the hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of peatlands, a type of wetland rich in organic soil, surrounding the mines are a far more precious resource. Their fresh water and ability to act as natural filter hold the key to sustainable development in the region – considered one of the last, great, pristine spaces on our planet.
“We are working with the idea that development and population growth in the Far North is going to happen,” says Melanie Columbus, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Western University’s Faculty of Science, who is leading a research team focused on the effects of land use and climate change in Ontario’s peatlands. “We think our research can help northern communities take advantage of the inherent qualities these wetlands have, but do so in a sustainable way that protects this important and sensitive ecosystem.”
Columbus and Branfireun, Canada Research Chair in Environment and Sustainability and a Professor in Western’s Department of Biology, are developing a toolkit that actively monitors changes in the peatlands ecosystem function and alert communities and industry to act before damage sets in. The toolkit will include measurement guidelines based on the type and activity of microbes in the environment, and a decision-making component that guides wastewater management planning.
The peatlands are one, huge reactive water filter that operate somewhat like the filter on a fish tank. When water flows through it, the peat draws in the excess nutrients that are a result of increased human activity. Nutrients are consumed by bacteria, stored in the soils, and taken up by plants, preventing direct impacts to streams and rivers. Clean water released back into the ecosystem feeds plants and wildlife.
Northern communities and mining operations already discharge wastewater into the extensive peatlands found there. Some may be able to safely use the wetlands for water treatment saving the millions of dollars that it would cost to build water treatment plants in the Far North.
It makes good environmental and economic sense to use the natural water treatment solution the wetlands provide. But the big question is how much activity can they handle?
“It has taken thousands of years to achieve this intimate and effective balance between soil and organisms,” says Brian Branfireun. “Climate change and increasing human activity have the potential to disrupt the peatlands ecology very quickly if we don’t understand their impact.”
Branfireun predicts a dramatic environmental shift in the next 50 to 100 years and not just in the Far North. Excess nutrients that the wetlands can’t process will ultimately end up in the world’s waterways yet another reason to study land use and climate change in Ontario’s wetlands.
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