Streams are good regional environmental sensors

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In Michigan, scientists at Michigan State University have shown that streams can be key health indicators of a region’s landscape. Using streams as sensors – specifically, near the headwaters – can allow scientists, land-use managers and farmers to diagnose which watersheds can be more sustainably developed for food production, said Jay Zarnetske, MSU earth and environmental scientist and co-author of the study.

“We were surprised to see that the streams were good sensors of long-term nutrient conditions,” he said. “Our methods show that we can learn much from a relatively small number of samples if they are collected more strategically than current watershed management practices dictate. This understanding is critical in protecting aquatic ecosystems and ensuring human water security.”

Future research will apply these methods globally, to different agricultural watersheds and forested landscapes experiencing changing precipitation patterns.  For example, Zarnetske will study headwaters in the Pacific Northwest and rapidly warming Arctic landscapes.