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Studying the Humber

The environment and future of Western Newfoundland’s most important river


By Michelle Osmond

Earth sciences, chemistry and engineering researchers are collaborating on a project that will help determine the future of the Humber River. The results could have an impact on how the river will respond to anticipated changes in climate, tourism, aquaculture, agriculture and local industry.

Dr. Sue Ziegler with the Department of Earth Sciences – the principle investigator in the project – Drs. Erika Merschrod and Christina Bottaro from the Department of Chemistry, and Dr. Kelly Hawboldt from the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, have received roughly $60,000 per year for the next three years to launch this multidisciplinary research program to study the effects of human impact in the Humber River Basin.

“What’s really exciting about this project is that we can take a very comprehensive ‘source-to-sea’ view of the river basin, because of the wide expertise of the researchers,” said Dr. Merschrod. “We can track the human impact from its source to its eventual fate downstream. From large-scale biogeochemical processes, which can be connected to phenomena such as climate change, to the more local effects of human impact such as industrial contaminants or human waste.”

The “wide expertise” means a chemical engineer to identify the source of human based discharges into the water body (e.g. sewage outfalls) and what needs to be measured, chemists who will conduct the measurements, and an earth scientist, who will determine how all of these things flow through the river and impact the wider environment. The information can then be used by the engineers and chemists to identify the sources having the most significant impact and developing technologies or methods to minimize this impact.

The researchers will also be developing new environmental monitoring technologies making this type of work more efficient and accessible in future. For example, microfluidic technology (very tiny tubes embedded in a small chip) will enable researchers to assess water quality in remote areas at lower cost and without complicated equipment.

As Dr. Merschrod puts it, “it could be as simple as dipping a chip into the well or other drinking water source and getting an instant, easy-to-read response.”

The project, titled Development of a source-to-sea understanding and monitoring capabilities for assessing human and climate change impacts on water resources in the Humber River Basin, is funded through the Humber River Basin Project (HRBP).

As recently reported in the 2008 Research Report, the HRBP is an umbrella network of researchers working out of Sir Wilfred Grenfell College’s Centre of Environmental Excellence.

From environmental studies focusing on the river’s potential as a drinking water source, to historical analysis of how the people have used this river to help them survive, the project is an integrated approach to ecological assessment and long-term monitoring.