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Earth Day 2022: NJ’s Biggest Green Challenges

Faculty experts weigh in on the environmental issues in the state that need attention and action

Posted in: Faculty Voices, Science and Technology, Uncategorized

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More than half a century after the first Earth Day called for changes to human activities that negatively affect our environment, our planet continues to face dire challenges. Climate change, nonbiodegradable waste and air pollution are some of the critical issues affecting people worldwide, including right here in the Garden State.

We asked our science experts to share what they believe are New Jersey’s most important environmental challenges, what is currently being done to solve them and what we can do in the future.

We need to move faster on climate change

New Jersey’s top 10 warmest years since 1895 have all come after 1990, including 2012, the hottest year New Jersey has experienced since record keeping began in 1895. Human-driven degradation of the environment is continuing to cause a surplus of environmental concerns not only around the world, but also right here at home.

As we saw last September with Hurricane Ida, weather patterns are becoming more severe and less predictable. We’re fortunate to live in a state where climate change is actively being addressed, and we know that change is possible, but it has to happen now.

Resources are being consumed at unsustainable rates and used in our built environment, particularly in cities. Our energy use and agricultural practices are adding to carbon emissions that create air pollution and tip the balance of greenhouse gasses to work against us. Knowing that human activity is triggering climate change, it’s imperative that we move toward sustainable options to mitigate these environmental risks, even in our own neighborhoods.

The initiatives we work on at the PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies show that environmental risks in New Jersey can be mitigated and that climate change is not a losing battle. For example, through our Green Teams summer program, students from multiple institutions and various disciplines work with host organizations across the state to tackle sustainability projects that can help right now, including vertical farms, electric mass transit vehicles, stormwater management, food waste reduction, upgrades for affordable housing, novel clean energy storage and more.

Everyone has something to contribute; we all need to work together to achieve a sustainable future.

– Hailey Spinks and Amy Tuininga, PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies

Cyanobacteria harm our New Jersey waters, wildlife and us

While phytoplankton play an important role in a balanced ecosystem, too much of a good thing has proven to be dangerous in New Jersey and many other places. A harmful algal bloom (HAB) is the rapid growth of cyanobacteria in a body of water, leading to the production of toxins that have harmful and deadly effects on humans, domestic animals and wildlife. HABs can also negatively impact aquatic ecosystems by altering the water chemistry and reducing dissolved oxygen levels, leading to fish kill incidents.

The presence of HABs have prompted beach closures and advisories against swimming, fishing or boating across the state. In response to the growing concern, Montclair’s New Jersey Center for Water Science and Technology is helping to safeguard our valuable water resources by housing a certified lab that tests for cyanotoxins in water.

The Center also offers a visual guide for the public to be able to identify common freshwater cyanobacteria, and hosts a “Traveling HAB Lab,” a mobile education program that provides on-site, discovery-based activities to educate the general public on HABs and how to take actions to reduce water pollution and future blooms.

– Meiyin Wu, Professor of Biology and Director of the New Jersey Center for Water Science and Technology

New Jersey will experience more droughts and floods

One of the impacts of climate change on New Jersey will be more droughts and more floods. This might seem confusing, as one is too little water and the other is too much, but we are predicted to experience both.

Droughts have a variety of causes, but with future weather patterns being more variable and an increase in temperatures and evaporation, our water supplies will become more stressed and there will be times where available water is limited.

Conversely, warmer air can hold more water vapor, which causes more precipitation. This, combined with stronger hurricanes, a longer hurricane season and increased sea levels will produce more flooding on rivers and coastal areas.

– Joshua Galster, Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Studies

Wildfires will become more frequent in New Jersey and beyond

Wildfires are among the many threats that are a byproduct of climate change. Rising temperatures and drought contribute to dry and stressed vegetation, which catch fire more easily. Yes, many ecosystems are used to periodic, natural, low-level fires, including grasslands, mountain forests or New Jersey’s own Pine Barrens – but these fires are expected and can benefit an ecosystem. Climate change makes the situation worse, with fires happening more frequently or severely, causing a number of consequences: long-term damage to an ecosystem, and impact on human health, infrastructure and natural resources.

With increasing human settlement in formerly wild areas (such as in mountain resorts, growing suburbs or mining and forest cutting areas), fires pose a growing risk. We have seen increasing reports of catastrophic fires in the past few years, in the western United States, Australia and the Amazon. Of course, New Jersey and its neighboring states are not immune. My colleagues and I investigate recent fires in the mountains of New Jersey and Pennsylvania; these may become more frequent or severe if drought conditions recur. Even distant fires impact New Jersey, such as the bad air pollution we experienced last summer from smoke from fires in Canada and the Northwest.

Ecosystems eventually adjust to new fire regimes, but that happens over hundreds of years. Human society cannot wait for that resiliency, so it is in our best interest to mitigate as best we can the inevitable effects of climate change, and plan carefully for these hazards.

– Greg Pope, Chairperson and Professor, Earth and Environmental Studies

To speak with an expert, contact the Media Relations team.