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Silent Spring - 50th Anniversary
An Essay Series
To commemorate Silent Spring's 50th Anniversary, our Environmental Contaminant Specialists have written a series of articles about some of their modern problems and projects, and how those relate back to Rachel Carson's work and her findings in Silent Spring. Here are the first three in the series.
50 Years After Silent Spring - Conservation of the Midwest Driftless Area
Fifty years after Rachel Carson raised a red flag about the extensive use of pesticides and their impacts, contaminants are so pervasive in our natural environment that any evaluation of threats to a species or ecosystem almost always includes some analysis of contaminants. A look at the work being done on the Midwest’s Driftless Area paints a picture of the role that contaminants can play in efforts to assess and protect vulnerable ecosystems and species and the measures that researchers take to tease out contaminants as a factor affecting plants and animals.
The Driftless Area, located at the corners of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa, is a regional limestone plateau of bluffs and steep stream valleys. Continental glaciers during the most recent Ice Ages mostly flowed around and not over this plateau. Vegetation in the Driftless Area was tundra-like during Ice Ages, but as the glaciers retreated, boreal forests invaded the former tundra. Then, as the climate warmed, boreal forests gave way to the temperate forests and grasslands that we now see.
50 Years After Silent Spring: Cleaning Up Ohio’s Ashtabula River
Fifty years ago today, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring appeared on bookshelves, a work that helped shape the world in which we live today. Silent Spring described the potentially devastating impacts of widespread use of chemicals, like the pesticide DDT. Thanks in part to Carson’s work, use of pesticides is now regulated, and the use of DDT is banned in the United States. Birds like the bald eagle and peregrine falcon, once edging toward extinction due to the effects of DDT in the environment, are recovered.
But even decades after Silent Spring, we continue to encounter contaminants in the environment, some new, some from our past. Northwest Ohio’s Ashtabula River is an example. For more than 30 years, beginning in the 1940s, industries in Ashtabula improperly disposed of wastes in the river, contaminating the lower 2 miles of the Ashtabula River with over 30 hazardous substances including polychlorinated biphenyls, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, chlorinated solvents and low-level radioactive materials. As a result, the size and composition of fish populations in the Ashtabula River declined by as much as 50 percent compared with other Lake Erie tributaries. Populations of bottom-dwelling insects and other invertebrates, which support the river’s fish also declined and PCB levels were above those known to cause injury to fish-eating birds. In addition, the high levels of contaminants restricted human use of the river, limiting both recreational boating and commercial shipping.
50 Years After Silent Spring: Lessons Learned at Indiana’s Cane Ridge
Early on in her book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson laments the indiscriminate pesticide use "with little or no advance investigation of their effects on soil, water, wildlife..." and the "lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports life." Carson’s work, published 50 years ago this month, alerted the world to the dangers of indiscriminate use of organochlorine pesticides like DDT.
Carson’s warning of the potential for a silent spring has been widely heeded, but awareness of the problem is not always enough. For example, wet-management of fly-ash from coal-fired power plants can cause high concentrations of selenium in nearby aquatic systems, harming fish and wildlife. Although the problem was first recognized and addressed at Belews Lake North Carolina in the 1980s, wildlife managers found themselves faced with a similar, significant selenium problem in Indiana in 2008, one that threatened Indiana’s nesting population of endangered least terns.
Investigating the use of Herbicides in an Endangered Species' Habitat
Rachel Carson’s research in the 1950s on the effects of pesticides to the American robin sparked awareness of and a concern for the risks of chemicals to human and wildlife health. Carson’s research led to the banning of the pesticide DDT and to the Environmental Protection Agency‘s review and regulation of all pesticides. Although regulated, chemicals are widely used in the environment and there is evidence that some chemicals used today can cause a health risk to wildlife, something Carson warned us about decades ago. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains Carson’s legacy of due diligence and continues investigations on the effects of chemicals on wildlife today.
The Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) is the only federally-listed dragonfly protected by the Endangered Species Act. Most of its range is within the Great Lakes Basin, with the largest population found in Door County, Wisconsin. This species requires high quality wetlands fed by calcareous groundwater seeps underlain by dolomite bedrock, a habitat that is critical to the species’ survival. The dragonfly larvae spend 4 to 5 years as aquatic invertebrates, undergoing multiple molts until they crawl onto nearby vegetation and molt one last time into the adult dragonfly. During times of low surface water in mid-summer and fall, the aquatic larvae use crayfish burrows as safe havens, retreating into them to survive. The dragonfly’s extended development time and relationship with crayfish makes the Hine’s unique among other dragonfly species. The Hine’s may be susceptible to the effects from chemicals because their exposure to them in wetlands occurs over a long time.
50 Years After Silent Spring: Minnesota’s St. Louis River Showcases Environmental Success and Challenge
In 1962, when Rachel Carson wrote about the impacts of DDT in her landmark book Silent Spring, many people were skeptical of her warning that future years might bring spring without birds’ songs. How could a product that was so widely used be so dangerous? Today, Carson’s counterparts are asking the same question about products that we use every day.
Following in Carson’s footsteps, the Environmental Contaminants program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting an “early warning” investigation looking at contaminants whose effects are widely used, not well known, and currently unregulated. These substances, called Contaminants of Emerging Concern, tend to be contemporary, but may also include more traditional chemicals (such as some pesticides) that have altered releases or new detections in the environment. Some of these contaminants include hormones and pharmaceuticals, as well as herbicides and pesticides.
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Reversing the Ecological Impacts of Missouri’s Mining Legacy
By John Weber
When modern Americans think about pollution and the environmental movement, they often think of the 1960s and 1970s as the time when “all those pollution issues” were handled. With publication of Rachel Carson’s seminal work Silent Spring, the passage of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency during the same time period, it is easy to understand why folks would consider the issue of water, air and land pollution under control. Unfortunately, 50 years after the inception of the environmental movement such is not the case across the nation, and in the State of Missouri, one example of environmental pollution stands out above all others.
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The Fox River 50 Years After Silent Spring
By Betsy M. Galbraith
If Rachel Carson walked along the shores of Green Bay today, she would observe Forster’s terns flying overhead, notice egrets and herons foraging in near shore wetlands, and perhaps even witness northern pike migrating into coastal wetlands. The Green Bay shoreline is a far cry from the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean near Carson’s Maine cottage where she found the inspiration for her best-selling book, The Sea Around Us. But an inspiring shoreline it is, nonetheless. Thanks to clean-up and restoration efforts in recent decades there are vast improvements in the Bay and the Lower Fox River.
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A Legacy Continues within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Environmental Contaminants Program
By Jeremy N. Moore
After years of witnessing American robins dying or dead on her lawn each spring, a St. Louis, Michigan, resident sent two dead robins to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Disease Laboratory. Upon examination of the robins, the Michigan DNR sent the birds to a lab at Michigan State University where concentrations of DDT and its metabolites DDD and DDE were found in the robins’ brain tissue. Soon thereafter, on June 22, 2012, the headline in The Morning Sun, a central Michigan newspaper read, “Dead Robins in St. Louis Poisoned by DDT.” Yes, it was 2012 and, ironically, the date marked the 50th year since Rachel Carson, “launched the environmental movement” by explaining the history and effects of pesticides on our nation’s wildlife in her book, Silent Spring.
Silent Spring and Rachel Carson
First published as a series of articles in the New Yorker, Houghton Mifflin later published the book Silent Spring on September 27, 1962. Now considered a classic, it made the New York Times bestseller list and is often credited with, not only a ban on the use of DDT, but also establishing the modern environmental movement and establishing the Environmental Protection Agency.
Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife. To many of us who work in this agency and believe in the value of our work, she is a heroine. This is especially true for our Environmental Contaminant Specialists who carry on Rachel's work, investigating modern environmental contaminant problems, seeking information to remediate damages and restoring natural resources harmed by contaminants.
Meet Rachel Carson
More about Rachel Carson