New undergrad course exposes students to the quantitative side of water quality

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Chris Parsons on a sampling trip in Coot's Paradise near Toronto.

Chris Parsons canoeing to a sampling site in Coot's Paradise near Toronto.

Should we still worry about acid rain? What is the chemical composition of a pristine river? How can we mitigate algal blooms in lakes and estuaries? What are the impacts of ocean acidification? Unfortunately, these are not simple questions to answer, according to Water Institute member Chris Parsons, assistant research professor in Earth and Environmental Sciences.

“Water quality is constantly changing as water moves through one environment to the next,” says Parsons. “Without a quantitative understanding of the chemistry and biology happening in these environments, there’s no way decision makers can manage water resources, especially in light of ongoing climate and land use changes.”

Parsons along with fellow researchers in the Ecohydrology Research Group have developed a new undergraduate special topics course - Earth 491: Ecohydrology - that aims to improve students’ quantitative understanding of the evolving chemical composition of natural waters, from atmospheric precipitation, via soils, rivers and groundwater, and finally to the oceans.

“We wanted to round out our undergraduates’ educational experience with a course that shows them how to combine the best of their coursework in physical hydrology, geochemistry and environmental science,” says Parsons. “The magic is seeing how the flow of water and the chemicals it transports act as a giant, global conveyor belt, but also the simple and unexpected ways in which we as humans have an impact on water quality.”

This course aims to improve students' understanding of the fluxes and transformations of nutrient elements (C, P, N, Si, Fe) along the aquatic continuum, assess the importance of reactive interfaces (or geochemical “hotspots”), and interpret and predict changes in water quality resulting from natural and human-induced environmental change.

“We will offer countless examples of how natural and anthropogenic processes change the composition of water along the hydrological cycle,” says Parsons. “For example, the damming of a river may greatly modify the fluxes of limiting nutrients delivered to the receiving lake or coastal zone.”

Earth 491: Ecohydrology is being offered Winter term 2018. Pre-requisites include Earth 123 and 221.

Original story by Victoria Van Cappellen, Faculty of Science