What comes to your mind when you hear the word ECOSYSTEMS or ECOLOGY? The goal of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies is “advancing ecological knowledge and awareness.” The institute is a nonprofit organization that studies disease ecology, freshwater, forests, and urban ecology. The Cary Institute defines ecology, in part, as “the scientific study of the processes influencing the distribution and abundance of organisms, the interactions among and between organisms.” In the Laudato Si and often in his communications about the environment, Pope Francis speaks of ecosystems and uses integral ecology. Chapter three of the Pope’s encyclical is called “the human roots of the ecological crisis,” and chapter four is “integral ecology.” Pope Francis describes ecology as “the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop.” He emphasizes that humans must view themselves as part of nature and the environment as “a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it.”
We know that many organisms and natural systems are in crisis. We are connected to them and need to look for causes and seek solutions. An example of an ordinary disruption to ecosystems is the overuse of road salt in the winter months, which eventually washes into natural systems. I have measured the dramatic increase in salinity in local creeks over the years after applying road salt. This annual winter input can pollute drinking water sources, distress organisms sensitive to salinity, and damage infrastructure. According to scientific studies, the 15-32 million metric tons of road salt used annually in the United States is harming ecosystems. A Cary Institute study states that “curbing salt use is essential to protecting drinking water supplies.”
Another example of an ecological crisis is the massive annual die-offs of coho salmon in the Pacific Northwest, which has been observed for decades. The “urban runoff mortality syndrome” has affected 40-90% of adult coho salmon returning to spawn in freshwaters and associated with concurrent stormwater exposure. After many years of study, researchers determined the cause of the fish kills. Rubber tires create friction on the roads and release tiny particles, much of which enter surface waters. One chemical component of the tires is lethal to the fish.
There are solutions to reduce or eliminate the many human-induced damages to ecosystems. It is essential to understand integral ecology, the interdependencies in ecosystems – the interactions, relationships. In sharing our typical home with one another and with other living organisms, the totality of relationships with nature should be considered in our decision-making and our lifestyles.
Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work.