WaterUnderground

Water Underground

What is the best journal to submit groundwater research this year?

What is the best journal to submit groundwater research this year?

We all know about the flaws of impact factors, including how they lead to citing recent research, self-citing etc. But I thought it would be handy to compile a list of journals where well-cited groundwater articles are most often published. Like it or not, I sometimes look up this information and I assume other people do to. The impact factor  is certainly not the only factor I use to decide where to submit but I thought it might be useful to list these journals all in one place.

Impact-statements

impact factor??? from www.myrkothum.com

I made the list by searching ‘groundwater’ on google scholar and listing articles published in the last ten years than have >100 citations. Then I compiled the impact factors from the 2014  Thomson Reuters journal citation reports. This list reminded me of the diversity of journals were well-cited groundwater papers appear and to shoot high. Here is the list, first alphabetically…

Advances in Water Resources 2.8
Chemosphere 3.5
Ecohydrology 2.6
Environmental Earth Science 1.6
Environmental Management 1.6
Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 1.7
Environmental Science & Technology 5.5
Geophysical Research Letters 4.5
Groundwater 2.0
Hydrogeology Journal 1.7
Hydrological Processes 2.7
Hydrology and Earth Systems Science 3.6
Journal of Hydrology 2.7
Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management 1.8
Nature 42.4
Nature Climate Change 15.3
Nature Geoscience 11.7
PNAS 9.8
Science 31.5
Science of the Total Environment 3.2
Water Research 5.3
Water Resources Research 3.7

and now for the real number geeks, sorted by impact factor…

Nature 42.4
Science 31.5
Nature Climate Change 15.3
Nature Geoscience 11.7
PNAS 9.8
Environmental Science & Technology 5.5
Water Research 5.3
Geophysical Research Letters 4.5
Water Resources Research 3.7
Hydrology and Earth Systems Science 3.6
Chemosphere 3.5
Science of the Total Environment 3.2
Advances in Water Resources 2.8
Hydrological Processes 2.7
Journal of Hydrology 2.7
Ecohydrology 2.6
Groundwater 2.0
Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management 1.8
Hydrogeology Journal 1.7
Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 1.7
Environmental Management 1.6
Environmental Earth Science 1.6

For such a new journal, I am amazed that HESS has such a high impact factor. Is it because of the open access?

Did I miss any important journals? Please let me know with your comments…

How I start good supervisory relationships with graduate students

How I start good supervisory relationships with graduate students

Many professors are confused about why a certain graduate student is happy or unhappy, under performing or performing well. I am far from a perfect supervisor, but I try to avoid this confusion by getting to know my graduate students on a relatively deep but professional level as quickly as possible, by doing the following in our first meeting:

  • sharing results of a personality test;
  • discussing our biggest goals, hopes and fears about their graduate work; and
  • planing a very short two-week research project.

Before the meeting, the student and I take a free online personality test and prepare to discuss goals, hopes, fears and a research project. Below I outline the how and why of each part of the first meeting… hopefully I will never be this professor:

phd012609s

1. Share results of a personality test

Sharing the results of a personality test is often the perfect ice breaker since it is talking about emotions, but not about a student’s personal life. I use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator because it is what i am most familiar and comfortable with but other personality tests such as colour code or FourSight could also work.  Myers-Briggs is a physiological test that highlights how people perceive the world and make decisions; a free online version can be completed very quickly.

I usually start by describing my personality type (INTJ) and that there are 16 different personality types, emphasizing that no type is better or worse than any other for science or any other part of life.  Then I ask them if they are comfortable sharing their personality type and we discuss how the two types fit together. I find this very effectively focuses on how we can work best together and acknowledges that everyone is different.  And for students who are uncomfortable, each Myers-Brigg’s type is linked to a Harry Potter character which can be fun:

Harry Potter Myers Briggs

http://inthefrontseat.blogspot.ca/2013/09/harry-potter-myers-briggs-chart.html

2. Discuss our biggest goals, hopes and fears about their graduate work

The Myers-Briggs sharing often naturally leads to this important discussion where both the student and I share our biggest goals, hopes and fears for their graduate work. I usually start by sharing, and I am usually brutally honest. I usually have a goal of how their project fits into my broader research program, and sometimes specific hopes of how the student and I may grow, learn or interact. In some cases I have been really honest about my fears that I don’t know enough about the topic, I don’t have as much time to devote to supervising them as I would like, or the project may fail, etc. Most students find the honesty refreshing.

Then I ask the student to share and we end up writing down shared goals, hopes and fears so that they can be reviewed at later meetings. This becomes the template of what we hope we will both get out of their graduate work, so we return to these goals, hopes and fears a couple of times per year to check in and re-evaluate.

goals

www.runnersgoal.com

3. Plan a very short two-week research project

Finally, we decide on a mini research project which should actually be doable in two weeks, and is not just be a literature review. The topic can be related to their overall graduate project or not, and can come from the student, professor or both. It could involve analysis, modeling, field work etc. In two weeks time  a 1000-2000 word research paper is due.

This mini-project often accomplishes a lot:

  • focuses on the student on research rather than their new classes, new apartment, new city etc.
  • helps both of us figure out how to best work together (i.e. lots of meetings and guidance or not)
  • Builds the student’s confidence in starting something new in this new environment
  • helps me evaluate their research and writing skills so that we can better tailor their graduate project.

It is a pretty intense first meeting that takes preparation, emotional intelligence and usually two hours but I find the dividends are always well worth the effort.


Thanks to DISCCRS for teaching me the value of the Myers-Briggs test and Mark Jellinek for the short research project idea.

Stupid fun things I do in water #1: snorkle in a cold river with baby salmon

Stupid fun things I do in water #1: snorkle in a cold river with baby salmon

Most people like snorkeling in warm water.  Well, I have to admit I do too but recently, a old friend and I decided to put on wetsuits and snorkle down part of the Cowichan River on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, where people often tube in the summer.  It was definitely both stupid and fun… here are some pics, thanks to the waterproof camera :

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

getting into the super deep water

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

snorkeling through the epic white water

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

rocks at the edge

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

yes, there are baby salmon in there.

Communicating research results through comics: is the permeability of crystalline rock in the shallow crust related to depth, lithology, or tectonic setting?

Communicating research results through comics: is the permeability of crystalline rock in the shallow crust related to depth, lithology, or tectonic setting?

Mark Ranjram, a Masters student in my research group, wrote a paper on crystalline permeability that is coming out in a special edition of Geofluids on ‘Crustal Permeability’ early in 2015 (other cool papers in early view here). Here is Mark’s awesome response when I asked him if he wanted to write a plain language summary:

PlainLanguagePermeabilityComic_1Column

Is groundwater depletion keeping California fruit and veggies cheap during the severe drought?

Is groundwater depletion keeping California fruit and veggies cheap during the severe drought?

Food prices in the United States are increasing slightly but not as significantly as one might expect given the severe drought in California. Margret Munro, a science journalist with Postmedia, recently asked me a great question: is grounveggiesdwater depletion keeping California fruit and veggies cheap during the severe drought? Following up on her article, here is what I found and what it means for the Central Valley aquifer system in California.

What is the Central Valley aquifer?
The Central Valley aquifer system is a large, complex aquifer system.  Permanent loss (or depletion) of groundwater in the Central Valley aquifer may pose a threat to the agricultural economy of the U.S. since market value of agricultural products grown in there contributed up to 7% of the nation’s $300 billion in agricultural revenue in 2007. Recently,  we have shown how different crops lead to groundwater stress across the Central Valley.

centralvalley

http://academic.emporia.edu/schulmem/hydro/TERM%20PROJECTS/Gunther/stanislaus.html

Why are food prices not increasing?
According to NPR’s Dan Charles there are three reasons why food prices are not increasing: 1. some farmers have backup water supplies, and much of this is groundwater;  2. some parts of California are less dry than others; and 3. the limited water is going to crops that consumers are most likely to notice.

Is groundwater pumping increasing?
Previous studies by the USGS have shown that groundwater pumping increased during previous. During the last drought, this increase in pumping was even seen in GRACE satellite data, which was updated in a more recent report.   Another recent study from University of California Davis suggests surface water deliveries will be reduced by an estimated 6.5 million acre-feet and partially replaced by an increase of 5 million acre-feet of groundwater pumping (compared to the normal quantity of 20 million acre-feet). The research team estimates nearly 410 thousand acres being fallowed, resulting in a reduction in gross farm revenue of $738 million.

1977-Poland_telephonepole

Groundwater depletion caused the land to subside at the rate highlighted by the years on the telephone pole (USGS)

What are the potential impacts on the Central Valley aquifer?
A study of major aquifers in the United States suggests only 20% of the pumpage of the Central Valley aquifer comes from the depletion of stored groundwater. Most of the pumpage comes from increased recharge due to artificial irrigation. This can lead to groundwater contamination by fertilizers or pesticides and or decreased baseflow to rivers, which can impact the environment. Other potential impacts are aquifer compaction, which causes land subsidence and increased pumping costs. As a previous post described, this may even be moving the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains!

What is next?
This drought seems to be encouraging California to modernize water management. Now, California seems to poised to pass new groundwater regulations. Go Governor Jerry Brown, Go!

Reducing water scarcity possible by 2050

Reducing water scarcity possible by 2050

Press release from McGill University of our research published yesterday in Nature Geoscience.

Water scarcity is not a problem just for the developing world. In California, legislators are currently proposing a $7.5 billion emergency water plan to their voters; and U.S. federal officials last year warned residents of Arizona and Nevada that they could face cuts in Colorado River water deliveries in 2016.

Irrigation techniques, industrial and residential habits combined with climate change lie at the root of the problem. But despite what appears to be an insurmountable problem, according to researchers from McGill and Utrecht University it is possible to turn the situation around and significantly reduce water scarcity in just over 35 years.

In a new paper published in Nature Geoscience, the researchers outline strategies in six key areas that they believe can be combined in different ways in different parts of the world in order to effectively reduce water stress. (Water stress occurs in an area where more than 40 percent of the available water from rivers is unavailable because it is already being used – a situation that currently affects about a third of the global population, and may affect as many as half the people in the world by the end of the century if the current pattern of water use continues).

The researchers separate six key strategy areas for reducing water stress into “hard path” measures, involving building more reservoirs and increasing desalination efforts of sea water, and “soft path” measures that focus on reducing water demand rather than increasing water supply thanks to community-scale efforts and decision-making, combining efficient technology and environmental protection. The researchers believe that while there are some economic, cultural and social factors that may make certain of the “soft path” measures such as population control difficult, the “soft path” measures offer the more realistic path forward in terms of reducing water stress.

(The details about each of the six key strategy areas are to be found below.)

“There is no single silver bullet to deal with the problem around the world,” says Prof. Tom Gleeson, of McGill’s Department of Civil Engineering and one of the authors of the paper. “But, by looking at the problem on a global scale, we have calculated that if four of these strategies are applied at the same time we could actually stabilize the number of people in the world who are facing water stress rather than continue to allow their numbers to grow, which is what will happen if we continue with business as usual.”
“Significant reductions in water-stressed populations are possible by 2050,” adds co-author Dr. Yoshihide Wada from the Department of Physical Geography at Utrecht University, “but a strong commitment and strategic efforts are required to make this happen.”

Strategies to reduce water stress

“Soft measures”

  1. Agricultural water productivity could be improved in stressed basins where agriculture is commonly irrigated. Reducing the fraction of water-stressed population by 2% by the year 2050 could be achieved with the help of new cultivars, or higher efficiency of nutrients application. Concerns include the impacts of genetic modification and eutrophication.
  1. Irrigation efficiency could also be improved in irrigated agricultural basins. A switch from flood irrigation to sprinklers or drips could help achieve this goal, but capital costs are significant and soil salinization could ensue.
  1. Improvements in domestic and industrial water use could be achieved in water stressed areas through significant domestic or industrial water use reduction, for example, by reducing leakage in the water infrastructure and improving water-recycling facilities.
  1. Limiting the rate of population growth could help in all water-stressed areas, but a full water-stress relief would require keeping the population in 2050 below 8.5 billion, for example, through help with family planning and tax incentives. However, this could be difficult to achieve, given current trends.

“Hard measures”

  1. Increasing water storage in reservoirs could, in principle, help in all stressed basins with reservoirs. Such a strategy would require an additional 600 km3 of reservoir capacity, for example, by making existing reservoirs larger, reducing sedimentation or building new ones. This strategy would imply significant capital investment, and could have negative ecological and social impacts.
  1. Desalination of seawater could be ramped up in coastal water-stressed basins, by increasing either the number or capacity of desalination plants. A 50-fold increase would be required to make an important difference, which would imply significant capital and energy costs, and it would generate waste water that would need to be disposed of safely.

To read the Nature Geoscience article: http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v7/n9/full/ngeo2241.html?WT.ec_id=NGEO-201409

1200 words to make sense of chaos: The Selker Scheme

1200 words to make sense of chaos: The Selker Scheme

This is an inspiring article by John Selker (Oregon State University) that was first published in the latest AGU Hydrology Section Newsletter (July 2014). John graciously offered to re-post it here… make sure you make it to his rules and a secret at the bottom.

Being elected a fellow of the AGU was an amazing honor, and I thank  those who so kindly nominated me, somehow crafting a silk purse from the assorted bits and pieces I have left behind over 25
years. I take this opportunity to address nontechnical aspects of my experience. After all, the science is easily found on-line, whereas the ins and outs of personal scientific strategy rarely see the light of day.

My research is the outcome of local optimization scheme with the objective of identifying the next approach when faced with calls for proposals which I saw I could address, thus seemed opportune, but did not deeply stimulate my curiosity. I was lured into that trap a few times. But in time, putting greater weight on “the likelihood that I will be excited by the work” than “the chances that the ideas will be successful” and putting “the chances that I would be funded” last,
my research program took a turn for the better (right around the time I got tenure – funny how that works). Behind this all lurks the fact that I am more fascinated by challenges than questions. I do
not see this as an advantage: great scientists seek answers to great questions, not just engaging puzzles. I tend to be hooked on a question, which sometimes take decades to unravel.

This “strategy” (more accurately a propensity) is best understood by an example of a question and its resolution. Here’s one which can be explained compactly, which we could call “the steam water
quality sampling conundrum:” design an ultra cheap sampler of 1-month time-averaged stream chemistry. What a neat problem! So we started with the fact that a sampler must have a vessel to
hold the material collected. Next, if it is to sample from a stream, it would be good if it sank. So at a minimum we must have a weighted brown glass bottle. At this point a little context is needed. David Rupp had just found significant pesticide in runoff and wondered how many stream might have this problem (Rupp et al., 2006), so we needed to sample at hundreds of points for the little money I
could gather: about $1,000 – the cost of the bottles. So we stared at a bottle: the answer must be here. “Fine, let’s just drill one tiny hole in the bottle cap and call it done.” When the stream water warms the
bottles air expands sending out 2% of the air from the hole (PV=nRT and T changes about 6 oK out of 300 oK). Cooling contracts the air, drawing in water. It fills half-way in a month. David and I had a great time making and testing these bottles. By the time we were confident in the design, the project was by over, but we got enough data to publish (Selker and Rupp, 2005). How important
was this work? The paper has been cited twice (and those only citing our work to justify that weird sampling strategies are publishable. A wonderful puzzle solved, but that interested fewer people than
would be invited to a dinner party.

So should we follow the branching Fibonaccian web of passion or a single path? Eternally seduced by the next “cool problem” means that I do not tend to follow otherwise discernible “lines of investigation” and is likely to lead to lost papers such as the sinking bubble bottle. I have been told that this is not the best route to “success,” and that staying focused on a single theme brings greater
recognition of your work. Yes, I agree, in the abstract. But this theory is trumped, in my opinion, by the absolute requirement that a researcher’s spirit be engaged in their work if they are to have a
hope of accomplishing anything truly original and important. If you don’t find yourself dreaming about it, you just aren’t fully engaged: you are just using a tiny fraction of your brain, missing out on
the chance to excel.

How do we balance these factors? Don Nielsen’s question needs to be added to the criteria for selecting a research project: is the problem important to humanity? And he means REALLY important!

Stumbling in the dark you are sometimes lucky enough to bump into a lump of gold. Marc Parlange is uniquely expert at helping people stumble productively. Preparing to come to Switzerland on sabbatical to work with Marc he suggested I work on glacier melting. The problem is that glaciers melt largely due to shortwave
radiation absorption, and if you stick anything in the glacier to measure the radiation or temperature, it gets hot in the sun, and melts the ice. “What if I had an entirely transparent thermometer?” I recalled hearing about fiber optic temperature measurements, so I started to check on that approach. We tried hard to measure the glaciers melt with fiber optic distributed temperature sensing (DTS), but the bottom line is that I never got any important publishable data. I tip my hat to all those studying snow! But the DTS method
allowed measurement of 10’s of thousands of temperatures across scales of 0.1 to 10,000 m. These are precisely the scales at which “point” measurements and remote sensing. This is an obvious gold mine for our science (opportune? Yes!). We have now used DTS to “see” air movement, quantify groundwater upwelling in streams, measure soil water content, observe lake stratification, surface temperatures of the ocean, and flow in deep boreholes. A wonderful aspect of the scientific endeavor is that we move as a community. We (my DTS buddies Scott Tyler and Nick van de Giesen) have now put on 15 hands-on workshops training folks how to use the method, and started an NSF-funded center (CTEMPs.org) where we make the gear and technical support available to others who have ideas that DTS might help address. It has been a delight.

The bottom line is that life is too short to:
1. Study problems that don’t matter;
2. Try to “go it alone” rather than feeling the joy of community;
3. Get stale studying the same old thing. If you feel it is fresh, great. If not, then open your eyes to new problems;
4. Worry about others stealing your ideas!The jokes on them – you are multiplying the number of people who are helping you answer the questions that you can’t wait to understand. Share your ideas, your data, your time.

Here’s a little secret: the coolest problem ever is just around the bend. Take the corner, and enjoy the ride. I can’t point the way, but following a few simple rules I promise you’ll have a great time
wandering.

Rupp, D.E., K. Warren, E. Peachy and J.S. Selker. Diuron in Surface Runoff and Tile Drainage from Two Grass-Seed Fields. J. Env. Qual. 35:303-311. 2006.
Selker, J.S. and D.E. Rupp. An environmentally driven time  integrating water sampler. Water Resour. Res. 41. W09201,DOI:10.1029/2005WR004040. 2005.

The home of our hearts day 5: The Sydney Tar Ponds and keeping the spark alive

[part six of a special six-part blog series by Mark Ranjram, MEng student at McGill University. From June 8 to June 13 2014, Mark had the privilege of being a part of the Canadian Water Network’s (CWN) Student and Young Professionals (SYP) Workshop in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Here is the prologue to this series.]

The fifth and final day of the workshop started off with a tour of the Sydney Tar Ponds. The tar ponds are a massive contaminated site originating from the production of coke (a derivative of coal), a popular fuel used by the steel plants in Cape Breton to heat their furnaces. A large remediation effort is being conducted at the tar ponds, with 700,000 metric tonnes of contaminated sediment being trapped over a 31 hectare area.

From the tar ponds, we went on a walking tour of a neighbourhood in Sydney immediately adjacent to the now defunct steel manufacturing plant. Our tour guide gave us the history of the neighbourhood, explaining the deeply discriminatory, destitute conditions the workers lived and worked in; similar in many ways to the plight of the coal miners which we explored in Day 3. One of the most haunting things our tour guide showed us was the tunnels which acted as gates into the steel plant compound. As workers walked through these gates, we were told to imagine the blast of heat and dust they would experience as their long day at the plants began. The tour was yet another remarkable realization of the true difficulty people face in their lives, and the amazing ability for the islanders of Cape Breton to overcome these challenges and maintain an optimistic, innovative perspective.

9

Tunnel into Sydney Steel Compound. Photo Credit: Mark Ranjram

The day ended with a “kitchen party” at a local restaurant, where we sat at a long table and closed off our week in style. At the end of the night, we completed a final talking circle where we talked about what we gained from the workshop and how we aimed to pay it forward. Again, the circle was emotional, vulnerable, hilarious, and heartwarming. As we went around the circle I was again taken aback by how terrific the entire group was and what great things we could achieve with our entire careers ahead of us; and what could be accomplished by all the other people that weren’t there but have that same fire and that same genuine commitment to making the world even just a hair better than it was when they got here. I made a pledge at that table to find a way to bring some environmental education to my community, for example, helping people in my community understand where their water comes from, where it goes, what climate change is and its consequences, and other things in that vein. If I can bring even a modicum of environmental baseline knowledge to the people in my neighbourhood, I will have made a small contribution towards helping create a sustainability-knowledgeable citizen base and voting public. I’m not sure how I will accomplish what I want to accomplish, but the first nations and non-indigenous people of Cape Breton, our amazing workshop leaders, and the nineteen young researchers and professionals I met at the workshop will forever motivate me to make a positive mark on the world. There is a rising tide in the coming generations of water leaders, and I certainly refuse to be left behind as all these brilliant, committed people spend their time making a difference! Thank you again to everyone involved in the workshop, and thanks to all the people out there who want to see a sustainable world and believe it is possible in spite of all the great challenges we face today on Earth socially, politically, economically, and environmentally.

10

#CWNSYP Cape Breton! Photo Credit: Liana Kreamer

The home of our hearts day 4: the water-energy nexus & deep thoughts on salty water

[part five of a special six-part blog series by Mark Ranjram, MEng student at McGill University. From June 8 to June 13 2014, Mark had the privilege of being a part of the Canadian Water Network’s (CWN) Student and Young Professionals (SYP) Workshop in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Here is the prologue to this series.]

The focus of the fourth day of the workshop was the relationship between energy and water. Cape Breton, with its long history of coal extraction and its proximity to water, was a great place to explore this relationship first hand. We started our day at a community sports complex in Glace Bay, where a shallow flooded mine is being used to store and generate geothermal energy. This was yet another example of the terrific power of the local Cape Breton communities to generate innovative adaptations using their deep understanding of their environment and local issues.

11

Geothermal energy at the BayPlex sports complex in Glace Bay. Photo Credit: Shao Hui

From the sports complex, we travelled to the Point Aconi Fire Generating Station, a coal-fuelled power plant. The facility was incredibly massive, and during our tour we stood next to the giant sweltering furnace that burns the coal and looked down the maw of a 300 metre sloping coal conveyor belt, both sights a stark visual reminder of our species’ ability to bend the environment on incredible scales.

12

Looking down a coal conveyor tunnel at the Point Aconi Fire Generating Station. Photo Credit: Mark Ranjram

From the power plant, we headed to the Great Bras d’Or Channel, which connects the Bras d’Or Lakes (actually a marine estuary) to the Atlantic Ocean. Here we discussed the potential and challenges of tidal energy production from the large tides which pulse through the channel.

13

Dr. Bruce Hatcher explaining the feasibility of tidal energy in the Great Bras d’Or Channel. Photo credit: Kristen Leal

With the technical side of the day done, we proceeded to Baddeck, a small tourist down adjacent to Alexander Graham Bell’s family estate, for a sailing experience on a real sailing ship. As the cold Atlantic breeze whipped past us, we pointed out jellyfish in the water and eagles in the sky and I could not help but think about the deep connections between water and energy in Canada. What are the mechanisms by which we can take our role as stewards of our environment and balance that with our role as supporters of our families and communities; both being of critical importance to our species’ endeavour on this planet? The Mi’kmaq first nations on the island have an incredible commitment to both their environment and their communal economic success, and the non-indigenous population on the island has shown awesome commitment to sustainability and remediation, but how can we get that perspective to scale up to a population as large and as varied as our entire country? Thinking about Toronto, my hometown of roughly 2.5 million people, where green spaces are relatively plentiful for a city but are not necessarily part of our day-to-day, where the rivers are small and hidden away, and the lake is so large as to suggest infinite abundance, how do we develop that baseline of environmental understanding? And how do we translate that understanding amongst a finely discretized gradient of cultural, social, and economic motivations? The answers to these questions are not straight forward, but sometimes the most important step is to just open the sails and give yourself a chance to catch the wind.

14

They even let me sail the boat! Photo Credit: Raea Gooding

Next post in series…

The home of our hearts day 3: The coal story – mines and mine water remediation

The home of our hearts day 3: The coal story – mines and mine water remediation

[part four of a special six-part blog series by Mark Ranjram, MEng student at McGill University. From June 8 to June 13 2014, Mark had the privilege of being a part of the Canadian Water Network’s (CWN) Student and Young Professionals (SYP) Workshop in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Here is the prologue to this series.]

Coal mining is an essential part of the history of Cape Breton Island, and thus was the focus of the third day of the workshop. We began the day by exploring active and passive remediation methods used on Cape Breton to deal with their problems with mine water. Our stops included a very large waste rock pile that had been capped and vegetated; a water treatment facility removing iron- and sulphur-rich water from decommissioned mines; and a wetland facility doing the same. It was such an exciting experience to be able to put a real world picture on some of the theory you learn about in coursework and it was a very motivating thing to see a community attacking their environmental problems with such innovative solutions!

6

An engineered wetland used to passively remediate iron-rich mine water. Photo Credit: Gary Pardy

On the second half of the day we travelled to the Coal Miners Museum in Glace Bay, where we were treated to a tour down an actual coal mine from an actual coal miner. A relevant caveat here is that the coal mine we toured was never actually worked for coal, but built specifically to give tours. Our tour guide, Wishie “Wish” Davidson, walking around hunched over with a cane in his hand, gave us the history of coal mining in Cape Breton, which is an industrial tale that would make Dickens jealous. Wish described the “company stores” that were the only sources of food, clothes, and other amenities in the coal mining towns, which forced miners into debt by setting exorbitant prices, and the “company homes” which would allow families to stay so long as they had a worker in the mines and were willing to have their wages docked to pay for the privilege. As we travelled into the 150 foot mine (with four foot ceilings at its shortest section), Wish described the suffocating, nightmarish conditions the miners had to deal with, including the pitch blackness, constant coal dust, cacophony of the drill machines, and the aches and physical trauma that came with shovelling tonnes of coal each day. The remarkable struggle of the workers really put into perspective what actual hardship is, and was a stark contextualization for me of how the challenge of finding solutions to our water problems can in no way be as brutal as the challenge of waking up at four in the morning, six days a week, to travel miles into the ground, and work for fourteen hours in dust, noise, darkness, and pain only to get paid for what you brought to the surface, and only then getting to take home pay that the companies didn’t get their hands on first.

7

Wish Davidson giving us a tour of the Ocean Deeps Colliery. The cement lining quickly ends as you travel down the tunnel, and you are left surrounded by black coal and timber in passageways as small as four feet in height. Photo Credit: Liana Kreamer

Following the mine tour, we had an additional opportunity to experience the story of coal mining in Cape Breton at an incredible concert given by the “Men of the Deeps,” a choral group that has toured across the world and is composed entirely of miners who worked in the coal mines at some point during their careers. This added another dimension of awe to the performance, as coal mining has been shut down in Cape Breton since 2001, and so the men on the stage were the last men in Cape Breton that could ever tell us these stories. Indeed, it is difficult to express how moving it is to hear a group of people sing about a way of life that was designed to crush them but is still an indelible component of their personal identity. The chorus of one of the songs they sang, called “Sixteen Tons,” gives a great example of how powerful the concert was: “You load sixteen tons, what do you get?/Another day older and deeper in debt/Saint Peter don’t you call me cause I can’t go/I owe my soul to the company store.”

8

The Men of the Deeps. Photo Credit: Kristen Leal

No matter how much hyperbole we like to kick around, our challenges with apathy, misinformation, and politics are drops in the bucket compared to the daily misery that the coal miners faced. Whenever I feel that spectre of cynicism telling me to throw up my hands and curse at our environmental challenges and stewardship decisions, I think remembering the Sydney coalmines will give me a place to anchor my optimism: it can’t be that bad!

Next post in series…