In today's global marketplace, no population or country on earth is immune to the growing effects of climate change and natural resource depletion—especially water. And thanks to funding from the Penn State Institute of Energy and the Environment, DOW Chemicals, and ATAS International, Inc., a multidisciplinary group of 13 Penn State students were able to travel in May 2011 to China, where they worked alongside their Jiangnan University peers conducting field research on the shores of China's third largest freshwater lake, as part of Penn State's innovative CHANCE (Connecting Humans and Nature through Conservation Experiences) program and its 2011 field course, Biology 497C, "Global Environmental Sustainability: A Field Study in China."
Based on last summer's innovative pilot program, the May course format was designed to unite Penn State students from a variety of disciplines (science, agriculture, engineering, liberal arts, and international affairs) with their Chinese counterparts to examine the impact of burgeoning development upon one of China's crucial water resources, Lake Taihu. The two-week practicum gave 28 students and 10 faculty the opportunity to examine the effects of industrial, municipal and urban development within the Taihu Basin—one of the most industrialized regions in China—and to offer strategic solutions for the lake's restoration.
Next, the group conducted cooperative experiments on the water quality of, and land use around, Lake Taihu to improve their awareness of environmental problems and learn sampling and analysis methods used to diagnose aquatic ecosystem health and stability. After analyzing the chemical, biological, and physical characteristics, the results were disturbing: Lake Taihu's nutrient levels continue to be indicative of a eutrophic state, and therefore unsafe for human consumption. The students' findings clearly indicate that more waste and industrial water treatment facilities are warranted, as is enhanced environmental education to promote a more knowledgeable and responsible citizenry.
The good news is that restoration efforts presently in place (blue-green algae salvage ships, dredging lake bottom, factory relocation, artificial floating beds, introduction of algae eating fish, water transferring via Yangtze River tributaries, restoration of riparian buffers) are, cumulatively, helping to lessen the eutrophication process. Climate experts agree that such collaborative efforts are mandatory going forward.
"We have high confidence that our actions are changing the climate in fundamental ways, which will make life harder as the changes become large," explains paleoclimatologist Richard Alley, Ph.D., a Nobel Laureate and professor at Penn State's Earth and Mineral Institute (who, in keeping with the course's "green" format, joined others who participated via teleconference). "The major global players must be involved for development of truly sustainable answers, which means that serious US-China engagement is very important. Sustainability and the related issue of biospheric health will require solutions that work globally."
The trip ended on a high note, with the Jiangnan students throwing a goodbye party that included a talent show, karaoke, and the ChaCha Slide. Numerous sightseeing and historical/cultural outings activities and were also carefully embedded in the trip component of this field course.