To the casual observer, the Chesapeake Bay appears to look the same most every day of the year. But Bruce Michael sees what's happening to the sea grasses beneath the waves and swells.
“We've had a lot of rain since the beginning of March,” he said, “providing sediments and nutrients, and it clouds the water. There won't be enough light reaching the bottom for our underwater grasses to grow.”
The health of the sea grasses or sub-aquatic vegetation is critical to the bay. They improve water quality “by filtering out sediments, absorbing nutrients from water, and producing oxygen,” explains Lee Karrh, the living resources assessment program chief.
Weather conditions both near to and far from the bay hold the key to its health and livelihood. Major, prolonged swings in temperature can have visible effects on the bay water and deadly effects on the life within the bay itself. A massive fish kill in late December was attributed to a sudden cold snap. Colder than average winter also claimed one-third of the adult blue crabs, but the crab population is still above target levels.
Rainfall has been running well above normal levels across the bay’s basin, which includes parts of six states and the District of Columbia. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources continuously samples water quality and the state of the underwater vegetation.
“You have a dry year, you have very little stuff washing off land. However, when you have a wet year, it's bringing literally thousands of tons of material into the bay,” said Karrh.
The “stuff" running off the land is soil and nutrients from farms and backyards and everything else that makes its way in the bay.
As summer approaches, commercial and recreational use of the bay is increasing. If temperatures become too warm, for too long, then algae blooms and low-oxygen “dead zones” could become a threat to everything on and in the Chesapeake Bay.
The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the U.S. with more than 150 rivers and creeks leading into it. The best weather conditions for the life and health of the bay is for long stretches of cool, dry weather -- something not too likely this summer.