Credit: George Danby

In a June 10, 2012, BDN article, “Study finds potentially disastrous threat to single-celled plants that support all life on Earth,” the late BDN reporter Christopher Cousins asked if the reader is interested in the rapid disintegration of the marine ecosystem. Yes, Chris, and although over six years late you have my full attention.

Since he wrote this compelling article, we now are aware that the essential nutrient of the most important single-celled plants is dissolved silicate and reservoir hydroelectric dams work to extinguish the annual free transport of this nutrient via the rivers into the ocean currents feeding the Gulf of Maine.

If we could magically engineer a tree that produces 10 times the oxygen of any existing equally sized tree on Earth, we would worship it. If we could engineer a tree that removes 40 percent of the carbon dioxide from the air and water and permanently buried its absorbed carbon in the depths of the soil, we would welcome it. With this special tree, we might have a fighting chance against accelerating global warming.

Here on Earth, there is a plant that is only 2 percent of the Earth’s biomass but provides us with 20 percent of the oxygen we breathe. This plant removes a significant percentage of the carbon dioxide from the ocean and miraculously permanently sequesters the carbon it contains in the deep ocean sediments. This plant is the diatom, a phytoplankton, and it is a miracle “tree.”

Tragically, we are destroying the diatom populations. Worldwide, diatom numbers, like other beneficial phytoplankton, are disappearing by about 1 percent per year. In the Gulf of Maine, phytoplankton, including diatoms, have decreased by a factor of five in just 17 years. Diatoms require adequate dissolved silicate to grow their heavy thick shells. Worldwide, the proliferation of tens of thousands of mega dams over the last 70 years is preventing silica and other important nutrients from reaching the oceans.

Ground zero for the impacts of dams is the Gulf of Maine. This area of the earth was the finest fishery because of its huge watershed delivering copious amounts of dissolved silicate annually to the Gulf of Maine. The rivers of New England, the Canadian Maritime Provinces and Quebec and Ontario all delivered nutrients like no other place on Earth. The St. Lawrence River, by discharge volume, is the second largest river in North America. Nothing is more important to estuaries and coastal water ecosystems than the seasonal timing and volumes of freshwater flow.

Now, the regulation of river flow in the US and Canada has moved to follow a highly unnatural policy of diminishing if not eliminating the nutrient delivering spring freshet, and maintaining low flows from spring through the fall while reservoir storage dams release high flows in the winter when flows were naturally at their lowest. In Canada, the size and numbers of dams and reservoirs are staggering.

Around the world and in Canada more hydro dam projects are planned. Not only do these dams change nutrient delivery in northern seas but they release vast quantities of warm reservoir water in the winter and eliminate the natural cold spring freshet waters. It is not surprising the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than any other ocean body. The numbers and sizes of the diatoms have been reduced as more and more reservoir dams have been discharging silica depleted water into the ocean currents that feed the Gulf of Maine. Unnatural freshwater flow regulation is a climate and marine ecological train wreck for the microscopic diatom to the noble right whale. Dams have weakened the natural function of diatoms to feed bountiful fisheries and reduce carbon dioxide levels.

We will not forget Chris Cousins’ 2012 article and we will continue to sound this alarm.

Roger Wheeler of Standish is the president of Friends of Sebago Lake.