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Three Carolina faculty members share the ways they keep our water healthy and clean, preserve marine life and work toward a sustainable future.

Background image shows blue waves with three photos of water researchers, from left to right: Xiao-Ming Liu, Janet Nye and Rachel Noble.
Carolina’s water researchers include, from left, Xiao-Ming Liu, Janet Nye and Rachel Noble.

Water sustains Earth and our very existence.

That’s why Carolina’s research on water addresses a variety of issues with global ramifications. The work in multiple schools, centers and departments spans an ocean of subjects ranging from the quality and availability of water to environmental concerns such as chemicals known as PFAS and other toxins to environmental racism.

The Well asked three faculty members about their water research — coastal public health threats, the effects of a warming ocean on marine life and fisheries, and how Earth’s geological record can help us take better care of the planet’s resources. Their breakthrough discoveries will make a difference in our future.

Xiao-Ming Liu is an associate professor in the Earth, marine and environmental sciences department of the College of Arts and Sciences. As a geochemist, she looks at how chemical weathering, which is the decomposition of rocks through natural chemical reactions in the environment, influenced Earth’s evolution and will affect our climate. Her lab examines the relationship between precipitation and water use,  storage and availability to assess what happens to precipitation, to evaluate ecosystem function and to determine water availability .

How can collecting and analyzing substances such as limestone from the Great Slave Lake in Canada or water from Hawaii help us create a sustainable future for Earth, its water sources and its people?

When we understand the chemical content of rocks, soil and water from around the world, we can:

  • Use the resources we find wisely: Rocks are the source of metals for all soils and water. We can also learn how to use them in a way that doesn’t harm the environment.
  • Grow healthy plants: By studying soil, which gets its metals from rocks, we learn what nutrients plants need to grow. This helps farmers grow more food and helps make sure our food is healthy.
  • Keep our water clean: By knowing what chemicals are in water, we can figure out how to remove harmful ones and keep our water safe to drink. Water also gets its metals from rocks, so understanding rocks helps us protect our water sources.
  • Reduce pollution: When we understand where harmful chemicals come from, we can work on ways to stop or reduce them. This keeps our environment clean and safe for people and animals.

How do you hope that your research enhances the lives of people?

It can greatly improve people’s lives in several ways:

  • Health: By ensuring clean water and healthy soil, I can help people avoid diseases and enjoy better overall well-being.
  • Agriculture: My research can help farmers grow more nutritious and abundant crops, leading to better food security for communities.
  • Economy: Discovering valuable resources in rocks can create jobs and promote sustainable development in local economies.
  • Environment: I can contribute to solutions that reduce pollution and protect ecosystems, allowing people to enjoy cleaner air, water, and natural spaces.
  • Education: Sharing my findings can raise awareness about responsible resource management, inspiring future generations to care for our planet.

By working toward a sustainable future, we can have a lasting impact on the lives of people around the world, creating a cleaner, healthier and more prosperous Earth for all.

Rachel Noble is the Mary and Watts Hill Jr. Distinguished Professor at Carolina’s Institute of Marine Sciences. She leads a laboratory that conducts research on bacteria and viral pathogens in recreational waters, in shellfish and in stormwater and wastewater in estuaries. That work is relevant to the public health of people living and visiting coastal areas. Noble is also a professor in the departments of Earth, marine and environmental sciences, College of Arts and Sciences, and environmental sciences and engineering, Gillings School of Global Public Health.

How do you hope that your research on bacteria in water, plastic pollution, aquaculture and estuarine ecosystems improves the lives of people?

Over 127 million people in the U.S. live in a coastal county. People are increasingly enjoying eating seafood and recreating outdoors in coastal waters. Some of the current testing methods for bacteria in drinking water, recreational waters and shellfish can sometimes require 24 to 48 hours to get a result. Our laboratory designs new, rapid (less than 3 to 5 hours to receive results) molecular tests for bacterial and viral pathogens, with the goal for the tests to be user-friendly, cost-effective and accurate. Using new technology to track these pathogens, we can more effectively warn or advise the public and we can accurately determine the times that beaches, estuaries or shellfish are contaminated.

One of the best examples of our work is the ability to use some of the new molecular tests to track when stormwater and sewage spills contain high levels of contaminants that can harm both humans and the marine ecosystem. The discharge can also contain nutrients such as nitrogen, sediment and chemicals that negatively affect a wide range of marine species all the way from algae to Zostera marina (eelgrass).  Our new molecular tests have also helped to unravel some of the causes of farmed oyster deaths that are happening along our coast due to climate change. If we can improve the ability to track important pathogens, we can improve our response to protect both human and ecosystem health.

Janet Nye, associate professor at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences, studies how the warming ocean affects fish and fisheries. Nye uses mathematical and statistical methods to study fish populations and coastal ecosystems. She focuses on how environmental variability and anthropogenic (caused by human action or inaction) climate change influences ocean acidification, fish populations, marine ecosystems and fisheries.

How does your research contribute to the Earth’s health and to a sustainable future for water and the resources it provides?

The ocean provides jobs and food to billions of people worldwide. In the U.S. alone, fishing and seafood production creates millions of jobs and is a multibillion-dollar industry. Globally, seafood is not only a major source of food, but also of protein and micronutrients that are critical to many people, especially the poor. My research focuses on how and why climate change has changed the distribution and productivity of marine fishes on the east coast of the U.S. We provide scientific advice to fisheries managers and fishers so that they can adapt by changing management regulations, policy and fishing practices. If we do not adapt human behavior to these changes, the health of our fisheries and oceans will decline. We have documented the many ways that climate change has already changed U.S. fisheries and are making projections of how we expect those trends to intensify in the next 50 years. The lessons we learn in the U.S. can be applied to other regions of the world.

How do you hope that your research enhances the lives of people?

The consequences of climate change is a topic that many people would rather think about later. Our lab confronts climate change because we know it has already happened. Climate change has caused the global redistribution of life on land and in the ocean and those changes will only continue to intensify. By confronting these changes and communicating that these changes are happening, we hope to work with people, especially those who are affected most, to help find creative ways to adapt to this challenge, rather than putting it off.

By Scott Jared, The Well

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