Chris Lynum: Salt Marshes & Nitrogen

Chris Lynum is a PhD student at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center who studies Salt Marshes and their ability to transform nitrogen in the water into inert nitrogen gas (quite a superpower!). Chris is a Wisconsin native who’s studies and fascinations have brought him to Beantown. 


Many of New England’s salt marshes have been wiped out or damaged over the last centuries (consider how much of Boston used to be water and you’ll start to see why). In some cases, humans have restored – or attempted to restore – salt marshes to something close to their original state.

There are two kinds of Salt Marsh restoration:

  • Active Restoration: in which humans shape a salt marsh, sculpting the landscape, planting specific flora over a short period of time, then setting the marsh free
  • Passive Restoration: in which humans restore the main ingredients of the salt marsh (balance of salt and fresh water) and allow the flora and fauna to slowly and naturally repopulate on their own (“All Organic”) over extended periods of time.

It’s basically the difference between microwaving a DiGiorno pizza, vs. mixing and rolling your own dough, whipping up homemade sauce (except Nature is making the handmade pizza?)… you get the idea.

Chris studies how different approaches to Salt Marsh restoration impact the local microbe community’s ability to convert excess nitrates into inert nitrogen gas.

The big question: How do these approaches impact a marsh’s ability to convert nitrogen? Chris is trying to find that out and has several Salt Marshes in the Boston and Cape Cod area that he visits regularly for testing.

Why is this nitrogen processing so essential, you ask? Here’s the story-cycle:

  • Humans add nitrates to a water system upstream
  • These nitrates flow downstream towards the mouth of a waterway, and into the ocean
  • A healthy salt marsh converts these nitrates into nitrogen gas, releasing it into the air where it has no impacts

If the Salt Marsh can’t make this conversion, all this excess nitrogen enters the coastal ocean, and causes *EUTROPHICATION* and *HARMFUL ALGAL BLOOMS*! (imagine hearing that in a horror movie-style voiceover).

  • Eutrophication = Super Growth of Algae
  • Dying Algal Blooms = loss of oxygen in the water
  • Loss of oxygen = dying off of flora and fauna all along the coast.

Excess nitrogen gives Algae what they need to thrive, greening the water and can lead to death and removal of anything else out of the area. Dozens of marine species would die off or migrate because they could not survive.

Basically, Chris is doing this work so that you can have Lobster Rolls.

Salt Marshes also act as a buffer between land and ocean. When the sea level rises or a storm surges towards the coast, salt marshes have to potential absorb some of this additional water in a way that protects residential areas, but also maintains a flourishing biosphere that contributes to an area’s ecology. Marshes also act as key Carbon Sinks – they gulp up CO2 in the air that otherwise would contribute to continued global warming patterns.

In addition to the above, Salt Marshes are just beautiful. They are filled with gorgeous plant life, birds and butterflies. They are perfect for restorative or meditative strolls. ChrisInstagram is largely a record of the stunning life he finds on his visits.

JJK’s fun fact from this conversation: Chris’ favorite plant is glasswort, a fascinating and beautiful plant that thrives in Salt Marshes. It is edible – you can pick it and bite, no prep needed – has a crisp and salty taste. Be warned: it acts as a laxative.

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