APR 07, 2018 5:04 PM PDT

Think twice before you pee in this pond

Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts was made famous by Henry David Thoreau after his experience of living shore-side for two years. He later described his connection to the nature he found in and around the beautiful tree-lined pond in his book, Walden; or, Life in the Woods. But, according to new findings, that’s not the only way that the pond might go down in history: it has now become the hot-spot – quite literally – for a novel sort of human relief: pee.

The new study, published in PLOS One, comes from Dr. Jay Curt Stager, a researcher at Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks. Dr. Stager and team explain in their report the impact that human urine has had, and continues to have, on Walden Pond’s ecosystem, stating: “More than half of the summer phosphorus budget of the lake may now be attributable to urine released by swimmers.”

Stager's students collect data from Walden Pond. Photo: CBC via Curt Stager

Turns out, there may be a reason that water is so warm and yellow. Human urine left by the thousands of visitors who visit Walden Pond every year to relive Thoreau’s vision and escape the Boston summer heat has built up over more than a century, raising phosphorous and nitrogen to levels to unhealthy concentrations. Usually excess amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen are blamed on the rampant use of fertilizers, but in this case, the researchers were able to pinpoint a different source: stealthy peeing swimmers and waders. (Yeah, you’re not foolin’ anyone when you only go in waist-deep, stand still a minute, and come right back out again.)

But, what’s the problem with a little extra phosphorous and nitrogen? Excess of these elements means algae can grow much more quickly. This growth means they block the sunlight for other freshwater plants growing on the bottom of the pond. But the bigger impact happens when the algae die. In the following act of decomposition, assisted by specialized bacteria, oxygen is in the water is depleted, creating a hypoxic environment and killing off fish populations. Climate change, of course, makes the situation worse, by warming the water and creating an even more suitable environment for algae.

Walden Pond is also threatened by construction, landscaping, deforestation, path-clearing, and, seemingly, just human contact in general. Good job making it such as sought-after gem, Thoreau. The report suggests that “swimmer-education programs” are needed in order to protect the pond from further degradation.

All this is to say that the once pristine pond that Thoreau described is under threat if everybody doesn’t start holding it in on a more regular basis.

Sources: Boston Magazine, CBC, NBC News, PLOS One

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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