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The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States. The entire watershed of 64,000 square miles is composed of parts of the states of West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Delaware and all of Washington D.C. There are some 150 rivers and streams that flow into the Bay. The entire bay holds more than 18 trillion gallons of water. The total surface area of the Bay is 3,830 square miles. Tidal fresh waters comprise 153 square miles; 3,562 square miles are the mixing zone; and 115 square miles are salt waters.

The Chesapeake Bay hosts dozens of bird species, for example the Great Blue Heron, osprey, wading birds, ducks and geese. Fish species are abundant with 348 identified species and 173 species of shellfish. Among the shellfish are the blue crab, soft-shelled clams, oysters and grass shrimp. Sheltering the young crabs and fish is the submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV). The SAV provide oxygen for fish and prevent erosion. Some 500 million pounds of seafood are harvested from the Chesapeake Bay each year; this is a fraction of former harvests.

With the influx of people and the loss of forests and wetland vegetation, several environmental issues exist for the Bay. Among the problems the Bay area faces are agriculture runoff, air pollution, chemical contamination, climate change, rising sea levels, and pollution from nutrients. The most significant nutrient pollution occurs in the form of nitrogen and phosphorus. Sources of the pollution include farms, industrial sites, lawns, waste water, fossil fuels and the atmosphere. The nitrogen and phosphorus pollution has worsened since the 1960s. An overview of the issues in the Bay is found in this video from NASA: The REAL World: NASA and the Chesapeake Bay.

In 1988 the revolutionary report Earth System Science: A Program For Global Change provided a basis for looking at Earth as a system. Many scientists began looking at events from the perspective of impacts based on the Earth's spheres: atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. As an intern to the Earth to Sky project, you have been asked to perform an Earth system science (ESS) analysis addressing nitrogen pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.


Date: 12/2/2013

Scenario Images:

Earth To Sky Logo
Earth to Sky Project Partners: NASA, NPS and USFWS

NASA Aid in
NASA Satellites Aid in Chesapeake Bay Recovery. Click here for video.

The Susquehanna River, which enters the Chesapeake Bay at its northern end, carries 40 percent of the nitrogen that flows into the Bay—the largest single source. There is so much nitrogen in the northern Bay that algae have all the "fertilizer" they need, and changes in streamflow do little or nothing to affect the growth of algal blooms. This satellite image shows brown water flowing from the Susquehanna. NASA image by Robert Simmon, based on Landsat data provided by the UMD Global Land Cover Facility.



An Introduction to Earth System Science (Cycle A)
A NASA YouTube video follows Melody Ann Avery, an atmospheric scientist from NASA Langley Research Center.


Earth System Science in a Nutshell (Cycle A)
A good overview of Earth system science (ESS). Somewhat longer than the YouTube video, this resource provides background readings on the history of ESS and how it is used to research global change.


Feedback Loops (Cycle A)
A YouTube video on feedback loops. From an Earth system standpoint, it is helpful to think about Earth equilibrium or a steady state. Negative feedback loops dampen or buffer changes so that a system has some equilibrium. Positive feedback loops enhance changes so that a system moves away from its state of equilibrium.


Perform an Earth System Analysis (Cycle A)
Imagine the Chesapeake Bay during the first days of European colonization. The system in the Bay could be considered the steady state, homeostasis or equilibrium. Now that steady state has been interrupted by the influx of nutrients. Develop an ESS analysis of recent events. The resources in Cycle B provide input for your analysis.


Tutorial on Earth System Science (Cycle A)
This tutorial discusses how to analyze interactions (feedbacks and forcings) taking place in Earth as change occurs.


A Report on Chesapeake Bay Cleanup (Cycle B)
Cleanup effort, over decades, fails to restore America's largest estuary.


An Introduction to Nutrient Pollution (Cycle B)
The problem of nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay is presented by the EPA.


Chesapeake Bay Monitoring: Understanding the Bay's Problems (Cycle B)
From the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, a multi-chapter analysis of the Bay's issues, which include an overabundance of nutrients.


Drought and Deluge: Chesapeake Bay Biology (Cycle B)
An overview of the Bay's nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from the stand point of a NASA scientist.


Nitrogen & Phosphorus (Cycle B)
From the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, information about the impact of nutrient pollution.


Reducing Nitrogen Pollution (Cycle B)
From the Chesapeake Bay Program, information on reducing Bay pollution.


The Chesapeake Bay as an Ecosystem: Key Concepts & Habitats (Cycle B)
A PowerPoint presentation addressing key elements in the Chesapeake Bay to include: dissolved gasses, nutrients, primary producers, and typical biological communities.


Cruising the Chesapeake Bay for Water and Air Quality (Cycle C)
A NASA-led team of scientists took to the Chesapeake Bay this summer to study a diverse yet close-to-home ecosystem in a field campaign that will help the agency determine how to study ocean health and air quality in coastal regions from space.


Landsat Fly over of Chesapeake Bay (Cycle C)
Interesting and scenic fly over of the Chesapeake Bay by the Landsat Program.


MY NASA DATA: Nutrients in Chesapeake Bay (Cycle C)
In this problem-based data analysis activity, students assume roles as members of an International Team of Marine Biologists, tasked with predicting and monitoring possible harmful algae blooms.


Sample Investigations:


Earth as a System Demonstration (Cycle A)
Global Balance activities from IGES that can be used to demonstrate Earth as a System. Topics include equilibrium, feedback loops, inputs and outputs.
Difficulty: beginner


Two Minutes on Oceans w/Jim Toomey: Nutrient Runoff (Cycle A)
In this YouTube video, Jim Toomey points out the hazards of nutrient runoff. This video would be a good introduction to informal audiences. 2:10 minutes.
Difficulty: beginner


Resources to Engage Students Grades 5-8 (Cycle B)
From Journey Through the Universe, a series of lessons and activities concerning the Chesapeake Bay area.
Difficulty: beginner


The Chesapeake Bay Story (Cycle B)
A documentary on the Bay. Addresses fishing in the Bay in light of pollution. 13:35
Difficulty: beginner


Using NASA Giovanni to Monitor Plankton Activity in the Chesapeake Bay (Cycle C)
This SERC Carlton lesson walks users through the steps of using NASA Giovanni to access data in investigating phytoplankton blooms.
Difficulty: beginner




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      The understandings and abilities associated with the following concepts and processes need to be developed throughout a student's educational experiences:
      • Systems, order, and organization
      • Constancy, change, and measurement
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Geochemical cycles
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Environmental quality
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      Geography studies the relationships between people, places, and environments by mapping information about them into a spatial context. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective
      People are central to geography in that human activities help shape Earth’s surface, human settlements and structures are part of Earth’s surface, and humans compete for control of Earth’s surface. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The patterns and networks of economic interdependence on Earth’s surface
      The physical environment is modified by human activities, largely as a consequence of the ways in which human societies value and use Earth’s natural resources, and human activities are also influenced by Earth’s physical features and processes. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How human actions modify the physical environment
  • Technology
    The International Society for Technology Education From and
      • Students use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources.
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