March 2011, Vol. 23, No.3

Water Volumes

Pollution of Lakes and Rivers: A Paleoenvironmental Perspective, Second Edition

John P. Smol, 2008, John Wiley & Sons, 111 River Street, 4th Floor, Hoboken, NJ 07030, 396 pp., softcover, $59.95, ISBN: 978-1-4051-5913-5.

This is a well-written and engaging book. The author has a pervasive enthusiasm for the pollution of waterways from a different perspective, as the subtitle says, “a paleoenvironmental perspective.” Readers will be introduced to a topic not commonly addressed in most environmental disciplines. This well-referenced book will expose the reader to a valuable cache of literature for environmental studies.

What is the paleoenvironmental perspective? While limnology is the study of the fauna and biota in lakes, paleolimnology identifies the past fauna and biota. Paleolimnology offers a surprisingly stable record of the environment, especially when the sediment is not disturbed. This analysis can extend from ancient fossils to more recent studies of shifts in diatom species. This scientific approach can be used to track changes due to either natural or man-made changes to waterbodies. From a standpoint of understanding the impact of human pollution on waterbodies, this is a most important tool that can help fill data voids due to the lack of monitoring before the damage from pollutants has been recognized.

The first few chapters of this book give an essential background to paleoenvironmental studies, including sampling methods and case studies that establish this science — particularly acidification of lakes. The later chapters identify how this topic can be applied to wide-ranging pollution problems, including eutrophication and metal contamination. The book then shifts toward emerging problems, such as invasive species, climate change, and persistent organic compounds. There is an interesting chapter on multiple stressors, a difficult topic to handle but one that increasingly should be addressed. The author stresses early on that paleoenvironmental studies typically require “multiple lines of evidence.”

This book would be particularly useful for modelers; the paleoenvironmental record can provide more resources — i.e., data and limits of expectation for testing and calibrating models — than just common water-column field sampling. Other groups that might be interested in this science include environmental lawyers and law firms seeking further information about past pollution and background environmental conditions.

Most case studies presented are from Western Europe and North America, particularly Ontario (the author’s stomping ground). There are few success stories from the perspective of environmental improvements. Most of the case studies are alarming, particularly those on emerging issues, such as how greenhouse gas emissions are affecting water resources. The concluding chapter states, “It is now clear that no part of our planet is safe from environmental degradation of some kind” — powerful stuff.

This is the book’s second edition; apparently, the first edition from 2002 sold out quickly, and the author decided to update the book rather than simply reissue it.

Thomas P. O’Connor is an environmental engineer in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Urban Watershed Management Branch, Water Supply and Water Resources Division, National Risk Management Research Laboratory, Office of Research and Development, in Edison, N.J.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the agency. Therefore, no official endorsement should be inferred. Any mention of products or trade names does not constitute recommendation for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

©2011 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.