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On a rainy Saturday in October, graduate students Arianna Sherman and Weitao Shuai parked their car by a bridge on a rural road in Hillsborough, North Carolina. In rubber boots, they waded into a muddy stream to begin investigating how farm waste and a giant storm may have disrupted an ecosystem.
Sherman and Shuai, both members of Peter Jaffe's research group in civil and environmental engineering, had come to investigate nutrient cycling and pollution along the Neuse River in the wake of Hurricane Florence, a September storm that drenched eastern North Carolina with more than 20 inches of rain and led to near-record flooding along the river. Sherman and Jaffe had recently wrapped up a two-year study on the Neuse, but extended their project to explore the effects of the hurricane.
Neuse - Hog - Farms - Animals - Waste
Much of the Neuse is lined with hog farms, and while some of the animals' waste is treated and used as fertilizer, many excess nutrients from the farms' open-air cesspools wash into the river. This overload of nitrogen-based nutrients can lead to harmful algal blooms that threaten water quality and disrupt the ecosystem.
"When you have all of this flooding, the waste pools containing the nitrogen get flushed, and they all come downstream," said Sherman. "We knew it would take a while for the farmers to get their operations back online" after the storm, she added. "With this flushing of nitrogen coming out of the cesspools and then no more nitrogen loading for a period of time, we wanted to see how the system would react."
Rainstorm - Month - Hurricane - Students - Test
Working through a smaller rainstorm a month after the hurricane, the two students filled test tubes with water and pushed a long metal tube a foot into the muck to collect soil. Back at their lab in Princeton, Sherman is examining the samples to understand a chemical...
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