Science | August 10, 2022 11:21 am

Inside the Decades-Long Revitalization of the Thames

It wasn't an easy process

The Thames has had a remarkable comeback.
Jaanus Jagomägi/Unsplash

In 1957, the Thames River received the scientific equivalent of an obituary. As a 2021 report from the Zoological Society of London recounted, “in 1957 parts of the river were declared biologically dead.” In the decades since then, however, the river has become a much healthier ecosystem, home to everything from seals to sharks. Such a transformation didn’t happen overnight, and it involved a number of components working in tandem. And it begs the question: what led to these changes?

In a new article published at Atlas Obscura, Mia Jackson explored the reasons behind the river’s comeback. As Jackson points out, several factors contributed, from dedicated cleanup efforts to an improved sewer system that prevented pollution from contaminating the river.

In part, this has had the effect it has because it enabled certain natural processes to resume. That’s among the things Alison Debney of the Zoological Society of London told Jackson. “There are so many services that nature provides us that would support life if we just allow it to do so,” Debny said. There are echoes here of the ways that swamps can play a role in reducing climate change; both involve natural processes that make for a cleaner planet.

That’s not the only factor that’s helped the Thames regain prominence. Another has to do with urban planning — as Jackson notes, returning the Thames to a prominent place in London life has also had the effect of making people more invested in its revitalization.

Just because the Thames has had an extraordinary resurgence doesn’t mean it isn’t still in danger, however. Recent drought conditions led to the river’s source drying up, and there’s also the presence of microplastics to worry about. It’s enough to leave you hoping that the river’s advocates can address these issues as well as they addressed the last one.