Swamped in Science!
Big rivers are glamourous, but thousands of miles of streams and the swamps they trickle through on their way to those big rivers are nature’s unheralded workhorses. This month, we feature a scientist, research, a product and a partnership focused on water and its journey through the ecosystem.
Plan a school wetlands project with Bay Backpack, an online education resource sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Education Working Group
Water quality and quantity are critical issues for a growing population, and forests play a key role in providing clean water for people and wildlife. Aquatic invertebrates, such as insects living in and near streams and wetlands, are an important component of these riparian ecosystems and how they function. Research Aquatic Ecologist Sue Eggert studies how changes in land use and climate change impact aquatic invertebrates and ecosystem function. Her findings help inform land management decisions directed at protecting the ecosystem services forests provide.
While an undergraduate student studying biology at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Eggert was inspired by the research publications of aquatic ecologist, Dr. Ruth Patrick. In the 1940s Patrick discovered that the biodiversity of the entire aquatic community in a stream was related to human impacts on the health of that stream. “From that point on, I knew how I could apply my interest in aquatic ecology to help solve real world issues,” she said.
Eggert went on to earn an M.S. degree in fisheries and wildlife from Michigan State University, and a Ph.D. degree in Ecology from the University of Georgia (UGA). As a technician and student at UGA she spent 14 years studying the influence of riparian inputs of leaves and wood on the ecology of headwater streams at the USDA Forest Service’s Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory in North Carolina. In 2006 she was hired by the Northern Research Station in Grand Rapids, Minn.
Eggert’s interest in aquatic ecology started early. “As a kid growing up in Wisconsin, I spent a lot of time in streams, ponds, and lakes catching insects and other aquatic animals and identifying them with books borrowed from the library and a homemade microscope,” Eggert said. “I learned much about aquatic animal taxonomy, behavior, and life history without realizing it.”
Today she appreciates the opportunity to be a Forest Service scientist working in the field of aquatics to continue building knowledge of how aquatic ecosystems function in the face of local and global change, and sharing that knowledge with resource managers and the public. “One of the favorite parts of my job is sharing my passion for aquatic organisms and connecting the health of those organisms and society with good stewardship of our forests and grasslands,” said Eggert.
Tropical wetlands, including mangroves and peatlands, constitute one of the planet’s greatest reservoirs of carbon, making these wetlands a critical resource in mitigating the effects of a changing climate as well as protecting land from storms and providing food, fiber and fuel for people. However, despite their role in human health and economics, tropical wetlands are not well understood and often not monitored or protected.
The need for greater awareness was increasingly evident to the Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation Program (SWAMP),- a research, outreach, and capacity building collaboration between the USDA Forest Service and the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor, Indonesia. The challenge was developing content that would be relevant to audiences ranging from grade-schoolers to college students living in more than 30 countries.
The collaboration rose to that challenge and created the SWAMP Toolbox, an online collection of presentations on themes including climate, adaptation, mitigation, and carbon monitoring and inventory. Launched on World Wetlands Day in 2015, the SWAMP Toolbox guides users in understanding the importance of wetland ecosystems in climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. The scope of the toolbox ranges from global to national and local perspectives. Randy Kolka, a research soil scientist with the Northern Research Station in Grand Rapids, Minn., was part of the team that developed the toolbox.
“I’ve used it to teach in a university setting as well as in a fourth-grade class in Grand Rapids,” Kolka said. “In both cases, the material was very helpful to me in galvanizing interest in tropical peatlands and their essential role in climate mitigation.”
With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and many partners, SWAMP’s role includes helping developing tropical countries map, measure and account for carbon in peatland and mangrove ecosystems. In addition to developing the SWAMP Toolbox, the SWAMP collaboration’s achievements include a dedicated issue of the journal Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change in April 2019 as well as a dedicated journal issue of Wetlands Ecology and Management and development of the Global Wetlands Map, which identifies tropical wetlands worldwide. SWAMP now has hundreds of partners across the tropics.
Erik Lilleskov, a research ecologist with the Northern Research Station based in Houghton, Mich., is also contributing to the SWAMP collaboration and Toolbox. Lilleskov’s work includes improving methods for mountain and lowland peatland mapping, contributing toward high-accuracy delineation of these important ecosystems across the globe. “In addition to being important reserves of carbon, these peatlands are critical to supplying water to major cities as well as livestock,” Lilleskov said. “Knowing where they are is an essential step in developing sustainable land use practices that do not impair them.”
Lilleskov sees the Toolbox as an important resource for local communities seeking to gain expertise in peatland and mangrove ecosystem management and policy: “The Toolbox is one of many approaches we are using to build local capacity to tackle the challenging problems of how to identify, manage, and develop science-based policies for these sensitive wetlands in tropical regions,” he said.
Related Article: Tropical peatlands under siege: the need for evidence-based policies and strategies >>
Related Article: Is Indonesian peatland loss a cautionary tale for Peru? A two-country comparison of the magnitude and causes of tropical peatland degradation
New methods of studies reveal source of carbon in lakes, streams
A thousand miles apart, two watershed experiments tell a complicated story about water chemistry that begins, if a beginning can be identified in a story about water, with the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.
Decades of data from the University of Maine’s Bear Brook Experimental Watershed and the USDA Forest Service’s Fernow Experimental Forest in West Virginia showed a reduction in sulfate deposition (or sulfur) beginning with enactment of the Clean Air Act in 1970 and intensifying with the Clean Air Act Amendments 20 years later. But as the sulfur deposition decreased, dissolved organic carbon concentrations in the stream water steadily increased, leaving scientists questioning whether there was a link between those phenomena.
The hypothesis was that pollutants such as sulfur were deposited to the soil via rain and increased soil acidification. In turn, more acidic soil reduced the amount of dissolved organic carbon moving from the soil to the stream. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 had reduced the amount of sulfur being carried to the soil, and the amount of organic material moving from soil into streams increased.
To test this hypothesis, scientists used data on water chemistry collected at long-term research sites and analyzed water samples using fluorescence spectroscopy, a technique that measures the amount of light a substance reflects to calculate chemical concentrations. They found that, just as they hypothesized, improved air quality reduced soil acidification triggering an increase in organic material moving from the soil to the stream. While increasing dissolved organic carbon concentrations are not necessarily bad, they are something that land managers need to understand so that water can be adequately treated, according to Research Soil Scientist Mary Beth Adams. “This study does not suggest that there is a silver lining to air pollution,” Adams said. “It demonstrates the need to be able to give forest managers information on how nutrients move through a watershed so they can understand what the effects might be on human and natural ecosystems.”
Experimental forests and watersheds give researchers the long view needed to understand such ecosystem changes over time, Adams said. “It’s amazing how much useful research has come out of the Bear Brook Watershed and the Fernow Experimental Forest,” Adams said. “Without having 30 years of data, we would not be able to answer questions like these.”
In the Great Lakes Basin, trees are improving water, ecosystem health
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is the largest investment in the Great Lakes in two decades, with more than a dozen federal agencies joining forces to clean up toxins, combat invasive species, protect watersheds from pollution, and restore wetlands. Researchers with USDA Forest Service Research & Development are contributing in a variety of ways, including by putting trees to work on watershed protection.
Ron Zalesny, a supervisory research plant geneticist based at the Northern Research Station’s lab in Wisconsin, is investigating how short rotation woody crops such as poplars and willows are ideal for phytoremediation (i.e., the direct use of plants to clean up contaminated soil and water) because they grow quickly, have extensive root systems and hydraulic control potential. Zalesny’s work includes identifying which species of poplars and willows can be most effective in specific sites and even specific pollutants.
Working with several communities and landfill managers in Wisconsin and Michigan, Zalesny and his partners are deploying thousands of trees to control runoff around landfills. His objective is to demonstrate how fast-growing trees reduce runoff and potentially remove contaminants through effective green infrastructure.
“Collaboration among the USDA Forest Service, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the City of Manitowoc, AECOM and Waste Management, Inc. is contributing to protecting the Great Lakes,” Zalesny said. “This collaboration will have much broader effects by advancing knowledge of how trees can be part of watershed protection.”
The Great Lakes – specifically Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario -- are bordered by portions of eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces; together the lakes have a surface area of approximately 94,250 square miles and contain 21 percent of the world's surface fresh water by volume. Since 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency has been leading the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and accelerating efforts to protect and restore the largest system of fresh water on the planet.
“Forests constitute more than 50 percent of the land cover surrounding the Great Lakes, making Forest Service research particularly relevant to Great Lakes restoration issues,” said Nick Vrevich, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative coordinator with the Forest Service’s Eastern Region. “Along with our colleagues at the Environmental Protection Agency and other Federal agencies, Forest Service scientists are working with land managers and communities to improve water quality in watersheds and ultimately the Great Lakes.”