In the Northeast and Midwest, water begins trickling back into our consciousness in March as snow melts and ice begins to loosen its hold on ponds and lakes. This month, our feature stories are all about water, from a scientist interested in hydro-ecology to research on the effects of a saltwater inundation on urban trees to a partnership aimed at improving aquatic habitat.
What do an “avalanche scientist”, a hydrologist, and a wetland ecologist have in common? They all work for Forest Service R&D. Check out our water-themed scientist cards.
Research Hydrologist Ben Rau joined the Northern Research Station in July 2020 but, in the midst of a pandemic, “join” is nuanced. He will eventually be based at the Station’s lab in Parsons, WV, but for now Rau is teleworking from his home in North Carolina. He briefly met his new colleagues in September, when he visited Parsons for a socially distanced meeting.
While he is new to the Northern Research Station, Rau has deep roots with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Fresh from earning an undergraduate degree in biology, he began a job with the Rocky Mountain Research Station inventorying trees and plants in central Nevada. Work in the high desert was a turning point in his career; the limited resources demonstrated how interactions between soil moisture and nutrient availability influences plant communities, and inspired him to go back to school for both a master’s degree and Ph.D in hydrology and soil science. While in graduate school, Rau worked with the Flathead and Plumas National Forests through the Student Career Experience Program, and after graduation he worked for the National Forest System, the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, and Southern Research Station.
Rau is interested in research questions spanning forest, rangeland, and agro-ecosytems related to management, biogeochemistry and hydro-ecology. Working with the Southern Research Station, the National Forest System and the Agricultural Research Service has reinforced Rau’s interest in science that solves problems for land managers.
Long-term data from the Forest Service’s network of Experimental Forests and Ranges has many purposes and benefits; for Rau, data from the 87-year-old Fernow Experimental Forest near Parsons is serving as an orientation to research needs and opportunities in the Central Appalachians. While the pandemic is delaying his arrival at the Fernow Experimental Forest, he is using data from the experimental forest to explore the relations between changing forest structure, climate, and streamflow.
Rau is also devoting time to building new partnerships with university colleagues, other NRS scientists, and National Forest System staff. “I am hoping that one day we can spend some time walking the ground together,” he said.
More about Benjamin Rau >>
Salt water and Urban Tree Health
Urban trees do not have easy lives. They are subject to negative impacts from poor air quality, nutrient poor soils, and invasive species. Inundation with salt water may not be a stress that immediately comes to mind, but when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012 it provided an opportunity for scientists to study how two common species of street trees respond to flooding.
Following Hurricane Sandy, staff from the New York City Parks and Recreation Department surveyed trees in the impacted zone and found 20,000 street trees had fallen due to the wind and debris from the hurricane. Saltwater flooding may have caused additional stress to approximately 48,000 street trees located in the storm’s inundation zone as evidenced by many flooded trees not growing new leaves in the spring. Northern Research Station scientists were asked to determine how saltwater flooding affected the health of street trees.
“Working with NYC Parks and Recreation data, we decided to follow a sample of trees over time to identify longer term effects from flooding,” said Rich Hallett, research ecologist and study leader. “We chose to monitor red maple and London plane trees. Both species were highly impacted, and both are among the most common street trees in New York City.”
Scientists followed the fate of the trees over a 3-year period and found that although red maple was negatively affected by saltwater flooding, trees recovered over time. In contrast, London plane trees experienced high mortality and showed no signs of recovery 3 years post Sandy.
“With projections of more frequent coastal flooding combined with increased investment by cities in urban greening, it is important for coastal cities to take flooding into consideration in their greening strategies,” said Hallett. “The hope is that the street trees planted today will still be alive, healthy and reaching their peak value in terms of the ecosystem services they provide in approximately 50 years.”
Brook Trout Habitat Restoration in the Great Lakes
The Great Lakes – the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth – hold 95 percent of the United States’ surface fresh water and play an important part in the physical landscape and cultural heritage of North America. Since 2010, the multi-agency Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) has provided funding to federal agencies to protect and restore this unrivaled treasure. Indeed, the largest system of fresh surface water in the world requires an equally large investment to ensure its long-term health and resilience.
The Northern Research Station (NRS) is collaborating with partners on multiple GLRI projects, including assessing the influence of wildfire on mercury levels in the lakes, working with landowners on adapting forests for changed habitat suitability conditions, anticipating how an invasive insect called the emerald ash borer might affect Northern Minnesota’s black ash wetlands, and examining the role of trees in the health of Great Lakes water from urban areas to landfills.
Mark Nelson, Research Forester with the Northern Research Station’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program is leading a GLRI project to assess trout and salmon habitat. Forests constitute an estimated 40 percent of the land cover surrounding the Great Lakes, making Forest Service research particularly relevant to Great Lakes restoration issues. In collaboration with the University of Minnesota, Trout Unlimited (TU), and Colorado State University, partners are assessing land use and land cover change effects on stream and riparian habitats. “We’ve found that watersheds with higher percentages of riparian forest are more likely to have brook trout,” said Lisa Elliott, a GLRI Postdoctoral Landscape Fisheries Ecologist at University of Minnesota. “A better understanding of the influences of forest cover and disturbance on brook trout will inform which watersheds should be the top priorities for restoration and management activities, to make the most efficient use of limited conservation funding.”
Working in partnership with other federal agencies through the GLRI, scientists, land managers, and concerned members of local communities are cooperating to improve water quality and fish habitats in Great Lakes watersheds. “It is so important to use good science to guide where and how we conduct our conservation efforts,” said Jake Lemon, TU’s Eastern Angler Science Coordinator. “This project has already resulted in useful data that are informing our watershed restoration and protection priorities in the Great Lakes.”Learn more about this and other GLRI-funded projects >>