Marine biologists Kim Holzer (right) and Jenny Carney sample ballast water from a cargo ship in Virginia’s James River. (Kim Holzer)
The U.S. is on the brink of a natural gas boom—but that could expose its shores to more invasive species, Smithsonian marine biologists report in a new study published this winter.
Over the last decade, U.S. natural gas imports have dropped as the country tapped into its own resources. Now, thanks to new technology that makes it easier to extract and store natural gas, it’s poised to be the world’s third largest exporter of liquefied natural gas by 2020.
Ecologist Dawn Miller surveys trees in a SERC forest. (SERC)
by Kristen Minogue
The Smithsonian has a new resolution for 2017: Earth Optimism. This is the year the Smithsonian is celebrating environmental success stories, and shifting the focus to how we can fight battles to save species and preserve our planet—and win. Despite breaking a wide swath of climate records, 2016 gave us reasons for optimism as well. In our 2016 Year in Review, we’ve pulled out the most encouraging stories and discoveries at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center from the previous year. Here are the top 10 that make us hopeful about the planet’s future:
If you are a plant, when life aboveground turns harsh, you have few options. Some orchids respond by going dormant, spending years to decades underground before reemerging aboveground. But an army of the right fungi may help jolt them out of dormancy, ecologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) discovered in a new study published in the American Journal of Botany Friday.
Smithsonian scientists have been working to understand the ecology of one particular orchid – including why it enters and exits dormancy. The small-whorled pogonia is widely regarded as the rarest orchid east of the Mississippi. Federally listed as threatened, the orchid has vanished from Maryland and is endangered in 16 other states.
Pat Megonigal studies the invasive reed Phragmites australis on the Smithsonian’s Global Change Research Wetland. (Tom Mozdzer)
It’s easy to dislike Phragmites. The invasive brown reed can grow over 15 feet tall and tends to crowd out anything in its shadow. But in the story of global change, Phragmites is a gray character, like Mad Men’s Don Draper, or the enigmatic Professor Snape. Beneath the surface, Phragmites australis—a European reed sweeping over East Coast wetlands—can empower wetlands to grow higher soils and possibly survive rising seas. Biogeochemist Pat Megonigal of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) prefers an analogy from classic literature: Jekyll and Hyde.
“The Jekyll part is that Phragmites helps marshes maintain elevation and keep pace with sea level rise,” he said. “The Hyde part is that they are poor habitat for native plants and animals.”
The latest discovery in Megonigal’s lab could tip things in favor of Mr. Hyde. Phragmites’ deep-growing roots were once thought an advantage that helps wetlands build soil. But those same roots could be disturbing ancient soils deep underground—triggering them to release planet-warming carbon dioxide (CO2).
Olympia oysters (Matthew Gray/Oregon State University)
by Kristen Minogue
Act local. Diversity pays. Those two phrases could hold the key to saving young Olympia oysters, the only native oysters on the West Coast of North America. What they need are large networks of adult oyster beds to settle on—and a diverse “environmental portfolio,” finds a new study in Ecology.
For decades, efforts to conserve Chesapeake river herring have run into a black hole of uncertainty. Managers knew populations had plummeted, but no one knew how many remained. A team of biologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center has found a way forward, recording the first complete spawning run of river herring in the Choptank River since the 1970s.
Citizen scientist Linda Perkins helps excavate a soil plot in front of the Contee mansion ruins. (Photo: SERC)
People don’t usually think of archaeologists as dumpster divers. Then again, sifting through trash for hidden treasures is exactly what the volunteer citizen scientists of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) Archaeology Lab do every Wednesday. But they don’t scavenge anything for themselves. (The market for millenia-old oyster shells is very unpredictable, and any food they find is always up to three centuries past its expiration date.) Instead, they take away new skills and a chance to put together a historical puzzle larger than themselves.
“We look back thousands of years,” said Jim Gibb, the lead volunteer and coordinator of the lab. “I always tell people—we’re the time lords.” Click to continue »
Margot Hessing-Lewis and the Nearshore Tech Team of the Hakai Institute, British Columbia, one of the newest MarineGEO sites on the Pacific. (Photo: Margot Hessing-Lewis, Hakai Insititute)
Imagine gazing into the ocean off Maryland knowing what life is under the waves, what’s driving the food web, and how healthy the water is. Then, imagine being able to discover the same thing for another coast halfway around the world. That vision—of a network vast enough to take the pulse of coastal waters worldwide—began becoming a reality at the Smithsonian in 2012. It’s called the Marine Global Earth Observatory, or MarineGEO.
Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the movie Jaws, regarded by many as “the movie that changed Hollywood.” While true, Jaws shaped more than just Hollywood. With its ominous, adrenaline pumping two-note score and imagery of a bloodthirsty, torpedo-shaped predator with rows of razor-sharp teeth, Spielberg’s film shaped our perception of sharks.
The team’s first tagged juvenile bull shark (Photo credit: Kim Richie)
After Jaws, fear of the unknown arrested us, and our lack of knowledge helped demonize sharks. But the winds are shifting. New research initiated by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Fish and Invertebrate Ecology Lab aims to investigate habitat use, migration patterns, and species interactions of four underrepresented shark species found in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Atlantic Coast.
Community mural in a Baltimore neighborhood. (BES-LTER)
Preserving the environment is often seen as a battle of development versus nature. But in America today, roughly three-fourths of us live in metropolitan areas. To preserve our health and the planet’s health, we need to create something new: A sustainable city.
Enter urban ecology. Plant ecologist Steward Pickett of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies has been exploring the ecology of cities—hot spots where society, culture, economics and the environment collide—for more than two decades. In 1997, he and a handful of colleagues started the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, a long-term project that now involves more than 100 people. Pickett talks about some of their surprising discoveries in this edited Q&A. To learn more, you can meet him in person on Tuesday, Nov. 15, at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s keynote evening lecture.
*Note: Edited for brevity and clarity
Steward Pickett (Xiaofang Hu)
How strange was the idea of “urban ecology” when you began?
It was sort of a marginal pursuit. Most ecologists in the United States preferred to think they were working in pristine areas, or at least in areas where the human hand was relatively light on the land… There was this deep, deep bias in ecology to not look at places where people were part of the system … Urban ecology is kind of a way to say, let’s recognize this and see what it’s doing. Click to continue »