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Sink or Swim? Divining the Fate of Life-Giving Wetlands

Friday, August 12th, 2016

By Emily Li

You might have heard of The Giving Tree, a children’s picture book by Shel Silverstein about a boy and a tree. As the boy grew, he began to want more from the tree, and the tree happily gave and gave and gave: her apples, her branches, and even her trunk. While Silverstein’s heartbreaking story was a fiction, the plot is happening in wetlands around the world—and this time, it’s for real. Marshes improve water quality, mitigate hurricane damage, sequester atmospheric carbon, and serve as ideal habitats and nurseries for wildlife. In return, as sea levels rise, they’re in line to be the first casualties.

SERC intern Jefferson Riera shows off his sunburn.

SERC intern Jefferson Riera shows off his sunburn after a day in the field. (Photo: Emily Li/SERC)

That said, marshes are hardly a serene paradise. To Smithsonian Environmental Research Center intern Jefferson Riera, wetlands are ruined shoes caked in mud. Wetlands are wasp stings on his lips. Wetlands are spider webs of scratches from marsh vegetation. Wetlands are sunburns so severe his skin doesn’t match itself anymore.

And yet, he knows that they’re worth protecting. That’s why he, and the rest of SERC’s Ecological Modeling Lab, are working to develop a baseline understanding of local marsh elevation to educate policymakers on the state of wetlands—before their fates are sealed by the sea.

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An Acid Test for the Coasts

Monday, August 1st, 2016
Graham cleans her equipment of marine organisms

SERC intern Jasmin Graham cleans her equipment of marine organisms (Photo: Emily Li/SERC)

by Emily Li

Watching educational programs like Animal Planet or That’s My Baby—a series that documents pregnant animals—might evoke memories of flickering classroom projectors for most. But for Jasmin Graham, an intern with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), these shows were her childhood. Her love for marine science and wildlife followed her through high school science fairs and university research on shark genetics at the College of Charleston. Now, at an internship with SERC’s Ocean Acidification Lab, she studies acidification not in the open ocean, but in a far more dramatic arena, where the marine celebrities she grew up with may be at risk.

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How Clay Caterpillars Help Unlock Biodiversity’s Secrets

Friday, July 22nd, 2016
Anna Nordseth surveys clay caterpillars for damage in BiodiversiTREE plot

Anna Nordseth surveys clay caterpillars for predation damage in BiodiversiTREE plot (Credit: Emily Li/SERC)

by Emily Li

Anna Nordseth, a summer intern for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Terrestrial Ecology Lab, wasn’t surprised to be taking work home the first week and a half of her internship. What she wasn’t expecting was to be making nearly a thousand clay caterpillars.

Each caterpillar began life as a half gram of green clay, with a wire spine and ends rolled into a worm-like silhouette. By the time Nordseth had finished—several podcasts and three seasons of House of Cards later—she had 900 caterpillars and the hand cramps to prove it. But she was ready to begin her research.

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Climate Change Could Release Ancient Soil Carbon

Friday, July 1st, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Blanca with soil core

Blanca Bernal extracts a soil core from a SERC marsh. (Credit: SERC)

Just beneath our feet, there’s a slumbering pool of carbon that has largely been ignored.

Earth’s deep soils store vast reservoirs of carbon centuries to millennia old. Left undisturbed, they can store that carbon for thousands of years longer. But if triggered, those reservoirs could release carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, a team of scientists discovered in a new study from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

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Cranking Up the Heat in the “Wetland of the Future”

Friday, June 24th, 2016

by Joe Dawson, SERC research aide

Last fall, while volunteering in a plant lab at George Washington University in D.C., I heard about an experiment that was starting up at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). The project, a global warming simulation in the wetlands surrounding the Chesapeake Bay, was helmed by SERC research ecologist Roy Rich, an ecologist with an engineer’s mindset. I’ve been a wetlands enthusiast since I spotted my first blue Heron as a kid, and global climate change is, in my mind, the most pressing issue humans face today. I was ready to sign up. I met with Roy and asked the same questions I have since answered over and over again since joining the project in November:

Joe Dawson kneels by a control box on marsh

Joe Dawson checks a control box for the underground heating cables that help raise temperature in the marsh plots. (Kristen Minogue/SERC)

“You’re heating up a swamp?” Yes.

“And adding CO2?” Yes.

“In a greenhouse?” No.

“Out in the open?” Yes.

“Umm, how?” Well…

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Biodiversity Protects Fish From Climate Change

Monday, May 16th, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Fish provide protein to billions of people and are an especially critical food source in the developing world. Today, marine biologists confirmed a key factor that could help them thrive through the coming decades: biodiversity. Communities with more fish species are more productive and more resilient to rising temperatures and temperature swings, according to a new study from the Smithsonian’s Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network and other international institutions.

The accelerating loss and rearrangement of species all over the globe have troubled scientists and the public for decades. But the question of whether biodiversity offers practical value—for humans and ecosystems—remained controversial. The new study, published May 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offers the most thorough proof yet that preserving marine biodiversity can benefit people as much as it benefits the oceans.

“Biodiversity is more than a pretty face,” said lead author Emmett Duffy, director of the Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network and senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “Preserving biodiversity is not just an aesthetic or spiritual issue—it’s critical to the healthy functioning of ecosystems and the important services they provide to humans, like seafood.”

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Acidification and Low Oxygen Put Fish in Double Jeopardy

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Inland silverside with reflection.

Inland silverside (Menidia beryllina) reflected in aquarium. When threatened with low oxygen, fish often swim to the surface, where oxygen is more abundant but predators can more easily spot them. (SERC)

Severe oxygen drops in the water can leave trails of fish kills in their wakes, but scientists thought adult fish would be more resilient to the second major threat in coastal waters: acidification. A new study published Tuesday from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) shows that is not entirely true—where fish are concerned, acidification can make low oxygen even more deadly.

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Coffee, Carbon and Crime: 22 Reasons to Love Trees

Friday, April 22nd, 2016
Dawn Miller in forest

Ecologist Dawn Miller in SERC forest (SERC)

by Kristen Minogue

Friday is Earth Day, and this year it’s all about the trees. The Earth Day Network is on a mission to plant 7.8 billion trees in five years. Trees have enormous power when it comes to protecting the Earth. Scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) have spent decades uncovering the environmental benefits of forests. But trees offer some advantages that are less obvious. Like acting as painkillers. Or improving your morning coffee. Since the holiday falls on April 22, we picked our top 22 things trees do for humanity.  Click to continue »

Top 12 Highlights of 2015: Arctic Sailing, Cownose Rays and an Orchid Showdown

Thursday, December 31st, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

It’s been another wild year at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. We sent a sailboat to the Arctic, pitted our orchids in a showdown against the Hope Diamond and discovered a couple new species. And somewhere along the way we celebrated the center’s 50th anniversary. Scroll below for the 2015 #YearInReview, a collection of the top 12 stories, journeys and biggest surprises of 2015.

Image: Cownose Rays (Credit: SERC/Laura Patrick)

Cownose Rays (SERC/Laura Patrick)

Exploring the Ocean

Totes Adorbs! Cownose Rays Take Internet
These marine heartthrobs have earned a top billing. Besides making a 900-mile migration every year, which SERC marine ecologists are tracking with acoustic tags, the kite-shaped rays (whose mouths are stretched so that they seem to be wearing a perpetual smile) also won a Twitter #CuteOff in September.

What Does Life in the Ocean Sound Like?
Postdoc Erica Staaterman listens to the ocean for a living. Often seen as a silent landscape broken only by whale or dolphin songs, Staaterman is helping uncover a wealth of noise from the ocean’s hidden creatures. She shared some of the recordings with us in this edited Q&A.

Cruising the Arctic’s Forgotten Fjords
Ocean acidification researcher Whitman Miller sent one of his CO2-monitoring devices on a 100-day journey to the Arctic. Its mission: Venture to some of Greenland’s never-before-seen fjords and discover how melting glaciers are changing the water. And do it all in a small, 42-foot sailboat. Click to continue »

Phragmites vs. Climate Change: Invasive Reed Better at Taking Up Carbon

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

Image: Josh Caplan holds Phragmites. (Credit: Tom Mozdzer)

Ecologist and lead author Josh Caplan holds a Phragmites plant at the Global Change Research Marsh. Invasive Phragmites can grow up to 15 feet tall. (Thomas Mozdzer)

One of the Chesapeake’s least favorite invaders could end up being an unlikely savior. The invasive reed Phragmites australis, a plant that has exploded across Chesapeake wetlands in the last few decades, is also making those wetlands better at soaking up carbon, ecologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) and Bryn Mawr College discovered in a new study.

The common reed, better known as Phragmites australis, grows in dense clusters up to 15 feet tall. North America has several native strains that have co-existed peacefully with many other native plants for at least 30,000 years. It is the invasive strain that arrived from Eurasia in the 1800s that has scientists and environmental managers worried. Eurasian Phragmites grows taller and denser than North American Phragmites, crowding out many smaller plants, and blocking access to light and nutrients. These changes in plant community have a ripple effect on animals that rely on wetlands for habitat.

“The fish communities, the insect communities, the soil and invertebrate communities, all these things change when Phragmites comes in,” says lead author Josh Caplan, a Bryn Mawr postdoc and visiting scientist at SERC. Often, those changes aren’t for the better. “Phragmites is doing a number to these ecosystems.” Click to continue »