Climate Change

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Aging Forests Better at Trapping Carbon

Friday, June 8th, 2012

by Kristen Minogue

Mysterious things happen to forests as they grow old. The passing of time alters the trees, the animals, the microbes, even how much they breathe.

Hemlock tree in Salt Springs State Park, Penn. Hemlocks are one of the last trees to populate a forest, and those forests seem to be better at storing carbon. (Nicholas_T)


Just like people, forests age. Dense rows of birch and cherry trees give way to tulip poplars. Eventually the tulip poplars vanish and more spacious oaks and hemlocks rise up in their place. But arguably the most important changes occur underground. The planet’s soils store more than three times as much carbon as the atmosphere. And—while researchers still aren’t sure exactly why—older forests seem to be better at holding onto it.

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Mangrove Tracking I: A Forest on the Move

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

by Dan Gruner

Black mangrove. Mangroves like this tolerate hot, salty environments partly by exuding excess salt onto their leaves. (John Parker)

Will tropical mangroves take over the world?

I don’t think anyone believes that will happen. However, it does seem that mangroves are moving up in latitude, encroaching into more temperate salt marsh systems dominated by cord grass and other herbaceous species. Although mangrove systems are in steep decline worldwide because of coastal development, aquaculture and other human activities, climate change and other factors may be increasing their total geographic range.

Why would this happen? What would this mean for coastal ecosystems in the USA and globally? And what would it mean for the billions of people who live within 20 miles of a coastal zone, or the billions more who rely on some form of oceanic protein?

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The Underwater War on Climate Change

Monday, May 7th, 2012

by Kristen Minogue

The milky blue waters of this Iceland lagoon are teeming with cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae. (Marie-II)

Beneath the surface of the ocean, an invisible army of workers is fighting to keep climate change in check. Many have been silently absorbing or burying carbon for billions of years, and humanity has just begun to take notice of them. These unassuming laborers are bacteria.

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Snowmageddon vs. Caribbean Creep

Monday, January 9th, 2012

by Monaca Noble

SERC's Green Village during Snowmageddon February 2010 (Stephen Sanford)

Remember Snowmageddon 2010, the east coast storms that dumped up to three feet of snow over the mid-Atlantic? The February snowstorm was the largest in the region in nearly 90 years, resulting in the heaviest snowfall on record for Delaware (26.5 inches) and the third heaviest snowfall in Baltimore (24.8 inches). The storm made a big impression on Dr. João Canning-Clode and other scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, who began to wonder if the storm, and the December/January cold snap that preceded it, would lead to the deaths and potential disappearance of marine invaders from southern climates.
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Hurricanes, Snakeheads and Dead Zones: What 2011 Weather Meant for the Chesapeake

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

by Kristen Minogue

Credit: NOAA Photo Library

Let’s face it, the East Coast has had an incredibly bizarre year. In 2011 so far, we’ve seen the coldest January on record, the hottest month on record (July), a hurricane, a tropical storm and an earthquake (we’re not even going to touch the last one – we’ll leave that to our colleagues at Natural History). And to top it off, August and September drenched us with uncharacteristically high rainfall. While SERC tends to focus on the long-term picture rather than brief snapshots, this year has prompted more than a few raised eyebrows among our scientists. What does it mean for the environment? What does it mean for Chesapeake Bay? And can any of it be linked to climate change?

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Marshes, Microbes and the Other Blue Carbon

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

by Kristen Minogue

Tidal marshes have long been lauded as carbon sinks for their ability to pull CO2 from the atmosphere and bury it in the soil, what scientists have taken to calling “blue carbon.” But wetlands are also notorious methane emitters. Now ecologists suspect that only a select few wetland types can reliably act as sinks, and that number may shrink as sea levels rise.

tidal wetland

The Kirkpatrick Marsh on SERC's campus in Edgewater, MD. Tidal wetlands both store and release greenhouse gases. Which will prevail as the planet warms is a question ecologists are still trying to answer. (Credit: Gary Peresta/SERC)

Scientists estimate wetlands are responsible for anywhere from 15 to 45 percent of all methane emissions – a wide range that makes predicting their role in climate change difficult. However, that role could prove critical in the years to come. Methane (CH4) is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Over the course of a century, a single gram of methane is roughly 25 times more powerful than a gram of CO2.
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Grimy field work? Give it to the tourists.

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

Ali Kishwar, a volunteer tourist from Pakistan, navigates the muddy terrain across from SERC's beaver pond with caution. (Credit: SERC)

For most people, summer vacation means stretching out on a beach in the South Pacific, touring the ruins of ancient Greece, or (for the more outdoors-inclined) hiking the Inca Trail in Peru. It does not usually entail wading through ankle-deep mud to measure the diameters of trees.

Paul Smith, a 63-year-old retired engineer, travelled to SERC all the way from the United Kingdom to do it. So did Ali Kishwar, a Pakistani doctorate student who took a break from studying medicinal plants at the University of Reading in Berkshire, also in the U.K. Smith and Kishwar joined a motley group of seven citizen scientists who paid to spend a week at SERC doing field work.
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Climate Change & Biodiversity: What’s Next?

Monday, April 25th, 2011

Research suggests some species in the tropics and subtropics may be more resistant to climate change than species closer to the poles. (Credit: SERC)

The threat of radical climate change has made predicting the future of biodiversity a critical challenge for scientists. However, untangling the many intricacies of how climate can affect plant and animal species can also be quite daunting. SERC ecologist Sean McMahon and co-authors, including three Nobel Laureates from the U.N. IPCC report, tackle the issue in a paper published this month in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Broken down, here’s what we already know about biodiversity and climate, what we still need to know, and what to do next.
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As the Mangroves March North…

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Aerial view of Mangal Cay in the western Caribbean - just one of many mangrove havens Ilka Feller has explored.

As global temperatures rise, mangrove forests from the southeastern US are pushing farther north. Scientists don’t know how long, how fast, or what the exact consequences will be, but images from NASA satellites – and $1.3 million – will help them find out.

Ilka Feller, senior ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, will lead the effort to track more than 100 miles of Florida mangrove forests encroaching on their northern neighbors, the salt marshes. Feller has been studying mangroves for almost 20 years, keeping tabs on their progress in Florida, Panama, Belize and Australia. The new grant is one of 15 NASA-sponsored projects that will combine satellite data with field work to give scientists a bird’s-eye view of climate change.

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Tracking the Chesapeake Bay’s ‘Beautiful Swimmers’

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

As summer wanes in the Chesapeake Bay, many female blue crabs are preparing for an epic journey. Come September they will walk and swim their way toward the mouth of the Chesapeake to release their eggs. Some will travel more than 150 miles. SERC scientists have studied the blue crab’s migratory patterns for more than a decade. Their findings have revealed new insight into the life history of this important species and have helped inform management policies. Tracking these invertebrates is not easy: it involves thousands of pink plastic tags, a unique collaboration with watermen and a blue crab hotline…