Land Use

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Using Computer Models to Help Rescue Bay’s Underwater Flora

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

By Sarah Hansen

SERC intern Bridget Smith, immersed in a sea of environmental data.

SERC intern Bridget Smith, immersed in a sea of environmental data. (SERC)

Underwater plants like sea grasses provide habitat and feeding areas for a wide range of aquatic life.  They also help filter the water and put the brakes on erosion.   But in Chesapeake Bay, the coverage of underwater plants, or submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), has been low for decades, and restoration attempts have had mixed results.  That’s why this summer, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center intern Bridget Smith is grappling with 28 years of data to explore which of a host of factors affects SAV in the Bay and how.

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How much could streamside forests reduce nitrogen pollution in the Bay?

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

by Sarah Hansen

Chester_river_queen_annes_co_md

A buffer on the Chester River in Queen Anne’s County, MD protects the river from nitrogen pollution. (USDA)

Nitrogen pollution in the Chesapeake Bay became a serious concern in the mid-20th century after the advent of nitrogen-rich chemical fertilizers. Bay restoration efforts have reduced nitrogen pollution somewhat, but achieving healthy nitrogen levels in the Bay is still a long way off. Croplands remain an important source of the nitrogen that pollutes Chesapeake Bay.

Don Weller, senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and his colleague Matthew Baker, associate professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, report in a new study that just over half the nitrogen from croplands might never reach the Bay—if all crop fields were protected by streamside forests and wetlands.

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Intern Logs: A Bloody Welcome

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

by Dejeanne Doublet

Intern Megan Palmer adds water to pig blood powder. (Dejeanne Doublet/SERC)

Intern Megan Palmer adds water to pig blood powder. (Dejeanne Doublet/SERC)

Ecological research usually doesn’t evoke thoughts of Stephen King horror movie scenes. Working with plants and animals in the open air shouldn’t provoke nightmares of being drenched in blood. Green is a very different color from red.

However, fellow intern Megan Palmer and I learned on our first week that sometimes, just sometimes, Stephen King references are the best way to describe a day’s work in the field. During our first days at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Palmer and I were asked to do something that made my non-red-meat-eating stomach turn.

“Go spray pig’s blood on all our trees,” Dr. John Parker, the lead terrestrial ecology scientist and our boss told us during one of our first meetings with him. He was referring to the 24,000 tree saplings planted last summer as part of a 100-year experiment on biodiversity, fittingly called BiodiversiTree.

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Learning by Digging: Archeology Project Explores Colonial Life

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Scientists, students, and volunteers unearth late 17th- and 18th-century objects behind Sellman House

by Sarah Hansen

Volunteers excavate a new pit at the “Shaw’s Folly” site behind Sellman House.

On a sunny June afternoon at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, students and volunteers are hard at work in a cornfield behind the Sellman House.  Some shovel soil out of pits.  Others screen it with giant sieves, looking for artifacts.  Still others use trowels to smooth the bottom and sides of the pit, hoping to reveal differences in soil coloration and texture.  This scene will repeat every Monday, Tuesday, and Friday from about 9a.m. to 4 p.m. until June 20.  Guided by Laura Cripps, acting Chair of Social and Cultural Sciences at Howard Community College, and Jim Gibb, head of SERC’s Archaeology Lab, the group is excavating a site that contains objects and building materials that provide a window into 17th- and 18th-century life.

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What’s Hurting the Chesapeake’s Underwater Plants?

Monday, May 5th, 2014

by Kristen Minogue

Photo: A flounder in a bed of eelgrass. (NOAA)

A flounder in a bed of eelgrass. Seagrasses and other underwater plants provide food and shelter to many iconic Bay creatures, including blue crabs. (NOAA)

It’s been a difficult century for the submerged flora of Chesapeake Bay.

In the 1930s, wasting disease nearly wiped out the eelgrasses of the North Atlantic. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, they faced onslaughts from invasive grasses like water chestnut and Eurasian milfoil. Finally, in the summer of 1972, Hurricane Agnes pummeled underwater plants to the lowest levels ever reported in the Bay. This April, they received news that, at first glance, seemed positive: Submerged grasses rose 24 percent between 2012 and 2013, according to aerial surveys of the Chesapeake Bay Program.

But those increases were largely limited to a single species: widgeon grass, a plant known for wild fluctuations. At 60,000 acres total, submerged plants still didn’t come near a recent mini-peak in 2002, they’re a far cry from the ultimate goal of 185,000 acres across the Bay. What is holding them back? And—more importantly—how we can we help ensure the latest expansion isn’t just a blip?

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Ancient Native American Compost Still Enriching Forests

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

by Kristen Minogue

Photo: An open pit exposes a 3200-year-old shell midden. Native Americans used middens as trash piles for oyster shells, animal bones and pottery. (by Torben Rick/Smithsonian)

An open pit exposes a 3200-year-old shell midden. Native Americans used middens as trash piles for oyster shells, animal bones and pottery. (Torben Rick/Smithsonian)

More than 3,000 years ago, Native Americans dined on shellfish from the Chesapeake Bay, and the leftovers from those feasts are still benefiting modern-day forests.

Native Americans inhabited the Chesapeake Bay area more than 13,000 years before the first Europeans dropped anchor. During the Woodland period (3,200 to 400 years ago), they ate eastern oysters and threw the shells, along with animal bones, pottery and other shellfish remains, into trash piles called shell middens. Those piles enriched the soil with nutrients, promoting hot spots of native diversity along the Chesapeake shoreline.

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Nonnatives in Your Garden:
A Curse or a Blessing?

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

by Kristen Minogue

Three nonnative flowers in Maryland. Left to right: Queen Anne's Lace, Moth Mullein and Lesser Celandine. (Susan Cook Patton)

Three nonnative flowers in Maryland. Left to right: Queen Anne’s Lace, Moth Mullein and Lesser Celandine. (Susan Cook-Patton)

“I just want to plant something that will grow in my yard. If a nonnative species grows better than a native, why shouldn’t I plant it?”

It’s a valid question, one that SERC postdoc Susan Cook-Patton remembers hearing from her father while still in high school. In the quest to preserve native plants, it’s become almost taboo to talk about the benefits of nonnatives. But not all nonnative plants are rampant invaders, and sometimes they could be good for gardens as a whole. Cook-Patton broke down the pros and cons of gardening with nonnative species at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s first evening lecture on April 15. Here are a few to consider when deciding what to put in your garden:

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Wetlands Can Resist Rising Seas, If We Let Them

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

by Kristen Minogue

Fishing camp along Falgout Canal Bayou, La., where marsh has submerged into open water and remains mostly on canal leaves. (Matt Kirwin/VIMS)

Fishing camp along Falgout Canal Bayou, La., where marsh has submerged into open water and remains mostly on canal leaves. (Matt Kirwin/VIMS)

Left to themselves, coastal wetlands can adapt to sea-level rise. But humans could be sabotaging some of their best defenses, according to a review paper from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to be published Thursday, Dec. 5 in Nature.

The threat of disappearing coastlines has alerted many to the dangers of climate change. Wetlands in particular—with their ability to buffer coastal cities from floods and storms, and filter out pollution—offer protections that could be lost in the future. But, say co-authors Matt Kirwan and Patrick Megonigal, higher waters are not the key factor in wetland demise. Thanks to an intricate system of ecosystem feedbacks, wetlands are remarkably good at building up soil to outpace sea-level rise. But this ability has limits. The real issue, the scientists say, is that human structures such as dams and seawalls are disrupting the natural mechanisms that have allowed coastal marshes to survive rising seas since at least the end of the last ice age.

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Climate Change Stimulates Growth of Invasive “Super Weed”

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

by Kristen Minogue

Tom Mozdzer explores a patch of invasive Phragmites in SERC's global change wetland.

Is it better to be a jack of all trades or a master of some? In the plant world, it’s possible to do both–and that could make a huge difference in deciding which plants dominate under climate change. This holds especially true for one: the invasive reed Phragmites australis. Its ability to alter its anatomy enables it to grow well in just about any environment, including one spiked with CO2 and nitrogen, SERC ecologists discovered in a study published Oct. 31.

Plants like this are called “jack-and-master” plants. Typically, the most competitive plants surpass their neighbors through one of two strategies. “Jack-of-all-trades” plants do moderately well under most scenarios. Their competitors will surpass them when conditions are good, but if the environment becomes stressful, the jack of all trades will grow better. “Master-of-some” plants do very well under only a few conditions, so if the environment shifts in their favor, they are certain to emerge victorious. But a few types—the jack-and-master plants—can use both tactics. And the invasive Phragmites is one of them.

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What the Plantation Owners Left Behind

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

by Kristen Minogue

Homestead House, called Woodlawn by its first residents in the early 1700s. (SERC)


On the western shore of Chesapeake Bay, less than a mile from the Rhode River, there is an old red house on an abandoned farm. Once, in the 18th century, it belonged to a thriving plantation. The hilled rows of tobacco have vanished, along with the slaves and field hands who planted them. But the scars on the landscape remain. The surrounding earth carries traces of how each of its inhabitants have used it, or abused it.

The house’s first inhabitants in the early 1700s called it Woodlawn. Today it is known simply as the Homestead House. The building and its surrounding farmland now sit within the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Instead of slaves and field hands, teams of volunteers are overturning the soil in search of clues about its past.

Archaeologist Jim Gibb began the excavation at SERC earlier in August. His volunteers come for a single afternoon, or several weeks. He isn’t terribly picky about long-term commitments. Gibb welcomes anyone who can handle a shovel and is at least ten years old (and even that rule is flexible). Under his guidance, they are piecing together the story of one household’s legacy on the land.

The team made one of their biggest discoveries just a few weeks into the project, when they uncovered a brick foundation sprinkled with household artifacts. One possibility is that it was a storage shed. Another, that it was someone’s home.

“If someone was living in that in the early 19th century, and we know where the owners were living, then we do the math,” Gibb said. “They have to be labor. And at that point, probably slave labor.”

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