Land Use

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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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Intern Logs: A Soldier and a Scientist

Friday, August 19th, 2011

This summer the SERC interns had a unique addition to their ranks – Iraq veteran Kiel Edson, a former Marine finishing his last year of undergrad at California State University, Sacramento. In this edited Q&A, the 28-year-old shares thoughts on Iraq, SERC and the transition from soldier to researcher.

Edson1

After five years working as a Russian linguist for the Marines, 28-year-old Kiel Edson started college and discovered his passion for conservation biology. (Credit: Michael Tobias.)

What kind of work did you do for the Marines in Iraq?

E: I was part of a group of what’s called Signal Support Team. We basically go out onto missions off the base, closer to the main cities, and we collect intelligence on what’s happening within the city. And then anything relevant that we find, we basically just write-up in situation reports or intelligence reports and send them off to the commanders who are making decisions as to how to handle the situations in that city. We just tell them, hey, they know that you’re going to ambush, or they know about the convoy going through on Thursday, so that they can change the way that they operate to avoid taking casualties, or they know going in there’s going to be a firefight, so everybody’s prepared for it. It’s not a surprise.
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Hunt for a Missing Nutrient

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

by Kristen Minogue

Leviton

Intern Ginny Leviton (left) and Vienna Saccomanno sample groundwater from a drainage ditch, trying to pin down the exact spot where the nitrogen goes missing. (Credit: Tom Jordan)

The Choptank watershed has SERC researchers baffled. On the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, roughly a 75-minute drive from SERC, the groundwater flowing into the Choptank River passes through a cornfield – a likely source of nitrogen, a nutrient that can wreak havoc on the Bay’s ecosystem if it runs too high. But something is happening to the nitrogen here before it reaches the Bay. Nutrient ecologist Tom Jordan and his research team have spent the better part of a year trying to figure out what.
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Smithsonian Study Measures Watershed-wide Effects of Riparian Buffers on Nutrient Pollution

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010
Aerial photo of farmland and streams - with trees growing in between them.

Well-developed riparian forests outline streams and help protect stream water quality.

Most of the time, nutrients are viewed as a positive and essential part of life. However, excess amounts of a nutrient, like nitrogen, can create major ecological problems for the Chesapeake Bay and other aquatic ecosystems. Too much nitrogen leads to an abundance of microscopic plant growth in the water. When the algae die and decay, they consume the oxygen that other organisms need to thrive.

Much of the Bay’s nitrogen pollution comes from farms where rainwater carries nitrate, a form of nitrogen, from fields into streams that drain into the Bay. For years, ecologists have noted that forests and wetlands growing between croplands and streams can reduce the amount of nitrate that reaches the waterways. Scientists have measured nitrate removal by these “riparian buffers,” but only in small study areas.
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Bricks, Bees and Blazes: New Life Comes to the Contee Farm

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Photo of the ruins of two brick chimneys being supported by huge braces.

The Contee Mansion ruins, 2010. Photo: Tina Tennessen

The Contee Farm has attracted a motley crew in recent months. Architects, archaeologists, beekeepers, construction crews and trailblazers have all descended upon the grounds. Their interest in the property varies, but they share a common purpose: to prepare the farm for visitors. In the coming years the public will be able to use the site to explore the various ways humans impact the environment.

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center acquired the 575-acre Contee Farm in 2008. The mansion dates back to 1747 and for many decades served as a hub for the surrounding tobacco plantation. In 1890 lightening struck the house and caused it to burn. Since then, it has been vacant and left to disintegrate brick-by-brick.
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Five Minutes for Mangroves

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Hallmark may not have a card for it, but today is International Mangrove Action Day.

Photo of a creek surrounded by a mangrove forest

Photo: Ilka C. Feller/Smithsonian Institution

The occasion is a small but vibrant tradition that has been observed annually on July 26th for nearly a decade in countries around the globe, including the U.S., India, Ecuador, Micronesia and many others. To celebrate, some communities organize protests or restoration projects. Some convene discussions or offer educational lectures about mangrove ecology. Others simply take a moment to appreciate the importance of mangrove forests.
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‘Tidal Freshwater Wetlands’ gives an overlooked ecosystem its due

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

Tidal Freshwater Wetlands book cover

Tidal Freshwater Wetlands

There are certain obstacles you have to embrace if you are going to edit a book about tidal freshwater wetlands. They include: mud, mosquitoes and leeches. Smithsonian plant ecologist Dennis Whigham has accepted all three and then some.

Whigham, along with colleagues Aat Barendregt from Utrecht University and Andy Baldwin from the University of Maryland, has edited the new book Tidal Freshwater Wetlands. It’s a weighty work containing more than 20 chapters written by more than 40 authors. For the first time ever, they have systematically peeled back the layers of these overlooked coastal ecosystems. The book explores how these wetlands work, the animal and plant life they support, and the threats they face.
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$5 million grant from NOAA funds Chesapeake Bay research

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

If the Chesapeake Bay could drive, it would have a severe case of road rage. The nation’s largest estuary is stressed out. That’s putting it mildly.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed.  Landsat imagery courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and U.S. Geological Survey.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Landsat imagery courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and U.S. Geological Survey.

Nutrient runoff, shoreline development and invasive species are just a few of the factors contributing to the Chesapeake Bay’s poor health. For decades, scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) have been teasing out how these “stressors” impact the Bay’s plants and animals. A new $5 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will help bolster their efforts.
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