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Why 900 Years of Ancient Oysters Went Missing

Friday, August 29th, 2014

by Kristen Minogue

Piscataway Indians lived on the Rhode River up to colonial times, though anthropologists believe they used the land for temporary campsites, not permanent settlements.

Piscataway Indians lived on the Rhode River up to colonial times, though anthropologists believe they used the land for temporary campsites, not permanent settlements.

For more than 10,000 years, Native Americans hunted and fished in the Chesapeake. Broken pottery, village sites, burial grounds and other artifacts bear witness to their near-continuous presence around the Bay. But one type of artifact—ancient trash piles called shell middens—hasn’t received as much attention. And these tell another important story.

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Marshes: Pollution Sponges of the Future

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

by Melissa Pastore, biology graduate student at Villanova University

Image: Melissa Pastore in a marsh near Delaware Bay. (Credit: Lori Sutter)

Melissa Pastore in a marsh near Delaware Bay.
(Lori Sutter)

What if we could create a giant sponge capable of soaking up nitrogen pollution? It turns out that the Chesapeake Bay, which has experienced a rapid increase in nitrogen pollution from municipal and agricultural sources over the last few decades, already contains a natural version of this sponge: marshes fringing the Bay. But global change—and the nitrogen pollution itself—could change how this natural sponge operates.

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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

Photo: Dejeanne Doublet inspects a red oak in BiodiversiTree. (Credit: SERC)

Dejeanne Doublet inspects a red oak in BiodiversiTree. (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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