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Six Reasons To Celebrate World Wetlands Day

Friday, February 2nd, 2018

by Kristen Minogue

SERC scientist Lisa Schile in a marsh in San Francisco. (Courtesy of Lisa Schile.)

February 2 is most widely known as Groundhog Day, the day people all over the U.S. look to a rodent in Pennsylvania to predict the future. But it also marks a less famous holiday: World Wetlands Day, celebrated around the world since 1997, to mark the first international agreement to protect wetlands on Feb. 2, 1971. Curious why anyone would make a holiday for wetlands? Here are a few reasons to celebrate the unsung guardians along our shores.

wetland covered by grasses and yellow flowers

A wetland by the Kenai River in Alaska (Dennis Whigham)

  1. They protect our homes from storms and floods. Standing between us and the elements, wetlands soak up destructive energy from waves and storm surges. In an extreme example, it’s estimated during Hurricane Sandy wetlands along the East Coast prevented $625 million in property damage.
  2. They help keep pollution out of Chesapeake Bay and other waterways. Wetlands are sometimes called the “kidneys” of the Bay, because they’re able to filter out pollution from fertilizers, sewage, pesticides and harmful toxins before it streams into the water.
  3. red-winged blackbird among reeds.

    Red-winged blackbird. Wetlands provide a home or resting point for many birds on their migrations. (Kristen Minogue/SERC)

  4. They’re good for our drinking water. Most of the water we drink comes from groundwater beneath the surface. But wetlands can replenish it as some of their water seeps underground. And because of their filtering powers, the water is cleaner after passing through a wetland.
  5. Birds and fish love them. Herons, egrets, ducks and bald eagles all pass through Chesapeake wetlands as visitors or year-round residents. Striped bass and other popular fish rely on them for spawning ground or nurseries, as do crabs and shellfish.
  6. They store carbon. Plants soak up carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, making them critical players in fighting climate change. “Blue carbon” is the official name for carbon stored in wetlands and other coastal ecosystems. At the same time, wetland soils can also emit methane, another powerful greenhouse gas, making it tricky to know how much carbon wetlands store overall. Scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center are helping devise better ways to calculate this. So far they’ve found wetlands with more saltwater generally emit less methane and store more carbon.
  7. They’re natural air conditioning. With their lush plants and high water levels, wetlands can radiate moist air, cooling down areas nearby. This makes planting wetlands especially valuable near cities in tropical or dry climates.

Learn more:

Wetlands Can Resist Rising Seas, If We Let Them

The Blue Carbon Market Is Open

Coffee, Carbon and Crime: 22 Reasons to Love Trees

Tidings from the Sunset Coast (4)

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

An Ecological History of SERC-West’s California Home

By Ryan Greene

An aerial view of a cove with many buildings and a number of moored ships.

A naval net depot was one of the many institutions to occupy the site on the San Francisco Bay where the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies now operates. Photo courtesy of the Tiburon Landmarks Society and Romberg Tiburon Center. [Cropped]

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) main West Coast outpost, SERC-West, is located in Tiburon, California, on San Francisco Bay. The entire stretch of North America separates SERC-West from SERC’s main campus on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. To bridge this distance, we’ve launched “Tidings From the Sunset Coast,” a summer series about all things SERC-West. Our last post explored SERC’s research on invasive green crabs in Seadrift Lagoon. Our next post dives into the history of the site that SERC-West calls home. This blog post is nowhere close to comprehensive. Rather, we hope it can serve as something of a “highlight reel.”

The Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies (or Romberg Center for short) sits on a 36-acre parcel of waterfront land whose history is rather kaleidoscopic. Depending on when you were here, you could have found a cod packing plant, cables destined for the Golden Gate Bridge, or multi-mile antisubmarine nets. And this is just a smattering.

The Romberg Center is a research and teaching facility run by San Francisco State University. Nearly two decades ago, in 2000, SERC ecologist Greg Ruiz stationed part of his Marine Invasions Lab here. Since then, this outpost has become the hub of SERC’s West Coast ecological research. In addition to Smithsonian and San Francisco State biologists, the Romberg Center is also home to members of NOAA’s San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Together, these institutions use the historic site as a base for exploring the Bay’s ecology. This, though, is only the most recent in a long line of land uses. And looking more closely at what people have done here in the past can provide a glimpse into a host of ecological issues still shaping San Francisco today. Click to continue »

The Environmental Cost of Shoreline Hardening

Wednesday, June 21st, 2017

New study shows hardened shorelines may mean fewer fish and crustaceans. 

by Ryan Greene

A split image with a wooden bulkhead on the left and a rocky riprap revetment on the right.

A new SERC study shows that both bulkheads (left) and riprap revetment (right) are associated with lower abundance of several species of fish and crustaceans in the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware Coastal Bays. Credit: SERC

For decades, ecologists have suspected that hardened shorelines may impact the abundance fish, crabs, and other aquatic life. But now they have evidence that local effects of shoreline hardening add up to affect entire ecosystems. A new study by scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) shows that more shoreline hardening means fewer fish and crustaceans in our waters.

Given the predictions for the coming years (i.e. rising seas and more of us living on the coast), this finding is a cause for concern. Many people will likely try to protect their land from flooding and erosion by armoring their shorelines with vertical retaining walls (bulkheads) or large rocks (riprap revetment). But as SERC researchers found in their new paper, published in Estuaries and Coasts, the impact of these hardened shorelines adds up.

Lead author and former SERC postdoc Matt Kornis likens shoreline hardening to littering. While each individual bit of trash isn’t a huge problem, the combined effect can be enormous. Kornis, now a biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, says the same is true of shoreline hardening. Each individual bulkhead or riprap revetment may not be catastrophic, but cumulatively they can contribute to shrunken populations of ecologically—and economically—important species like the blue crab.

“Shoreline hardening can cause loss of habitats important for young fish, like wetlands and submerged vegetation,” Kornis says. “That may be one reason we observed low abundance of many species in estuaries with a high proportion of hardened shoreline.” Click to continue »

Alaskan Alders Shape Fates of Wetlands, Streams—And Salmon

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

by Joe Dawson

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Dennis Whigham samples horsetail plants in an Alaskan headwater stream. Credit: Ryan King/Baylor University

In Alaska, fish mean serious money. For fishermen, landowners, and the government, learning all they can about the lives of salmon could pay off in future fish harvests. There’s a lot to learn, down to how a single type of tree impacts their habitat.

The story of those habitats and trees, the alders, has been explored by SERC senior scientist Dennis Whigham and colleagues in a new study published May in Science of the Total Environment. The researchers have been studying interactions between watersheds and headwater streams for almost two decades.

Alders are most recognizable for their egg-shaped, serrated leaves. Their bark is used for tanning leather, and their wood to smoke salmon and make Fender guitars. But alders also have an outsized effect on their natural environment, transforming the chemistry and structure of wetlands and streams nearby. Bacteria in alder roots make nitrogen, an important plant nutrient, available in places where it is otherwise scarce. This can send ripple effects through entire ecosystems. In another plot twist, scientists also expect alder trees to expand northward, stirred by warmer temperatures and higher carbon dioxide from climate change. Whigham’s findings highlight the interconnectedness of wetland ecosystems, waterways, and the valuable fish that call Alaska home. Click to continue »

Time Lords and Ladies of History’s Trash

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

by Emily Li

Digging through soil plot

Citizen scientist Linda Perkins helps excavate a soil plot in front of the Contee mansion ruins. (Photo: SERC)

People don’t usually think of archaeologists as dumpster divers. Then again, sifting through trash for hidden treasures is exactly what the volunteer citizen scientists of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) Archaeology Lab do every Wednesday. But they don’t scavenge anything for themselves. (The market for millenia-old oyster shells is very unpredictable, and any food they find is always up to three centuries past its expiration date.) Instead, they take away new skills and a chance to put together a historical puzzle larger than themselves.

“We look back thousands of years,” said Jim Gibb, the lead volunteer and coordinator of the lab. “I always tell people—we’re the time lords.”  Click to continue »

Food for Thought: Cooking for Invasive Beetles

Friday, August 12th, 2016

by Emily Li

SERC intern Cole Caceres collects Japanese invasive beetles from hormone trap for his experiment

SERC intern Cole Caceres collects Japanese invasive beetles from a hormone trap for his experiment (Photo: Emily Li/SERC)

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) intern Cole Caceres has two passions: science and cooking. He enjoys doing research and adding to the larger body of knowledge, but he hasn’t given up on owning his own restaurant. When he’s not studying nitrogen filtration as a laboratory assistant at the University of California, Davis, he’s probably watching Food Network or frying chicken wings in a sweet soy sauce glaze.

But Caceres found the perfect mix of his interests as an intern with SERC’s Terrestrial Ecology Lab. There, he cooks for invasive Japanese beetles, hoping to help shed light on their dietary preferences so that plant conservation initiatives can be more fully informed—one beetle bite at a time.

Click to continue »

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.

Click to continue »

The Mystery of the Muddy Creek Restoration

Monday, August 8th, 2016
SERC intern Lauren Mosesso takes a water quality reading

SERC intern Lauren Mosesso takes a water quality reading (Photo: Emily Li/SERC)

by Emily Li

One year ago, a team of scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center set out to restore a stream running through its campus in Edgewater, Md. No one ever said it would be simple.

At first glance, the restoration of Muddy Creek seems to be a closed case. Before the project began, the creek’s severely eroded banks were disconnected from its floodplains, turning the stream into a raging river during storms that stripped nutrients from the system and dumped them in the Chesapeake Bay. Now, after a facelift in January, the creek is nearly unrecognizable. Its gentle banks cradle the wide, slow-moving stream littered with leaves, ferns, and an abundance of other plant life. Choruses of croaks fill the air, accompanied by the hum of insects, bird chatter, and the occasional splash of frogs retreating into the cloudy water.

But another layer of mystery is clouding the waters. A mat of red Leptothrix bacteria coats some sections of the site, leading SERC senior scientist Dr. Thomas Jordan and his colleagues to ask a host of new questions. Are the bacteria harmful to the ecosystem, or an important part of the food web? Are they a short-term phenomenon or a permanent fixture to the stream? Exactly how much area do they cover? One SERC intern is hoping to find out.

Click to continue »

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.

Click to continue »

Q&A: Preparing a Safety Net for Native Plants

Monday, July 18th, 2016
Tony Dove in the garden pond in front of the SERC Administration Building

Tony Dove in the garden pond in front of the SERC Administration Building. (Photo: Emily Li/SERC)

by Emily Li

What do we do when native plants lose? About five years ago, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and the U.S. Department of Agriculture joined forces to back up seed sources of native plant species, just in case something threatens to wipe them out—but for some species, it looks like we might need them sooner rather than later. Learn more about the partnership and the pros of gardening with natives in this edited Q&A with Smithsonian Environmental Research Center horticulturalist Tony Dove.

Can you tell me about the native sentinel plant species partnership between SERC and the Department of Agriculture?

The Department of Agriculture has a woody plant germplasm conservation center in Beltsville. And what they do is they go around to different locations throughout the country and they collect seeds of various native plants. They grow those native plants in a nursery with the expectation that they will then take those plants and put them out into landscapes in different areas, so that there will always be a seed source for those particular plants if something tragically happens in the area where those plants grew.

Click to continue »