Are forests helping in the fight against climate change?

Bill setting up a large metal tower in Harvard Forest in 1989, used to measure long-term CO2 exchange.

The activities are as follows:

As humans drive cars and use electricity, we release carbon in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air. Because COhelps to trap heat near the surface of the earth, it is known as a greenhouse gas and contributes to climate change. However, carbon is also an important piece of natural ecosystems, because all living organisms contain carbon. For example, when plants photosynthesize, they take COfrom the air and turn it into other forms of carbon: sugars for food and structural compounds to build their stems, roots, and leaves. When the carbon in a living tree’s trunk, roots, leaves, and branches stays there for a long time, the carbon is kept out of the air. This carbon storage helps reduce the amount of COin the atmosphere. However, not all of the COthat trees take from the air during photosynthesis remains as part of the tree. Some of that carbon returns to the air during a process called respiration.

Another important part of the forest carbon cycle happens when trees drop their leaves and branches or die. The carbon that the tree has stored breaks down in a process called decomposition. Some of the stored carbon returns to the air as CO2, but the rest of the carbon in those dead leaves and branches builds up on the forest floor, slowly becoming soil. Once carbon is stored in soil, it stays there for a long time. We can think of forests as a balancing act between carbon building up in trees and soil, and carbon released to the air by decomposition and respiration. When a forest is building up more carbon than it is releasing, we call that area a carbon sink, because overall more COis “sinking” into the forest and staying there. On the other hand, when more carbon is being released by the forest through decomposition and respiration, that area is a carbon source, because the forest is adding more carbon back into the atmosphere than it is taking in through photosynthesis.

In the 1990s, scientists began to wonder what role forests were having in this exchange of carbon in and out of the atmosphere. Were forests overall storing carbon (carbon sink), or releasing it (carbon source)? Bill is one of the scientists who decided to explore this question. Bill works at the Harvard Forest in central Massachusetts, a Long-Term Ecological Research site that specializes in setting up big experiments to learn how the environment works. Bill and his team of scientists realized they could measure the COcoming into and out of an entire forest. They built large metal towers that stand taller than the forest trees around them and use sensors to measure the speed, direction, and COconcentration of each puff of air that passes by. Bill compares the COin the air coming from the forest to the ones moving down into the forest from the atmosphere. With the COdata from both directions, Bill calculates the Net Ecosystem Exchange (or NEE for short). When more carbon is moving into the forest than out, NEE is a negative number because COis being taken out of the air. This often happens during the summer when trees are getting a lot of light and are therefore photosynthesizing. When more COis leaving the forest, it means that decomposition and respiration are greater than photosynthesis and the NEE is a positive number. This typically happens at night and in the winter, when trees aren’t photosynthesizing but respiration and decomposition still occur. By adding up the NEE of each hour over a whole year, Bill finds the total amount of COthe forest is adding or removing from the atmosphere that year.

Bill and his team were very interested in understanding NEE because of how important it is to the global carbon cycle, and therefore to climate change. They wanted to know which factors might cause the NEE of a forest to vary. Bill and other scientists collected data on carbon entering and leaving Harvard Forest for many years to see if they could find any patterns in NEE over time. By looking at how the NEE changes over time, predictions can be made about the future: are forests taking up more COthan they release? Will they continue to do so under future climate change?

Featured scientist: Bill Munger from Harvard University

Written by: Fiona Jevon

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.5

Additional teacher resource related to this Data Nugget:

  • There are several publications based on the data from the Harvard Forest LTER. PDFs for all papers can be found online here. Citations below:
    • Wofsy, S.C., Goulden, M.L., Munger, J.W., Fan, S.M., Bakwin, P.S., Daube, B.C., Bassow, S.L. and Bazzaz, F.A., 1993. Net exchange of CO2 in a mid-latitude forest. Science260(5112), pp.1314-1317.
    • Goulden, M.L., Munger, J.W., Fan, S.M., Daube, B.C. and Wofsy, S.C., 1996. Exchange of carbon dioxide by a deciduous forest: response to interannual climate variability. Science271(5255), pp.1576-1578.
    • Barford, C.C., Wofsy, S.C., Goulden, M.L., Munger, J.W., Pyle, E.H., Urbanski, S.P., Hutyra, L., Saleska, S.R., Fitzjarrald, D. and Moore, K., 2001. Factors controlling long-and short-term sequestration of atmospheric CO2 in a mid-latitude forest. Science294(5547), pp.1688-1691.
    • Urbanski, S., Barford, C., Wofsy, S., Kucharik, C., Pyle, E., Budney, J., McKain, K., Fitzjarrald, D., Czikowsky, M. and Munger, J.W., 2007. Factors controlling CO2 exchange on timescales from hourly to decadal at Harvard Forest. Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences112(G2).
    • Wehr, R., Munger, J.W., McManus, J.B., Nelson, D.D., Zahniser, M.S., Davidson, E.A., Wofsy, S.C. and Saleska, S.R., 2016. Seasonality of temperate forest photosynthesis and daytime respiration. Nature534(7609), p.680.
  • Our Changing Forests Schoolyard Ecology project – Do your students want to get involved with research monitoring carbon cycles in forests? Check out this hands-on field investigation, led by a team of Ecologists at Harvard Forest. Students can contribute to this study by monitoring a 20 meter by 20 meter plot in a wooded area near their schools.
  • Additional images from Harvard Forest, diagrams of NEE, and a vocabulary list can be found in this PowerPoint.

Coral bleaching and climate change

A Pacific coral reef with many corals

A Pacific coral reef with many corals

The activities are as follows:

Corals are animals that build coral reefs. Coral reefs are home to many species of animals – fish, sharks, sea turtles, and anemones all use corals for habitat! Corals are white, but they look brown and green because certain types of algae live inside them. Algae, like plants, use the sun’s energy to make food. The algae that live inside the corals’ cells are tiny and produce more sugars than they themselves need. The extra sugars become food for the corals. At the same time, the corals provide the algae a safe home. The algae and corals coexist in a relationship where each partner benefits the other, called a mutualism: these species do better together than they would alone.

When the water gets too warm, the algae can no longer live inside corals, so they leave. The corals then turn from green to white, called coral bleaching. Climate change has been causing the Earth’s air and oceans to get warmer. With warmer oceans, coral bleaching is becoming more widespread. If the water stays too warm, bleached corals will die without their algae mutualists.

Scientist Carly working on a coral reef

Scientist Carly working on a coral reef

Carly is a scientist who wanted to study coral bleaching so she could help protect corals and coral reefs. One day, Carly observed an interesting pattern. Corals on one part of a reef were bleaching while corals on another part of the reef stayed healthy. She wondered, why some corals and their algae can still work together when the water is warm, while others cannot?

Ocean water that is closer to the shore (inshore) gets warmer than water that is further away (offshore). Perhaps corals and algae from inshore reefs have adapted to warm water. Carly wondered whether inshore corals are better able to work with their algae in warm water because they have adapted to these temperatures. If so, inshore corals and algae should bleach less often than offshore corals and algae. Carly designed an experiment to test this. She collected 15 corals from inshore and 15 from offshore reefs in the Florida Keys. She brought them into an aquarium lab for research. She cut each coral in half and put half of each coral into tanks with normal water and the other half into tanks with heaters. The normal water temperature was 27°C, which is a temperature that both inshore and offshore corals experience during the year. The warm water tanks were at 31°C, which is a temperature that inshore corals experience, but offshore corals have never previously experienced. Because of climate change, offshore corals may experience this warmer temperature in the future. After six weeks, she recorded the number of corals that bleached in each tank.

 Featured scientist: Carly Kenkel from The University of Texas at Austin

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.0

There are two scientific papers associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citations and PDFs of the papers are below. The lab webpage can be found here.

If your students are looking for more data on coral bleaching, check out HHMI BioInteractive’s classroom activity in which students use authentic data to assess the threat of coral bleaching around the world. Also, check out the two videos below!

  • Another BioInteractive video, appropriate for upper level high school classrooms. Visualizes the process of coral bleaching at different scales. Video includes lots of complex vocabulary about cells and the process of photosynthesis.

 

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Fertilizing biofuels may cause release of greenhouse gasses

An aerial view of the experiment at MSU where biofuels are grown

An aerial view of the experiment at MSU where biofuels are grown. Photo credit: K. Stepnitz, MSU

The activities are as follows:

Greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, like carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), trap heat from the sun and warm the earth. We need some greenhouse gases to keep the planet warm enough for life. But today, the majority (97%) of scientists agree that the levels of greenhouse gases are getting dangerously high and are causing changes in our climate that may be hard for us to adjust to.

Scientist Leilei collecting samples of gasses released by the growing of biofuels

Scientist Leilei collecting samples of gasses released by the growing of biofuels. Photo credit: K. Stepnitz, MSU

When we burn fuels to heat and cool our homes or power our cars we release greenhouse gasses. Most of the energy used today comes from fossil fuels. These energy sources are called “fossil” fuels because they come from plants, algae, and animals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago! After they died, their tissues were buried and slowly turned into coal, oil, and natural gas. An important fact about fossil fuels is that when we use them, they release CO2 into our atmosphere that was stored millions of years ago. The release of this stored carbon is adding more and more greenhouse gases to our atmosphere, and much faster than today’s plants and algae can remove during photosynthesis. In order to reduce the effects of climate change, we need to change the way we use energy and think of new ways to power our world.

One potential solution could be to grow our fuel instead of drilling for it. Biofuels are a potential substitute for fossil fuels. Biofuels, like fossil fuels, are made from the tissues of plants. The big difference is that they are made from plants that are alive and growing today. Unlike fossil fuels that emit CO2, biofuel crops first remove CO2 from the atmosphere as the plants grow and photosynthesize. When biofuels are burned for fuel, the CO2 is emitted back into the atmosphere, balancing the total amount that was removed and released.

Scientists are interested in figuring out if biofuels make a good replacement for fossil fuels. It is still not clear if the plants that are used to produce biofuels are able to absorb enough CO2 to offset all of the greenhouse gases that are emitted when biofuels are produced. Additional greenhouse gases are emitted when producing biofuels because it takes energy to plant, water, and harvest the crops, as well as to convert them into fuel. In order to maximize plant growth, many biofuel crops are fertilized by adding nitrogen (N) fertilizer to the soil. However, if there is too much nitrogen in the soil for the crops to take up, it may instead be released into the atmosphere as the gas nitrous oxide (N2O). N2O is a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential nearly 300 times higher than CO2! Global warming potential is a relative measure of how much heat a greenhouse gas traps in the atmosphere.

Leilei is a scientist who researches whether biofuels make a good alternative to fossil fuels. He wondered what steps farmers could take to reduce the amount of N2O released when growing biofuel crops. Leilei designed an experiment to determine how much N2O is emitted when different amounts of nitrogen fertilizer are added to the soil. In other words, he wanted to know whether the amount of N2O that is emitted into the atmosphere is associated with how much fertilizer is added to the field. To test this idea, he looked at fields of switchgrass, a perennial grass native to North America. Switchgrass is one of the most promising biofuel crops. The fields of switchgrass were first planted in 2008 as a part of a very large long-term study at the Kellogg Biological Station in southwest Michigan. The researchers set up eight fertilization treatments (0, 28, 56, 84, 112, 140, 168, and 196 kg N ha−1) in four replicate fields of switchgrass, for a total of 32 research plots. Leilei measured how much N2O was released by the soil in the 32 research plots for many years. Here we have two years of Leilei’s data.

Featured scientist: Leilei Ruan from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.1

More information on LTER climate change research can be found hereInformation on the effects of climate change in Michigan can be found here.

Data associated with this Data Nugget can be found on the MSU LTER website data tables under GLBRC Biofuel Cropping System Experiment. Bioenergy research classroom materials can be found here. More images can be found on the LTER website.

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Fair traders or freeloaders?

Measuring chlorophyll content in the greenhouse

Measuring chlorophyll content in the greenhouse

The activities are as follows:

When two species do better when they cooperate than they would on their own, the relationship is called a mutualism. One example of a mutualism is the relationship between a type of bacteria, rhizobia, and legume plants. Legumes include plants like peas, beans, soybeans, and clover. Rhizobia live in bumps on the legume roots, where they trade their nitrogen for sugar from the plants. Rhizobia fix nitrogen from the air into a form that plants can use. This means that legumes that have rhizobia living in their roots can get more nitrogen than those that don’t.

Under some conditions, this mutualism can break down. For example, if one of the traded resources is very abundant in the environment. When the plant doesn’t need the nitrogen traded by rhizobia, it doesn’t trade as many sugars to the rhizobia. This could cause the rhizobia to evolve to be less cooperative as well. Less-cooperative rhizobia may be found where the soil already has lots of nitrogen. These less-cooperative bacteria are freeloaders: they fix less nitrogen, but still get sugars from the plant and other benefits of living in nodules on their roots.

Photo by Tomomi Suwa, 2013

Rhizobia nodules on plant roots. In exchange for carbon and protection in the nodules from plants, rhizobia provide fixed nitrogen for plants.

One very important legume crop species is the soybean. Soybeans are used to produce vegetable oil, tofu, soymilk, and many other food products. Soybeans trade with rhizobia for nitrogen, but often farmers add more nitrogen into the field as fertilizer. Since farms use a lot of nitrogen fertilizer, researchers at KBS were interested in how different types of farming affected the plant-rhizobia mutualism.

They grew soybean plants in a greenhouse and added rhizobia from three different farms: a high N farm, low N farm, and organic farm that used no N fertilizer. After four weeks, the researchers measured chlorophyll content of the soybean plants. Healthy plants that have lots of nitrogen will have high chlorophyll content, and plants with not enough nitrogen will have low chlorophyll content. Because high nitrogen could lead to the evolution of less-cooperative rhizobia, they expected that rhizobia from organic plots would be most cooperative. They predicted rhizobia from high N plots would be the least cooperative, and rhizobia from low N plots would fall somewhere in the middle. More-cooperative rhizobia provide more nitrogen, so the researchers expected plants grown with cooperative rhizobia to have higher chlorophyll content than plants receiving less-cooperative rhizobia.

Featured scientist: REU Jennifer Schmidt from the Kellogg Biological Station

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.1

For more information on the evolution of cheating rhizobia, check out these popular science articles:

If you are interested in performing your own classroom experiment using the plant-rhizobium mutualism, check out this paper published in the American Biology Teacher describing methods and a proposed experimental design: Suwa and Williamson 2014

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Do insects prefer local or foreign foods?

One of the invasive plants found in the experiment, Centaurea stoebe.

One of the invasive plants found in the experiment, Centaurea stoebe.

The activities are as follows:

Insects that feed on plants, called herbivores, can have big effects on how plants grow. Herbivory can change the size and shape of plants, the number of flowers and seeds, and even which plant species can survive in a habitat. A plant with leaves eaten by insect herbivores will likely do worse than a plant that is not eaten.

Plants that naturally grow in an area without human interference are called native plants. When a plant is moved by humans to a new area and lives and grows outside of its natural range, it is called an exotic plant. Sometimes exotic plants become invasive, meaning they grow large and fast, take over habitats, and push out native species. What determines if an exotic species will become invasive? Scientists are very interested in this question. Understanding what makes a species become invasive could help control invasions already underway and prevent new ones in the future.

Because herbivory affects how big and fast a plant can grow, local herbivores may determine if an exotic plant thrives in its new habitat and becomes invasive. Elizabeth, a plant biologist, is fascinated by invasive species and wanted to know why they are able to grow bigger and faster than native and other exotic species. One possibility, she thought, is that invasive species are not recognized by the local insect herbivores as good food sources and thus get less damage from the insects. Escaping herbivory could allow invasive species to grow more and may explain how they become invasive.

To test this hypothesis, Elizabeth planted 25 native, 25 exotic, and 11 invasive species in a field in Michigan. This field was already full of many plants and had many insect herbivores. The experimental plants grew from 2011 to 2013. Each year, Elizabeth measured herbivory on 10 individuals of each of the 61 species, for a total of 610 plants. To measure herbivory, she looked at the leaves on each plant and determined how much of each leaf was eaten by herbivores. She then compared the area that was eaten to the total area of the leaf and calculated the proportion leaf area eaten by herbivores. Elizabeth predicted that invasive species would have a lower proportion of leaf area eaten compared to native and noninvasive exotic plants.

ERHpics

Featured scientist: Elizabeth Schultheis from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.9

There is one scientific paper associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citation and PDF of the paper is below, as well as a link to access the full dataset from the study:

For two lesson plans covering the Enemy Release Hypothesis, click here and here. For another great paper discussing the Enemy Release Hypothesis, click here.

Aerial view of the experiments discussed in this activity:

ERH Field site 2

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