Changing climates in the Rocky Mountains

Lower elevation site in the Rocky Mountains: Temperate conifer forest. Photo Credit: Alice Stears.

The activities are as follows:

Each type of plant needs specific conditions to grow and thrive. If conditions change, such as temperature or the amount of precipitation, plant communities may change as well. For example, as the climate warms, plant species might start to shift to higher latitudes to follow the conditions where they grow best. But what if a species does well in cold climates found at the tops of mountains? Because they have nowhere to go, warming puts that plant species at risk.  

To figure out if species are moving, we need to know where they’ve lived in the past, and if climates are changing. One way that we can study both things is to use the Global Vegetation Project. The goal of this project is to curate a global database of plant photos that can be used by educators and students around the world. Any individual can upload photos and identify plant species. The project then connects each photo to information on the location’s biome, ecoregion, and climate, including data tracking precipitation and temperature over time. The platform can also be used to explore how the climates of different regions are changing and use that information to predict how plant communities may change. 

Daniel is a scientist who is interested in sharing the Global Vegetation Project data with students. Daniel became interested in plants and vegetation when he learned in college that you can simply walk through the woods and prairie, collect wild seeds, germinate the plants, and grow them to restore degraded landscapes. Plants set the backdrop for virtually every landscape that we see. He thinks plants deserve our undivided attention.

Daniel and his team wanted to create a resource where students can look deeper into plant communities and their climates. Much of the inspiration for the Global Vegetation Project came from the limitations to undergraduate field research during the COVID-19 pandemic. Students in ecology and botany classes, who would normally observe and study plants in the field, were prevented from having these opportunities. By building an online database with photos of plants, students can explore local plants without having to go into the field and can even see plants from faraway places. 

Daniel’s lab is based in the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, where the plants are a showcase in both biodiversity and beauty. These communities deal with harsh conditions: cold, windy and snowy winters, hot and dry summers, and unpredictable weather during spring and fall. The plants rely on winter snow slowly melting over spring and into summer, providing moisture that can help them survive the dry summers. 

The Rocky Mountains are currently facing many changes due to climate change, including drought, increased summer temperatures, wildfires, and more. This creates additional challenges for the plants of the Rockies. Drought reduces the amount of precipitation, decreasing the amount of water available to plants. In addition, warmer temperatures in winter and spring shift more precipitation to rain instead of snow and melts snow more quickly. Rain and melted snow rapidly move through the landscape, becoming less available to plants in need. On top of all this, hotter, drier summers further decrease the amount of water available, stressing plants in an already harsh environment. If these trends continue, there could be significant impact on the types of plants that are able to grow in the Rocky Mountains. These changes will have an impact on the landscape, organisms that rely on plants, and humans as well.

Daniel and his colleagues pulled climate data from a Historic period (1961-2009) and Current period (2010-2018). They selected two locations in Wyoming to focus on: a lower elevation montane forest and a higher elevation site. To study climate, they focused on temperature and precipitation because they are important for plants. They wanted to study how temperature and precipitation patterns changed overall and how they changed in different seasons. They predicated temperatures would be higher in the Current period compared to the Historic period in both locations. For precipitation, they predicted there would be drier summers and wetter springs.

Featured scientist: Daniel Laughlin from The University of Wyoming. Written by: Matt Bisk.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.5

Additional teacher resource related to this Data Nugget:

Nitrate: Good for plants, bad for drinking water

Evelyn is a scientist at the University of Minnesota. She studies nitrate pollution and how growing perennial crops may prevent it from entering our drinking water.

The activities are as follows:

Nitrogen is the most abundant element in our atmosphere. All living things need nitrogen to live and grow, but plants and animals can’t use the atmospheric form. Instead, many plants extract nitrogen from the soil and in the case of crops, we supply nitrogen through fertilizer, in a form called nitrate.

Nitrate dissolves well in water. This helps make it easy for plants to use, but it can also end up in rivers and groundwater. Groundwater with just 10 milligrams of nitrate per liter is not safe to drink because it can lead to a higher risk of cancer and birth defects. It is really expensive to remove nitrate from drinking water. Towns whose groundwater is contaminated must either pay to remove it or find a new drinking water source. Virtually all nitrate pollution comes from fertilizers used on crops, so one way to address this problem is to change the way we farm.

Annual plants live for just one season and typically have smaller shallower root systems than perennial plants, which live for multiple seasons. Most farmland grows annuals like corn and soybeans, but we get some of our food from perennials like apples, hazelnuts, and raspberries. Perennials stay in the ground all year and start growing right away in the spring before annual crops are even planted. Perennial grasses are particularly good at growing deep roots and taking up lots of nitrate from the soil. If we could produce more food from perennial plants instead of annual plants, crops may absorb enough nitrate to prevent it from getting into our drinking water.

For twenty years, researchers at The Land Institute in Kansas and at the University of Minnesota have been working on a new perennial grain crop called Kernza®, the seeds from a plant called intermediate wheatgrass. Kernza® can be used like wheat or rye, but it has a larger, deeper root system than regular annual wheat. Perennial plants’ deep roots are really good at absorbing dissolved nitrate in soil, so scientists wanted to study Kernza® in the field to see if it would prevent nitrate getting into groundwater.

Evelyn is one of these researchers. She grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota and as a high school student, she was surprised to learn that agriculture has a huge impact on soil and water quality, wildlife habitat, and biodiversity. She wanted to help protect the environment, so she studied Food Systems at the University of Minnesota. A few years later, she joined a project that involved planting Kernza® in rural areas to prevent and reduce nitrate contamination of drinking water. Farmers, city officials, water managers, and scientists worked together to find solutions. This project inspired Evelyn to study Kernza® and nitrate for her master’s degree.

In her experiment, Evelyn planted plots of Kernza® (foreground) and plots with a corn-soybean rotation (background). This photo was taken in a corn year. Lysimeters are used to collect groundwater samples. The white posts are holding up the lysimeter sampling tubes.

To see if Kernza® helped absorb more nitrate from soil than annual crops, Evelyn and her colleagues ran an experiment. They planted plots of Kernza® and other plots that rotated between corn and soybean every year. Plots with Kernza® and corn were fertilized with nitrogen. Soybean plots were not fertilized.

In the plots, they installed lysimeters: long tubes that go down several feet to collect soil water from below where most plant roots can reach it. Soil water is the water that sits between soil particles. It can be taken up by plant roots or trickle down into the groundwater that is used for drinking wells. Once it moves deeper than a plant’s roots, it can’t be taken up and is very likely to reach the groundwater. Evelyn took water samples from the lysimeters every ten days and analyzed them for nitrate concentration.  If more nitrate is found in soil water under corn and soybean plots than Kernza®, this would be good evidence that Kernza® takes up more nitrate and helps protect groundwater.

Featured scientist: Evelyn Reilly (she/her) from University of Minnesota

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.9

Going underground to investigate carbon locked in soils 

Mineral-associated organic matter (MAOM) at the bottom of a test tube in a salt solution.

The activities are as follows:

Soil is an important part of the carbon cycle because it traps carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere and locked underground. At a global level, the amount of carbon stored by soil is more than is found in all of the plants and the atmosphere combined. Carbon trapped underground does not contribute to the rising carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere that leads to climate change. For decades, scientists have been researching how much carbon our soils can store to understand its role in slowing the pace of climate change.

Carbon enters the soil when plants and animals die, and their organic matter is decomposed by soil bacteria and fungi. Sometimes it is broken down into very small molecules. These molecules become attached to minerals in the soil, like clay particles. We call this mineral-associated organic matter (MAOM). The carbon is connected to minerals with very strong chemical bonds. Because these bonds are hard to break, the carbon stays in the soil for long periods of time and accumulates on clay minerals. 

Some studies have shown that the carbon in MAOM can be trapped in soils for thousands of years! When more of the carbon in the soil is attached to minerals and locked in the soil for longer time periods, the ecosystem is serving an important role in keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. 

Ashley in the lab, using a saltwater solution to isolate mineral-associated organic matter (MAOM) from soil samples.

Ashley is working to understand how much stable carbon there is in soils, and the role of climate. Microbes work faster in warmer and wetter conditions, which results in quicker decomposition. Ashley thought this rapid decomposition would cause organic matter to be broken down into smaller particles sooner. Therefore, she thought that in warmer or wetter environments, more soil carbon would attach to minerals and become stable MAOM. In colder or drier environments, she expected this process to happen more slowly, leading to a smaller amount of MAOM in the soil.

To test these ideas, Ashley used soil samples from forests with different climates throughout the Eastern United States. Soil samples were collected from New Hampshire to Alabama by teams of researchers using the same sampling protocol. The samples were mailed to Ashley’s lab at Indiana University for analysis. Ashley measured the amount of MAOM in each soil sample by taking advantage of a key feature: MOAM is heavy! Ashley submerged each soil sample in a saltwater solution, and the parts that floated were discarded, while the parts that sunk to the bottom were classified as MAOM. She then rinsed the salt off and measured the amount of carbon in the MAOM with an instrument called an elemental analyzer. She compared this number to the amount of carbon in the whole soil sample to calculate what percentage of the total soil carbon was attached to minerals.

Featured scientist: Ashley Lang from Indiana University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.8

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget:

Salty sediments? What bacteria have to say about chloride pollution

Lexi taking water quality measurements at Cedar Creek in Cedarburg, WI.

The activities are as follows:

In snowy climates, salt is applied to roads to help keep them safe during the winter. Over time, salt – in the form of chloride – accumulates in snowbanks. Once temperatures begin to warm in the spring, the snow melts and carries chloride to freshwater lakes, streams, and rivers. This runoff can quickly increase the salt concentration in a body of water. 

In large amounts, salt in the water is harmful to aquatic organisms like fish, frogs, and invertebrates. However, there are some species that thrive with lots of salt. Salt-loving bacteria, also known as halophiles, grow in extreme salty environments, like the ocean. Unlike other bacteria and organisms that cannot tolerate high salinity, halophiles use the salt in the environment for their day-to-day cellular activities. 

Lexi is a freshwater scientist who is interested in learning more about how ecosystems respond to this seasonal surge of chloride in road salts. She thought that there may be enough chloride from the road salt after snowmelt to change the bacteria community living in the sediment. More salt would support halophiles and likely harm the species that cannot tolerate a lot of salt. 

By taking a water sample and measuring the chloride concentration, we can see a snapshot in time of how toxic the levels are to organisms. However, the types of bacteria in sediments take a while to change. Halophiles may be able to tell us a long-term story of how aquatic organisms respond to chloride pollution. Lexi’s main goal is to use the presence of halophiles as a measure of how much chloride has impacted the health and water quality of river or stream ecosystems. This biological tool could also help cities identify areas that may be getting salted beyond what is necessary to keep roads safe.

Lexi expected that there would be few, or maybe no, halophiles in rural areas where there are not many roads. She also thought halophiles would be widespread in urban environments where there are many roads. Because salt impacts the streams year after year, she expected that halophiles would become permanent members of the microbial community and increase in winter and spring. Therefore, she also wanted to track whether halophiles remain in the sediment throughout the year, increasing in numbers when salt levels become high. 

She began to sample sediments from two different rivers in Southeastern Wisconsin. The urban Kinnickinnic River site is in Milwaukee, WI, and the Menomonee River site is in a rural environment outside of the city. She selected these sites because they offer a good comparison. Because there are more roads, and thus saltier snowmelt, the Kinnickinnic site in the city should have higher chloride concentrations than the Menomonee site. 

When visiting her sites throughout the year, Lexi collected multiple water and sediment samples. Every time she visited, she also recorded important water quality characteristics such as pH, conductivity, and temperature of the water. She then brought the samples to the laboratory and analyzed each for its chloride concentration. To measure the quantity of halophiles in the sediment, Lexi used a process where the sediment is shaken in water to separate the bacteria from the sediment and suspend them in the water. Samples from the water were then plated on a growth medium that contained a very high salt concentration. Because the growth medium was so salty, Lexi knew that if bacteria colonies grew on the plate, they would most likely be halophiles because most bacteria do not thrive in salty environments. Lexi counted the number of bacteria colonies that grew on the plates for each sample she had collected.

Featured scientist: Lexi Passante from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 12.0

Some videos about Lexi and her research:

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget:

Trees and bushes, home sweet home for warblers

Matt, Sarah, and Hankyu – a team of scientists at Andrews Forest, measuring bird populations.

The activities are as follows:

The birds at a beach are very different from those in the forest. This is because each bird species has their own set of needs that allows them to thrive where they live. Habitats must have the right collection of food to eat, places to shelter and raise young, safety from predators, and the right environmental conditions like temperature and moisture. 

The vast coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest provide rich and diverse habitat types for birds. These forests are also a large source of timber, meaning they are economically valuable for people. Disturbances from logging and natural events result in a forest that has many different habitat types for birds to choose from. In general, areas of forest that have been harvested more recently will have more understory, such as shrubs and short trees. Old-growth forests usually have higher plant diversity and larger trees. They are also more likely to have downed trees or standing dead trees, which are important for some bird species. Other disturbances like wildfire, wind, large snow events, and forest disease also have large impacts on bird habitat.

At the Andrews Forest Long-Term Ecological Research site in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, scientists have spent decades studying how the plants, animals, land use, and climate are all connected. In the past, Andrews Forest had experiments manipulating timber harvesting and forest re-growth. This land use history has large impacts on the habitats found in an area. Many teams of scientists work in this forest, each with their own area of research. Piece by piece, like assembling a puzzle, they combine their data to try to understand the whole ecosystem. 

Collecting data on a warbler.

Matt, Sarah, and Hankyu have been collecting long-term data on the number, type, and location of birds in Andrews Forest since 2009. Early each morning, starting in May and continuing until late June, teams of trained scientists hike along transects that go through different forest types. Transects are parallel lines along which data are collected. At specific points along the transect, the team would stop and listen for bird songs and calls for 10 minutes. There are 184 survey locations, and they are visited multiple times each year.

At each sampling point, Matt, Sarah, and Hankyu carefully recorded a count for each bird species that they hear within 100 meters. They then averaged these data for each location along the transect to get an average number for the year. The scientists were also interested in the habitats along the transect, which includes the amount of understory plants and tall trees, two forest characteristics that are very important to birds. They measured the percent cover of understory vegetation, which shows how many bushes and small plants were around. They also measured the size of trees in the area, called basal area. 

Using these data, the research team is looking for patterns that will help them identify which habitat conditions are best for different bird species. With a better understanding of where bird species are successful, they can predict how changes in the forest could affect the number and types of birds living in Andrews Forest and nearby.  

Wilson’s Warblers and Hermit Warblers are two of the many songbirds that these scientists have recorded at Andrews Forests. Wilson’s Warblers are small songbirds that make their nests in the understory of the forests. Therefore, the team predicted that they would see more of Wilson’s Warblers in forest areas with more understory than in forest areas with less understory. Hermit Warblers, on the other hand, build nests in dense foliage of tall coniferous trees and search for spiders and insects in those coniferous trees. The team predicted that the Hermit Warblers would be observed more often in forest plots where there are larger trees.  

Featured scientists: Hankyu Kim, Matt Betts, and Sarah Frey from Oregon State University. Written with Eric Beck from Realms Middle School and Kari O’Connell from Oregon State University.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.5

Additional teacher resource related to this Data Nugget:

Love that dirty water

Drew and students measuring river flow rate.

The activities are as follows:

Forests, wetlands, and other green spaces are natural filters for water; water is cleaned as it is used by plants and travels through soils. As green spaces are lost to make room for homes and businesses, ecosystems are less able to provide this service. Without natural filtration from green spaces, humans must build expensive water treatment systems or risk drinking contaminated water.

Impervious surfaces, like roads, buildings, and parking lots, do not allow water to pass through. When it rains or snows on an impervious surface, water cannot soak into soil or be used by plants. Instead, it quickly flows into nearby streams and rivers. If too much water runs off too quickly, it overwhelms local sewer systems, getting into rivers before it can be filtered. This dirty water may carry human waste and toxic materials. 

Impervious surfaces have become a major problem for both the health of river ecosystems, and the health of people who depend on them as a clean source of drinking water. How land is used in a watershed, or the network of land and rivers that flow to a single point as they empty out into the ocean, is an issue of great concern.

Jonathan is a scientist studying land use. He became interested in science after traveling around the country and working as a wilderness ranger and wildland firefighter. At the Harvard Forest, members of his lab study how land use decisions affect the environment. They used computer simulations to create maps of what New England’s landscape could look like under different possible futures. Their web-tool is called the New England Landscapes Futures Explorer. Johnathan’s lab works with Drew, a civil and environmental engineer who loves biking and hiking. Drew and his lab at Smith College are interested in the relationship between land use and water. Together, Jonathan and Drew’s labs teamed up to study how future increases in impervious surfaces from new development could affect water quality in New England. 

A team of scientists decided to use the web-tool to study the Merrimack River. The Merrimack is an important river for New England, and serves as a water source for more than 500,000 people in the region. It begins in New Hampshire, and flows through 117 miles of forests, farmland, and cities before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean.

To study the Merrimack, the scientists used their web-tool and data from two nearby similar watersheds to make predictions for the Merrimack. Combining research like this gives scientists, government organizations, and the public valuable information that can be used to help make decisions about how land should be used in the future.

Jonathan’s lab used their future land use predictions to estimate the percentage of impervious surface area in the Merrimack River watershed for three future scenarios in the year 2060. 

  1. Recent Trends: This scenario takes the historical rates and patterns of land use change from 1990-2010 and projects them through 2060.  This scenario imagines a future where we maintain current land use practices.
  2. Low Development: This scenario explores a future where the people of New England shift toward a lifestyle focused on “living local” and valuing reliance on local resources. This increases the urgency to protect local landscapes, including conservation of green spaces.  Rates of development are slightly lower than the Recent Trends scenario.
  3. High Development: This scenario explores a future with a rapid increase in human population in New England, because climate change has made life in many other places more difficult.  Rates of development are much higher than the Recent Trends scenario.

Drew’s team collected data from two watersheds adjacent to the Merrimack river (see map) and calculated the annual maximum daily flow, or the highest level that the river in each watershed would be expected to reach each day. Higher flows likely mean more human waste and toxic materials are getting into the river. These watersheds are similar to the Merrimack in some ways, but different in others. It is up to you to justify which watershed you think is most similar, and use the annual maximum daily flow data from that watershed to make your prediction for the Merrimack.

Featured scientists: Jonathan Thompson from Harvard University and Drew Guswa from Smith College. Written by Tara Goodhue and Joshua Plisinski. Supporting content by Amanda Suzzi.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 11.3

Additional teacher resource related to this Data Nugget:

To reflect, or not to reflect, that is the question

Jen stops to take a photo while conducting fieldwork in the Arctic.

The activities are as follows:

Since 1978, satellites have measured changes in Arctic sea ice extent, or the area by the North Pole covered by ice. Observations show that Arctic sea ice extent change throughout the year. Arctic sea ice reaches its smallest size at the end of summer in September. Scientists who look at these data over time have noticed the sea ice extent in September has been getting smaller and smaller since 1978. This shocking trend means that the Arctic sea ice is declining, and fast! 

Why does this matter? Well, it turns out that Arctic sea ice plays a major role in the world’s climate system. When energy from the Sun reaches Earth, part of the energy is absorbed by the surface, while the rest is reflected back into space. The energy that is absorbed becomes heat, and warms the planet. The amount of energy reflected back is called albedo.

The higher the albedo, the more energy is reflected off a surface. Complete reflection is assigned a value of 1 (100%) and complete absorption is 0 (0%). Lighter colored surfaces (e.g., white) have a higher albedo than darker colored surfaces (e.g., black). Sea ice is white and reflects about 60% of solar energy striking its surface, so its albedo measurement is 0.60. This means that 40% of the Sun’s energy that reaches the sea ice is absorbed. In contrast, the ocean is much darker and reflects only about 6% of the Sun’s energy striking its surface, so its albedo measurement 0.06. This means that 94% of the Sun’s energy that reaches the ocean is absorbed.

Jen (second from left) preparing to teach her students at the University of Colorado Boulder while working in the Arctic. Photo by Polar Bears International.

Jen first became interested in sea ice in the summer of 2007, when a record low level of sea ice caught scientists off guard. They worried that if the albedo of the Arctic declines, energy that used to be reflected by the white ice will be absorbed by the dark oceans and lead to increased warming. At the time, Jen was working with new satellite observations and found it fascinating to understand what led to the record low sea ice year. To continue her passion, Jen joined a team of scientists studying the Arctic’s energy budget. 

Jen and her team predicted that the decline in the light-colored sea ice will cause Arctic albedo to decrease as well. Jen used incoming and reflected solar energy data to determine the changes in the Arctic’s albedo. These data were collected from satellites as part of the Clouds and Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) project. Then, Jen compared the albedo data to changes in the extent of sea ice from satellite images to look for a pattern. 

Featured scientist: Jen Kay from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. Written by Jon Griffith with support from AGS 1554659 and OPP 1839104.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.6

Mangroves on the move

mangrove in marsh
A black mangrove growing in the saltmarshes of northern Florida.

The activities are as follows:

All plants need nutrients to grow. Sometimes one nutrient is less abundant than others in a particular environment. This is called a limiting nutrient. If the limiting nutrient is given to the plant, the plant will grow in response. For example, if there is plenty of phosphorus, but very little nitrogen, then adding more phosphorus won’t help plants grow, but adding more nitrogen will. 

Saltmarshes are a common habitat along marine coastlines in North America. Saltmarsh plants get nutrients from both the soil and the seawater that comes in with the tides. In these areas, fertilizers from farms and lawns often end up in the water, adding lots of nutrients that become available to coastal plants. These fertilizers may contain the limiting nutrients that plants need, helping them grow faster and more densely.

One day while Candy, a scientist, was out in a saltmarsh in northern Florida, she noticed something that shouldn’t be there. There was a plant out of place. Normally, saltmarshes in that area are full of grasses and other small plants—there are no trees or woody shrubs. But the plant that Candy noticed was a mangrove. Mangroves are woody plants that can live in saltwater, but are usually only found in tropical places that are very warm. Candy thought the closest mangrove was miles away in the warmer southern parts of Florida. What was this little shrub doing so far from home? The more that Candy and her colleague Emily looked, the more mangroves they found in places they had not been before.

Candy and Emily wondered why mangroves were starting to pop up in northern Florida. Previous research has shown nitrogen and phosphorus are often the limiting nutrients in saltmarshes. They thought that fertilizers being washed into the ocean have made nitrogen or phosphorus available for mangroves, allowing them to grow in that area for the first time. So, Candy and Emily designed an experiment to figure out which nutrient was limiting for saltmarsh plants. 

mangrove saltmarsh researchers
Candy (right) and Emily (left) measure the height of a black mangrove growing in the saltmarsh.

For their study, Candy and Emily chose to focus on black mangroves and saltwort plants. These two species are often found growing together, and mangroves have to compete with saltwort. Candy and Emily found a saltmarsh near St. Augustine, Florida, in which they could set up an experiment. They set up 12 plots that contained both black mangrove and saltwort. Each plot had one mangrove plant and multiple smaller saltwort plants. That way, when they added nutrients to the plots they could compare the responses of mangroves with the responses of saltwort. 

To each of the 12 plots they applied one of three conditions: control (no extra nutrients), nitrogen added, and phosphorus added. They dug two holes in each plot and added the nutrients using fertilizers, which slowly released into the nearby soil. In the case of control plots, they dug the holes but put the soil back without adding fertilizer.

Candy and Emily repeated this process every winter for four years. At the end of four years, they measured plant height and percent cover for the two species. Percent (%) cover is a way of measuring how densely a plant grows, and is the percentage of a given area that a plant takes up when viewed from above. Candy and Emily measured percent cover in 1×1 meter plots. The cover for each species could vary from 0 to 100%.

Featured scientists: Candy Feller from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and Emily Dangremond from Roosevelt University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.3

The carbon stored in mangrove soils

Tall mangroves growing close to the coast.

The activities are as follows:

In the tropics and subtropics, mangroves dominate the coast. There are many different species of mangroves, but they are all share a unique characteristic compared to other trees – they can tolerate having their roots submerged in salt water.

Mangroves are globally important for many reasons. They form dense forested wetlands that protect the coast from erosion and provide critical habitat for many animals. Mangrove forests also help in the fight against climate change. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that is a main driver of climate change. During photosynthesis, carbon dioxide is absorbed from the atmosphere by the plants in a mangrove forest. When plants die in mangrove forests, decomposition is very slow. The soils are saturated with saltwater and have very little oxygen, which decomposers need to break down plants. Because of this, carbon is stored in the soils for a long time, keeping it out of the atmosphere.

Sean is a scientist studying coastal mangroves in the Florida Everglades. Doing research in the Everglades was a dream opportunity for Sean. He had long been fascinated by the unique plant and animal life in the largest subtropical wetland ecosystem in North America. Mangroves are especially exciting to Sean because they combine marine biology and trees, two of his favorite things! Sean had previously studied freshwater forested wetlands in Virginia, but had always wanted to spend time studying the salty mangrove forests that exist in the Everglades. 

Sean Charles taking soil samples amongst inland short mangroves.

Sean arrived in the Everglades with the goal to learn more about the factors important for mangrove forests’ ability to hold carbon in their soils. Upon his arrival, he noticed a very interesting pattern – the trees were much taller along the coast compared to inland. This is because mangroves that grow close to the coast have access to important nutrients found in ocean waters, like phosphorus. These nutrients allow the trees to grow large and fast. However, living closer to the coast also puts trees at a higher risk of damage from storms, and can lead to soils and dead plants being swept out to sea. 

Sean thought that the combination of these two conditions would influence how much carbon is stored in mangrove soils along the coast and inland. Larger trees are generally more productive than smaller ones, meaning they might contribute more plant material to soils. This led Sean to two possible predictions. The first was that there might be more carbon in soils along the coast because taller mangroves would add more carbon to the soil compared to shorter inland mangroves. However, Sean thought he might also find the opposite pattern because the mangroves along the coast have more disturbance from storms that could release carbon from the soils. 

To test these competing hypothesis, the team of scientists set out into the Everglades in the Biscayne National Park in Homestead, Florida. Their mission was to collect surface soils and measure mangrove tree height. To collect soils, they used soil cores, which are modified cylinders that can be hammered into the soil and then removed with the soil stuck in the tube. Tree height was measured using a clinometer, which is a tool that uses geometry to estimate tree height. They took these measurements along three transects. The first transect was along the coast where trees had an average height of 20 meters. The second transect between the coast and inland wetlands where trees were 10 meters tall, on average. The final transect was inland, with average tree height of only 1 meter tall.  With this experimental design Sean could compare transects at three distances from the coast to look for trends. 

Once Sean was back in the lab, he quantified how much carbon was in the soil samples from each transect by heating the soil in a furnace at 500 degrees Celsius. Heating soils to this temperature causes all organic matter, which has carbon, to combust. Sean measured the weight of the samples before and after the combustion. The difference in weight can be used to calculate how much organic material combusted during the process, which can be used as an estimate of the carbon that was stored in the soil. 

Featured scientist: Sean Charles from Florida International University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.6

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget:

Can biochar improve crop yields?

Buckets of pine wood biochar.

The activities are as follows:

If you walk through the lush Amazon rainforest, the huge trees may be the first thing you see. But, did you know there are wonderful things to explore on the forest floor? In special places of the Amazon, there exist incredible dark soils called “Terra Preta”. These soils are rich in nutrients that help plants grow. The main source of nutrients and dark color is from charcoal added by humans. Hundreds of years ago the indigenous people added their cooking waste, including ash from fire pits, into the ground to help their food crops grow. Today, scientists and farmers are trying out this same ancient method. When this charcoal is added to soil to help plants grow, we call it biochar.

Biochar is a pretty unique material. It is created by a special process that is similar to burning materials in a fire place, but without oxygen. Biochar can be made from many different materials. Most biochar has lots of tiny spaces, or pores, that cause it to act like a hard sponge when it is in the soil. Due to these pores, the biochar can hold more water than the soil can by itself. Along with that extra water, it also can hold nutrients. Biochar has been shown to increase crop yield in tropical places like the Amazon.

Farmers in western Colorado wanted to know what would happen if they added biochar to fields near them. Their farms experience a very different climate that is cooler and drier than the Amazon. In these drier environments, farmers are concerned about the amount of water in the soil, especially during droughts. Farmers had so many questions about how biochar works in soils that scientists at Colorado State University decided to help. One scientist, Erika, was curious if biochar could really help farms in dry Colorado. Erika thought that biochar could increase crop yield by providing pores that would hold more water in the soil that crop plants can use to grow.

Matt, a soil scientist, applying biochar to the field in a treatment plot.

To test the effects of biochar in dry agricultural environments, Erika set up an experiment at the Colorado State University Agricultural Research and Development Center. She set up plots with three different soil conditions: biochar added, manure added, and a control. She chose to include a manure treatment because it is what farmers in Colorado were currently adding to their soil when they farmed. For each treatment she had 4 replicate plots, for a total of 12 plots. She added biochar or manure to a field at the same rate (30 Megagrams/ ha or 13 tons/acre). She didn’t add anything to control plots. Erika then planted corn seeds into all 12 plots.

Erika also wanted to know if the effects of biochar would be different when water was limited compared to when it was plentiful. She set up another experimental treatment with two different irrigation levels: fullirrigationandlimitedirrigation. The full irrigation plots were watered whenever the plants needed it. The limited irrigation plots were not watered for the whole month of July, giving crops a drought period during the growing season. Erika predicted that the plots with biochar would have more water in the soil. She also thought that corn yields would be higher with biochar than in the manure and control plots. She predicted these patterns would be true under both the full and limited irrigation treatments. However, she thought that the biochar would be most beneficial when crops were given less water in the limited irrigation treatments.

To measure the water in the soil, Erika took soil samples three times: a few weeks after planting (June), the middle of the growing season (July), and just before corn harvest (September). She weighedout 10 gofmoistsoil, thendried the samples for24 hoursin an oven and weighed them again. By putting the soil in the oven, the water evaporates out and leaves just the dry soil. Sarah divided the weight of the water lost by the weight of the dry soil to calculate the percent soil moisture. At the end of the season she measured crop yield as the dry weight of the corn cobs in bushes per acre (bu/acre).

Featured scientist: Erika Foster from Colorado State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.9

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