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Posts tagged ‘Ecosystem Productivity’

Mesh Wireless Sensor Networks: Will Their Potential Ever Be Realized?

Although the idea of mesh wireless sensor networks is not new, the realization of their many benefits have gone largely unrealized. The low success rate of most wireless systems makes the accomplishments of this Johns Hopkins group unique.

wireless sensor networks

Soil moisture and temperature are major drivers of seasonal dynamics, soil respiration, carbon cycling, biogeochemical functions, and even the types of species living in a certain area.

The ability to measure soil moisture and temperature is vital to ecologists who work in heterogeneous environments because these parameters are major drivers of seasonal dynamics, soil respiration, carbon cycling, biogeochemical functions, and even the types of species living in a certain area.  But ecologists’ scientific understanding of environmental conditions is hindered when soil moisture measurements disturb the research site, or when field measurements are not collected at biologically significant spatial or temporal granularities. Soil ecologist Dr. Kathy Szlavecz and her husband and computer scientist, Dr. Alex Szalay, both at Johns Hopkins University, are working to solve this dilemma by testing a wireless sensor network (WSN; Mesh Sensor Network), developed by Dr. Szalay, his colleague, computer scientist Dr. Andreas Terzis, and their graduate students. These generate thousands of measurements monthly from wireless sensors. The husband/wife team says that WSN’s have the potential to revolutionize soil ecology by generating a previously impossible spatial resolution.

wireless sensor networks

Architecture of an end-to-end mesh network data collection system. (Image: lifeunderyourfeet.org)

What is a Mesh Network?

In a mesh wireless sensor network, specially designed radio units (nodes) use proprietary or open communications protocols to self-organize and can pass measurement information back to central units called gateways. Different from star networks where each node communicates directly to the gateway, mesh networks pass data to each other, acting as repeater for other nodes when necessary.

wireless sensor networks

These are the 37 sampling locations at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater, MD. Data from this deployment is aimed at understanding the effect of forest age, leaf litter input, and earthworm abundance on soil carbon cycling. (Image: lifeunderyourfeet.org)

With low power and reliability as their goal, they are deployed in dense networks to automatically measure conditions such as temperature and soil moisture. These node measurements are taken every few hours over several months. The data are then uploaded onto computers, where it can be maintained and searched. Kathy explains “Without an autonomous sensor system, experiments in need of accurate information about a multitude of environmental parameters on various spatial and temporal scales require a superhuman effort. The inexpensive nature of these sensors enable scientists to place a high-resolution grid of sensors in the field, and get frequent readouts.  This provides an extremely rich data set about the correlations and subtle differences among many parameters, allowing ecologists to design experiments that study not only the gross effects of environmental variables, but also the subtle relations between gradients and small temporal changes.”

wireless sensor networks

Without an autonomous sensor system, experiments in need of accurate information about a multitude of environmental parameters on various spatial and temporal scales require a superhuman effort.

Landscape Studies Benefit from Mesh Networks

Kathy and Alex have deployed mesh wireless sensor networks at several study areas around the state of Maryland.  Kathy says, “Once we record the measurements, we can combine that information with observations of soil organisms to better understand how soil organisms and the soil environment interact. This means we can make better predictions about how human activities will affect the soil environment.” In one urban landscape study, Kathy and her team deployed over 100 nodes around a CO2 flux tower looking at the two major landscape covers in an urban environment: grass and forest.  She explains, “We collected data from nodes connected to soil moisture and temperature sensors for over two years at these sites, and the system worked quite well. We collected about 180 million data points, and that’s no small feat.”

Next week: Learn the results of this research group’s mesh network testing and what Kathy thinks the future holds for this technology.

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Unraveling the Effects of Dams in Costa Rica

Thirty years ago, in Costa Rica’s Palo Verde National Park, the wetlands flooded regularly and eco-tourists could view thousands of waterfowl. Today, invasive cattail plants cover portions of the wetland which has subsequently dried up and become colonized by hardwoods. Consequently, the number of birds has fallen dramatically.

dams

The number of birds on Palo Verde National Park has fallen dramatically. (Image: anywherecostarica.com)

Some people blame the dams built in the 1970s which introduced hydrological power and created a large irrigation district in the remote region. Dr. Rafael Muñoz-Carpena, Professor and University of Florida Water Institute Faculty Fellow and his research team are performing environmental studies on the wetlands, trying to unravel the effects of the dams and how to revert some of the damage. Rafael explains, “We have a situation where modern engineering brought about social improvements, helpful renewable resources, and irrigation for abundant food production. But the resulting environmental degradation threatens a natural region in a country that depends on eco-tourism.”

dams

“A vast network of mangrove-rich swamp, lagoons, marshes, grassland, limestone outcrops, and forests comprise the 32,266 acre Palo Verde National Park.” (Image and text: anywherecostarica.com)

Are The Dams Responsible?

Dr. Muñoz-Carpena says because of lack of historical data it’s difficult to untangle and separate all the factors that have caused the environmental degradation. He adds, “Thirty years ago Palo Verde National Park was part of a large wetland system which was important to all of Central America because it contained many endangered species and was a wintering ground for migratory birds from North America. The Palo Verde field station on the edge of the wetland, operated by the Organization of Tropical Studies (OTS), attracted birdwatchers and wetland scientists from all over the world.”

In the 1970’s, with international funding, a dam was built in the mountains to collect water from the humid side of Costa Rica in order to generate hydroelectric power. It was clean, abundant, and strategically important.  With the water transferred to the dry side of the country, a large irrigation district was created to not only produce important crops to the region like rice and beans, but to distribute the land among small parcel settlers.

dams

“Birding is the principal draw of visitors to the park.” (Image and text: anywherecostarica.com)

Over the years, however, the wetland area slowly degraded to the point where its Ramsar Convention wetland classification is under question. Rafael says that understanding the causes of the degradation, the impacts of the human system, and how the natural and human systems are linked, is the big question of his research, and there are many factors to consider. “The release of the water, ground and surface water (over)use, agriculture, human development, and a larger population are all factors that could contribute to this degradation. Everything compounds in the downstream coastal wetlands. In collaboration with OTS and other partner organizations and universities, we are trying to disentangle these different drivers.”

dams

Understanding the causes of the degradation, the impacts of the human system, and how the natural and human systems are linked, is the big question of this research. (Image: anywherecostarica.com)

A Lack of Historical Data

One of the challenges the researchers face is to gather a sufficient amount of temporal and spatial information about what happened in the past forty years.  There are no public repositories of data to tap, and the information is spotty and hard to access. Rafael says, “Thanks to the collaboration of many local partners, we have been able to gather enough information to stitch together a large database out of a collection of non-systematic studies. The biggest challenge is to harmonize data that has been collected by different people in non-consistent ways.” This large database now contains the best long-term record possible for key hydrologic variables: river flow, groundwater stage, precipitation, and evapotranspiration.

The team is also using remote sensing sources to try to obtain time-series data for land-use and vegetation change, and will have those data ground-truthed through instruments that are collecting similar time-series data. Rafael says, “The idea is to build a network that will allow us to overlap some of the previous data sources with our own, validate and upscale the ground data with remote sensing sources, enabling us to put together a detailed picture of what happened.”

Next Week:  Find out how the researchers established connectivity in such a remote area,  some of the problems associated with the research, and how the team has addressed those issues.

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Measuring Light and Photosynthesis (PAR): Complicated, but Worth It

Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell discusses how to measure light and photosynthesis (PAR) in canopies and why it’s helpful to researchers.

Photosynthesis

The source of all energy on earth is the sun.

The ultimate source of all energy on earth is the sun. Availability of this energy to most organisms occurs through photosynthesis, the conversion of CO2 and H2O to carbohydrates (stored energy) and O2. Photosynthesis occurs when pigments in photosynthesizers absorb the energy of photons, initiating a chain of photochemical and chemical events. Where does this energy and material exchange occur? In plant canopies. The amount of photosynthesis that occurs in canopies depends on the amount of photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) intercepted by leaves in canopies.

Photosynthesis

In canopies, leaves function collectively.

It’s More Complicated Than You Might Think

The rate at which photosynthesis occurs in one leaf might be calculated, but in canopies, leaves function collectively. Extrapolating photosynthesis from individual leaves to entire canopies is complex; the sheer numbers of leaves and their arrangement in the canopy structure can be overwhelming. Leaf area, inclination, and orientation all affect the degree to which light is captured and used in a canopy.

Photosynthesis

Average light level decreases exponentially downward through the canopy.

What Happens to Light in a Canopy?

Light varies dramatically both spatially and temporally through canopies. The average light level decreases more or less exponentially downward through the canopy, as the amount of leaf surface encountered increases. For some canopies, the greatest amount of leaf area occurs near the center. Therefore, canopy structure analysis becomes increasingly complex as one proceeds from a single plant to stands of the same plant, or to plant communities because of the variety of plants and growth forms.

Photosynthesis

Photosynthesis depends on leaf orientation.

Absorption of radiation and resulting photosynthesis depend on leaf orientation, sun elevation in the sky, spectral distribution and multiple reflections of light, and the arrangement of leaves. Patterns of light and shaded areas can be complicated and change with the sun’s position. In addition, seasonality of foliage can result in fairly small canopy interception of PAR for much of the year. PAR might also be intercepted by non-photosynthetic parts of plants (bark, flowers, etc).

In two weeks:  Dr. Campbell discusses the impact of leaf arrangement, measuring light in a canopy, and why we measure PAR.

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Do Soil Microbes Influence Plant Response to Heat Waves? (Part II)

Rachel Rubin, PhD candidate at Northern Arizona University and her team at Northern Arizona University are investigating the role soil microbes play in plant response to heat waves, including associated impacts to microbial-available and plant-available water (see part 1). Because heat waves threaten plant productivity, they present a growing challenge for agriculture, rangeland management, and restoration. Below are the results of Rachel’s experiments, some of the challenges the team faced, and the future of this research.

microbes

Heat waves present a growing challenge for agriculture, rangeland management, and restoration.

Challenges

Rachel says the experiment was not without its difficulties. After devoting weeks towards custom wiring the electrical array, the team had to splice heat-resistant romex wire leading from the lamps to the dimmer switches, because the wires inside the lamp fixtures kept melting. Also, automation was not possible with this system. She explains, “We were out there multiple times a day, checking the treatment, making sure the lamps were still on, and repairing lamps with our multi-tools. We used an infrared camera and an infrared thermometer in the field, so we could constantly see how the heating footprint was being applied to keep it consistent across all the plots.”

microbes

Arizona Fescue (image: wickipedia.com)

Some Grass was Heat Resistant

Rachel says her biggest finding was that all of the C4 grasses survived the field heat wave, whereas only a third of the Arizona Fescue plants survived. She adds that the initially strong inoculum effects in the greenhouse diminished after outplanting, with no differences between intact, heat-primed inoculum or sterilized inoculum for either plant species in the field. “It may be related to inoculum fatigue,” she explains, “the microbes in the intact treatment may have become exhausted by the time the plants were placed in the field, or maybe they became replaced, consumed, or outcompeted by other microbes within the field site”. Rachel emphasizes that it’s important to conduct more field experiments on plant-microbe interactions. She says, “Field experiments can be more difficult than greenhouse studies, because less is under our control, but we need to embrace this complexity. In practice, inoculants will have to contend with whatever is already present in the field. It’s an exciting time to be in microbial ecology because we are just starting to address how microbes influence each other in real soil communities.”

microbes

Diminished effects may be related to inoculum fatigue.

What’s In Store?

Now that the team has collected data from the greenhouse and from the heat wave itself, they have started looking at mycorrhizal colonization of plant roots, as well as sequencing of bacterial and archaeal communities from the greenhouse study. Rachel says, “It’s quite an endeavor to link ‘ruler science’ plant restoration to bacterial communities at the cellular level. I’m curious to see if heat waves simply reduce all taxa equally or if there is a re-sorting of the community, favoring genera or species that are really good at handling harsh conditions.”

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Do Soil Microbes Influence Plant Response to Heat Waves?

Rachel Rubin, PhD candidate at Northern Arizona University, is interested in the intersection of extreme climate events and disturbance, which together have a much greater impact on plant communities. She and her team at Northern Arizona University are investigating the role soil microbes play in plant response to heat waves, including associated impacts to microbial-available and plant-available water.

soil microbes

Plants have a tight co-evolutionary history with soil microbes. It has been said that there is no microbe-free plant on earth.

Because heat waves threaten plant productivity, they present a growing challenge for agriculture, rangeland management, and restoration.

Can Soil Microbes Increase Heat Resistance?

Many plants maintain mutualistic associations with a diverse microbiome found within the rhizosphere, the region of soil that directly surrounds plant roots. These “plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria” and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi provision limiting resources including water, phosphorus and nitrogen in exchange for photosynthetically derived sugars. However, we understand very little about whether extreme events can disrupt these interactions.

soil microbes

Fig. 1. Fine roots exploring the inoculum that was added as a band between layers of potting mixture.

Rachel and her team exposed rhizosphere communities to heat stress and evaluated the performance of native grasses both in the greenhouse, and transplanted under an artificial heat wave. They hypothesized that locally-sourced inoculum (a sample of local soil containing the right microbes) or even heat-primed inoculum would help alleviate water stress and improve survival of native grasses.

The Experiments

Rubin started in the greenhouse by planting Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis, C4 grass) and Arizona Fescue (Festuca arizonica, C3 grass) and assessed their responsiveness to locally collected soil inoculum that had either been left intact, pre-heated or sterilized (Fig. 1). Rubin says, “We expected that our plants would benefit the most from having intact soil microbe communities. But, we were surprised to find very large differences between plant species. Blue Grama performed the best with intact inoculum, whereas Arizona Fescue performed better with pre-heated or sterilized soil”. This could mean that Blue Grama is more dependent on its microbiome, whereas Arizona Fescue engineers a rhizosphere that contains more parasitic microbes rather than mutualistic microbes. Rachel says that understanding this relationship is important for tailoring plant restoration projects to local conditions. Plants that exhibit high levels of mutualisms with their rhizosphere might require an extra inoculum “boost” in order to successfully establish in highly degraded soil, whereas we should not bother to inoculate plants that tend to harbor parasites within their rhizosphere.

soil microbes

Fig. 2. A heated plot in the foreground connected to infrared lamps, water content and matric potential sensors, and EM50 data loggers.

After the team studied these responses, they planted the grasses into a degraded section of a grassland and installed an array of 1000-Watt ceramic infrared lamps mounted on steel frames (Fig. 2) to address whether inoculation influenced plant performance and survival. With help from a savvy undergraduate electrical engineering major (Rebecca Valencia), Rubin simulated a two-week heat wave while monitoring soil temperature and moisture using water content and water potential sensors.  She also measured plant performance (height, leaf number and chlorophyll content) before, during, and after the event. Control plots had aluminum “dummy lamps” to account for shading.

Soil Microbes

An infrared photo, which is how Rachel determined that the heating footprint was evenly distributed on all the plants. The scale bar on the right is in degrees C.

Data obtained from soil sensors helped Rachel to measure heating treatment effects as well as rule out a potential cause for plant mortality: soil moisture. “Soil temperature was on average 10 degrees hotter in heated plots than control plots, but matric potential and soil water content were completely unaffected by heating. This tells us that the grasses died from reasons other than water stress– perhaps a top-kill effect.” Although growing concern over heat waves in agriculture is centered around accompanying droughts, this experiment demonstrates that heating can produce negative effects on some species even when water is in plentiful supply.

Next week:  Learn the results of Rachel’s experiments, some of the challenges the team faced, and the future of this research.

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

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Lysimeters Determine If Human Waste Composting Can Be More Efficient (Part 2)

In Haiti, untreated human waste contaminating urban areas and water sources has led to widespread waterborne illness.  

Hospital rooms in Haiti with patients infected with cholera

Waterborne disease is the leading cause of death for children under 5. Currently, Haiti is battling the largest cholera outbreak in recent history. Over 1/6 of the population is sickened to date.

Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL) has been working to turn human waste into a resource for nutrient management by turning solid waste into compost.  (See part 1).  

Water ways infected with waste and trash

Contaminants making their way into the waterways.

The organization plans on performing experiments with lysimeters, to determine if human waste will contaminate Haitian soil during the composting process.

A river infected with waste right below a huge forest

Even in places where there are toilets, they are often poorly designed or poorly placed. This latrine is located just above a river, where people are getting their bathing and drinking water.

Lysimeters Help Assess Health Hazards

SOIL will use passive capillary lysimeters in an upcoming experiment to determine if composting human waste without a barrier between the waste and the soil will result in ecological and/or health hazards.  Why? The problem is “jikaka,” or “poo juice.”  The compost facility currently redistributes it onto the compost and finishing piles, but they would rather not have to manage it. They believe if they remove the concrete slab and allow composting to occur in contact with soil, the composting process will be easier and faster.

Mounds of dirt behind a tree

SOIL’s agricultural team conducts studies on the use of compost to improve farming practices and maximize economic benefits of targeted compost application.

The Experiment

The organization will test their idea as they expand their facility. New compost bins and staging areas for finishing have been built absent concrete pads. Passive capillary lysimeters have been installed, three beneath the compost bin, and four beneath the first staging area for finishing. They will be used to monitor the amount of moisture (jikaka) that travels through the soil as well as check for anything harmful that travels with it.

Children holding soil in their hands

SOIL’s human waste compost was found to increase sorghum yields by 400%.

What’s the Future for Konpòs Lakay?

SOIL’s agricultural team studies the use of their compost (Konpòs Lakay) in order to optimize farming practices and the economic benefits of targeted compost application. The data they collect will help them expand the market for Konpòs Lakay, which in turn will support the sustainability of SOIL’s sanitation programs.

For more information on SOIL’s waste treatment efforts, visit their website, or watch the video below, a TEDx talk given by SOIL co-founder, Sasha Kramer.

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Founders of Environmental Biophysics: Champ Tanner

Champ Tanner

Champ Tanner (November 16, 1920 – September 22, 1990) Image: soils.wisc.edu

We interviewed Gaylon Campbell, Ph.D. about his association with one of the founders of environmental biophysics, Champ Tanner.

Who was Champ Tanner?

Champ Tanner was a dominant scientist in his time and a giant among his colleagues.  He was the first soil scientist to be elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences: the highest honor a scientist can achieve in the United States.  Some may not realize that throughout a career filled with achievements and awards, he battled the challenges of a debilitating illness.  He didn’t let that limit his passion for science, however.  His efforts to understand and improve measurements generally went beyond those of his fellow scientists.  One of his colleagues once said of him, “Champ’s life exemplified goal-oriented determination and optimism regardless of physical or financial impediment.”

Green wheat stalks

Dr. Tanner was one of the pioneers in applying micrometeorology to agriculture.

What were his scientific contributions?

Champ was an extremely careful experimentalist who was gifted at developing instrumentation.   He started out making significant contributions in soil physics such as improved methods for measuring water retention, particle size distribution, air-filled porosity, and permeability.  He was one of the pioneers in applying micrometeorology to agriculture and was passionate about finding ways to improve the precision and reliability of measurements.  No measurement was too difficult.  He designed and built his own precise weighing lysimeters which provided measurements of evapotranspiration in as little as 15 minutes.   Later, he switched to plant physiology, reading almost every published paper on the subject and then building his own thermocouple psychrometer and plant pressure chambers, making important contributions in that field.

His largest contribution, however, was the measure of excellence he inspired in the students that he trained.   I don’t know of anybody, anywhere in the world, that produced a crop of students that has attained the levels that his have.  They’ve all made enormous contributions in many different fields.  Perhaps it was because he was a pretty hard taskmaster.   He expected the students to meet a standard, and the ones that struggled with that had a hard time. In fact, to this day one former student complains, “About once a year, I have a nightmare in which Champ appears.”

Boy walking through a library

I don’t know of anybody, anywhere in the world, that produced a crop of students that has attained the levels that his have.

Champ wanted his students to measure up, but he also cared about them.  His fellow scientist, Wilford Gardner, described him this way, “There was a transcendent integrity to his personality that permeated everything he did.  He could be blunt, candid and forthright, but he was never lacking in compassion and concern for students, colleagues, and friends.”

What was your association with him?

I had a wonderful relationship with Champ, although I wasn’t one of his students. One of his former students came to WSU as a visiting scientist and told him about what I was working on.  As a result, he brought me into his inner circle of associates and played a vital role in the success of my research.  This association even extended to my family who were with me on one of my many trips to Madison. Despite my numerous and occasionally unruly progeny, he and his wife welcomed us like long lost relatives and made each of the children feel special.  That’s who they were: the most caring and outgoing people.

Champ also had a sense of humor.  He used to call me up to have long discussions about science, and because he was two time zones ahead, it would get pretty late for him. We’d be having an intense discussion about experimentation, and all of a sudden he’d stop and say, “Oh, I’d better cut this off, or I’ll get home to a cold supper and a hot wife.”

What kind of a person was he?

If you worked in his lab, you needed to tow the mark.  You didn’t leave tools around, and you didn’t mess them up. If you left out a screwdriver, you’d find it on your desk the next morning with a terse note.  And if you took the diagonal pliers, cut some hard wire with it and left some nicks, those would be on your desk too. It was a sort of tough love, but he used it to train his students to the highest possible level.  

Researcher looking through a microscope

He taught his students to be rigorous in their measurement protocols

He wanted his students to stand up and argue for their point.  If you were the kind of person that could stand your ground and put up a good defense, he loved that.  Gardner described Champ in this way, “His work hours were legendary.  His standards of science and personal integrity were almost unrealistically high.  The stories his students now pass on to their students may sound apocryphal to those who did not know Champ.  But it was impossible to exaggerate where Champ was concerned.”

What do you think scientists today can learn from him?

What we can learn from Champ Tanner is not to fool ourselves.  He thought you should try to come to an answer in a few different ways, to be sure that it really was the answer. He taught his students to be rigorous in their measurement protocols in order to get the noise out of their experiments.  He wanted them to dig to the bottom of problems and understand the details.  In his mind, you couldn’t be a scientist and rely on somebody else to figure out heat transfer or radiation. He thought you should understand it well enough that you could defend it yourself.   

You can read more about Champ Tanner’s life and scientific contributions in this biographical sketch, written for the National Academy of Sciences when he died.

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Climate Change, Genetics, and the Future World

Climate change scientists face a particular challenge— how to simulate climate change without contributing to it. Paul Heinrich, a Research Informatics Officer associated with the Southwest Experimental Garden Array (SEGA) remembers looking at the numbers for a DOE project that would have used fossil fuel to measure forests’ response to temperature change. “It would have been very, very expensive in fossils fuels to heat a hectare of forest,” he says.

The alternative is, “to use elevation change as a surrogate for climate change so we could do climate change manipulations without the large energy costs.”

SEGA Vegetation Zones diagrams

An overview of the SEGA sites using elevation change as a surrogate for climate change. For more information on these sites, visit http://www.sega.nau.edu/. Photo credit Paul Heinrich

By monitoring organisms across a temperature gradient it is possible to identify genetic variation and traits within a species that could contribute to a species survival under projected future climates.

Control and Monitoring Infrastructure

SEGA is an infrastructure project started in 2012 after researchers at Northern Arizona University’s Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research were awarded a $2.8 million dollar NSF grant with a $1 million match from NAU. Consisting of ten fenced garden sites for genetics-based climate change research, SEGA is set on an elevation gradient from 4000 to 9000 feet in the Southwestern United States. Each SEGA site has an elaborate data collection and control system with meteorological stations and site-specific weather information. Custom-engineered Wireless Sensing Actuating and Relay Nodes (WiSARDs) send data packets to a hub which then send the data back to a centralized server.

Because there is inherent moisture content variability from site to site, volumetric water content and soil water potential sensors have been installed to monitor and maintain moisture levels. If there is a change in soil moisture at one site, soil sensors will detect the difference. Software on the server notes the difference and sends a signal to the other sites, turning on irrigation until the soil moisture matches across sites.

SEGA Cyberinfrastructure Major Components diagram

An illustration of SEGA’s cyberinfrastructure and data management system. Photo credit Paul Heinrich.

Having such an elaborate infrastructure creates an opportunity for researchers looking to conduct climate change research. By offering access to the pre-permitted SEGA sites, the hope is that research will generate much-needed data for climate projections and land management decisions.

When asked if the data stream was overwhelming to manage Heinrich said, “Well, not yet. We are just getting started. The system is designed for what SEGA is expected to look like in ten years, where we expect to have 50 billion data points.”

Research Considerations

Climate change projections show temperatures increasing rapidly over the next 50 to 100 years, bringing drought with it. The impact of these changes will be dramatic. Temperature and drought tolerant species will survive, those that are not will die, drastically changing the landscape in areas that are currently water stressed. Pests like the pine beetle and invasive species like cheatgrass will do well in a drier environment where water-stressed natural species will not be able to compete.

Red canyon called Soap Creek AZ from an Aerial view

Soap Creek, AZ from above. With climate change projections it is likely that more land will become marginal. Photo credit Paul Heinrich.

“Foundational species,” or species that have a disproportionate impact on the ecosystem, are the primary focus of the research efforts at SEGA sites. These are the species that drive productivity, herbivore habitat, and carbon fixation in the ecosystem. Unlike forests in other parts of the United States, forests in the Southwest can be dominated by one or two species, which makes potential research subjects easier to identify.

Genetic Variance

Amy Whipple, an Assistant Professor in Biology and the Director of the Merriam-Powell Research Station who oversees the day-to-day activities at SEGA, has been conducting some of her own research at the garden sites. Whipple has studied Piñon Pine, Southwestern White Pine, and has a proposal to study Cottonwood in process.

Whipple says that models currently suggest that Piñon Pine will be gone from Arizona within the next 50 years, adding that the models do not take into account possibilities for evolution or genetic variance that might help the Piñon survive. Her research is largely asking, will trees from hotter, drier locations have a better chance of surviving climate change? “We’re trying to do that with a number of different species to look for ways to mitigate the effects of climate change in the Southwest.”

Researchers documenting a Piñon Pine

Researchers documenting a Piñon Pine. Photo credit Paul Heinrich.

In some of her research on Piñon Pine, it was discovered that four different species were grouped morphologically and geographically from southern Arizona to Central Mexico. While this suggests that the divergence of species has occurred, it also suggests a low migration rate for these tree species. Migration rates of drought and temperature tolerant species is an important consideration when modeling for a future climate. If the migration of genetically adapted species cannot keep up with climate, the land could become marginal as a foundational species dies off.

Climate Change Predictions and Considerations

In the Southwest, there are entire forests that could become grassland in 50 years because the genetic characteristics of the foundational species currently in those regions will not adapt to higher temperatures and drought stress. But what does this mean from a land management perspective?

Ponderosa pine tree hanging off the side of a rocky cliff in the desert

Ponderosa pine trees, a foundational species in some area of the Southwestern United States.

Environmental conservationists maintain that we should protect the unique species that are in a place and that introducing other organisms or genetic material would be an ethical violation. Environmental interventionists make the argument that climate change has been caused by humans, so we have lost the option of remaining bystanders.

Research, Land Management and Policy

Paul Heinrich says that the route we take to manage the land will depend on our end goals. “Places that have trees now, if you want them to have trees 50 years from now, you are going to have to do something about it. The trees that are on the landscape right now are locally adapted to the past climate. They are not necessarily adapted to the future climate. They are probably maladapted to the future climate.”

To be clear, SEGA’s goal is not to promote or implement assisted migration. Instead, Amy Whipple says, SEGA can test what the effects of assisted migration might be. “In a smaller experimental context, we’re asking: how will these plants do if we move them around? What will happen to them if we don’t move them around?’” The goal is to provide decision makers with the data they need to make informed decisions about how to manage the land.

Image of a Meadow with trees in the distance and a set of mountains

The Arboretum Meadow in Flagstaff, AZ. Home of one of the SEGA research sites. Photo credit Paul Heinrich.

Whipple’s own view is that we may no longer have the option of doing nothing. “Unless major changes are made for the carbon balance of the planet, keeping things the same is not a viable option. Managing for a static past condition is not viable anymore.”

Remaining Questions

Both Heinrich and Whipple acknowledge that these are inherently difficult questions. Ultimately the public and land managers must make these decisions. In the meantime, data from SEGA research may help ensure better predictions, better decisions, and better outcomes.

To find out more about conducting your own climate change research using SEGA go to: http://www.sega.nau.edu/use-sega

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Can Wastewater Save The United Arab Emirates’ Groundwater? (Part II)

With very little recharge and irrigation comprising 75% of groundwater use, natural water resources in the United Arab Emirates region are disappearing fast (see part I).  Wafa Al Yamani and her PhD advisor, Dr. Brent Clothier, are investigating using treated sewage effluent and groundwater for irrigating the desert forests along UAE motorways.

Abu Dhabi from the ocean looking at the city

Abu Dhabi

Infiltrometers Predict Dripper Behavior:

Wafa and her team used what they call, “the Ankeny twin head method” for site evaluation with infiltrometers, and they’ve been able to use it to predict dripper behavior.  They begin with the head at -60 mm, do a series of measurements to measure steady infiltration, and repeat the process at -5 mm.  They use those measurements to solve Woodings equation which has two unknowns: saturated hydraulic conductivity and capillarity.  Dr. Clothier says, “We’ve done it at two heads, and we can use Woodings equation to solve for the slope of the exponential conductivity curve.  Hence, I can predict with time, the movement of the wetting front away from the dripper.   That’s been very useful to work out what volume of soil we’re wetting.  It tells us if we should have one or two drippers.  In this forest, we think we can get away with two drippers because if they irrigate for two hours, the radius of the wet front will be 20 cm, and the depth will be about 40 cm, which is a sufficient volume of water for the tree roots.”  Dr. Clothier says they also constructed a small dyke around the drippers so they could contain the water inside the drip zone in case of hydrophobicity or uneven sand.  

researcher recording data while sitting on the floor

Wafa on site, using the twin head method.

Treated Effluent Resolves Salinity Issues

Historically, the UAE pumped their sewage effluent into the Arabian Gulf, but recently, there has been a shift toward seeing it as a valuable water resource, not only for the desert forest, but for irrigation of fruit crops and date palms.  Dr. Clothier says, “Once we started getting our results we realized we were irrigating with groundwater that had high salinity, about 10 dS/m, and that treated sewage effluent had only 0.5 dS/m.  This was an important discovery because with the high salinity groundwater, you have to over-irrigate to maintain a salt leaching fraction.  However, when we apply the treated sewage effluent, we immediately see a response in the trees because it has 1/20th of the salt load.”

Dr. Clothier says that there is one problem with the trees responding so well to the sewage effluent.  The treated sewage effluent makes the trees grow taller and faster, so if the ecosystem service you want from the desert forest is that they’re 4-6 meters high, it becomes an issue.  He adds,”This is actually a positive problem, because we can now induce deficit irrigation, thereby creating a larger resource of treated sewage effluent in order to irrigate far more forests.”

Large white irrigation tanks sitting in sand in the desert

Researchers irrigated with water from these tanks which stored groundwater and treated sewage effluent.

What’s The Future?

Dr. Clothier says they started with a pilot study in the UAE in 2014, and it was so successful that they ended up with two fully-funded four-year projects, one on treated sewage effluent, and one investigating the irrigation of date palms. He says they have another 3 ½ years of work in the UAE on these projects, and in the end, their goal is to develop a model for forestry irrigation and soil salinity management, along with developing capability for the measurement and modeling of irrigation impacts on sustainable forestry.  They have recently developed a prototype of a computerized decision support tool for irrigation which will provide sustainable irrigation advice to optimize water use.  The support tool takes into account the need to maintain salt leaching, and actual irrigation records can be entered to enable real-time use.

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Predicting the Stability of Rangeland Productivity to Climate Change

Dr. Lauren Hallett, researcher at  the University of California, Berkeley, recently conducted a study testing the importance of compensatory dynamics on forage stability in an experimental field setting where she manipulated rainfall availability and species interactions. She wanted to understand how climate variability affected patterns of species tradeoff in grasslands over time and how those tradeoffs affected the stability of things like forage production across changing rainfall conditions.

field with species tradeoffs standing in the brush

Species tradeoffs could help mitigate the negative effects of climate variability on overall forage production.

Species Tradeoff

A key mechanism that can lead to stability in forage production is compensatory dynamics, in which the responses of different species  to climate fluctuations result in tradeoffs between functional groups over time. These tradeoffs could help mitigate the negative effects of climate variability on overall forage production.  Dr. Hallett comments, “In California grasslands, there’s a pattern that is part of rangeland dogma, that in dry years you have more forbs, and in wet years you have more grasses. I wondered if you could manage the system so that both forbs and grasses are present in the seed bank, able to respond to climate.  This would perhaps buffer community properties, like soil cover for erosion control and forage production in terms of biomass, from the effects of climate variability.”

Tradeoff in a green field, aerial view

In areas experiencing moderate grazing, there was a strong species tradeoff between grasses and forbs.

Manipulating Species Composition

Dr. Hallett capitalized on the pre-existing grazing manipulation that her lab had done over the previous four years.  The grazing she replicated for this study was experimentally controlled, making it easier to ensure consistency.  She built rainout shelters where she collected the water and applied it to dry versus wet plots.  She also manipulated species composition, allowing only grasses, only forbs, or a mix of the two.  These treatments allowed her to study changes in cover and biomass.

Hallett used soil moisture probes and data loggers to characterize the treatment effects of this experiment and to parameterize models that predict rangeland response to climate change.  She says, “I wanted to verify that my rainfall treatments were getting a really strong soil moisture dynamic, and I found the shelters and the irrigation worked really well.”  Along with above-ground vegetation, she collected soil cores and looked at nutrient differences in conjunction with soil moisture.  Since her field site is located within the Sierra Foothills Research and Extension Center, Dr. Hallett was able to rely on precipitation data that was already measured on-site.  

Results

Dr. Hallett found that in areas experiencing moderate grazing, there was a strong species tradeoff between grasses and forbs.  She comments, “I had a seedbank that had both functional groups represented, and those tradeoffs did a lot to stabilize cover over time.”

When Dr. Hallett replicated the experiment in an area that had a history of low grazing, she found that the proportion of forbs wasn’t as high in the seedbank.  As a consequence, there was a major loss of cover in the dry plots.  She explains, “When the grass died, there weren’t many forbs to replace it, and you ended up with a lot of bare ground. The areas that were lightly grazed had more litter, so initially, the soil moisture was okay, but as the season progressed into a dry condition and the litter decomposed, there wasn’t enough new vegetation to stabilize the soil.”  As a result, Dr. Hallett thinks in low-grazed areas it’s important to have an intermediate level of litter. She says, “You need enough litter to increase soil moisture, but not so much that it would suppress germination of the forbs because as the season progresses and gets really dry, if you don’t have forbs in the system, you lose a lot of ground cover.”

Surprises Lead to A New Study

Dr. Hallett was surprised that within her three treatments there seemed to be differences in when the functional groups were drying down the soil.  This inspired new questions, leading her to use her dissertation data to generate a larger grant through the USDA.  Her new study will perform extensive rainfall manipulations to measure the effects of early-season versus late-season dryout, and vary species within those parameters.  She says, “One of the reasons you have grass years versus forb years is the timing of rainfall.  For instance, if you have a really dry fall, you tend to have more forbs because their seedlings are more drought resistant.  Conversely, if you have a wet fall, you tend to see more grasses because you have continual germination throughout the season. So, the timing of rainfall matters in terms of what species are in the system.  We are going to look at the coupling between the species that gets selected for the fall versus what would be able to grow well in the spring, and we will be studying how that affects a whole range of things such as ground cover, above-ground production for forage, below-ground investment of different functional groups, and how these things might relate to nutrient cycling and carbon storage.”

You can read more about Dr. Hallett’s rangeland research and her current projects here.  

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