HOW TO MEASURE SOIL MOISTURE IN THE DESERT WITH COSMIC-RAY NEUTRONS?

Author: Stephanie Reiter

eLTER TA site: Negev

Research stay dates:      09/16 to 01/17  

The water bound in our soils, in particular soil moisture, influences plant growth, water infiltration, flood regulation and even climate patterns. Although on a global scale the overall quantity of soil moisture is small (<0.05%), it influences ecological, hydrological and meteorological processes.

Soil moisture content is an essential variable for eco-hydrological modelling or irrigation management as it provides the main water storage for plant uptake. Although the precise prediction of soil moisture over various scales is of high interest, its measurement and quantification is still challenging. Satellite remote sensing techniques are able to depict soil moisture patterns over large areas but a major drawback of these measurements is a shallow penetration depth of only a few centimeters of topsoil. Point measurement techniques using in-situ measurements can be interpolated to bigger areas but the spatial variability of soil moisture may complicate the upscaling; the vertical measurement depth of commonly used soil moisture in-situ probes is restricted to the topsoil layer as well.

Cosmic-ray neutron sensing (CRNS) is able to close the gap between large scale satellite remote sensing and point measurements, allowing soil moisture to be quantified non-invasively at the intermediate scale, e.g. for a small watershed or field site. The method uses measurements of cosmic-ray neutrons in a cosmic-ray neutron probes footprint, its horizontal (circular) and vertical measurement area. The cosmic-ray neutron particles are mainly absorbed and moderated by hydrogen. As a result, these neutrons are highly sensitive to the concentration of water in soil. This means under wet soil conditions the probe will detect less neutrons than under dry soil conditions. Especially in arid and semi-arid regions where water is scarce, it is critical to better understand soil moisture dynamics. That is why we set up a research project in a dryland region on the European Long-Term Ecosystem Research (eLTER) site in the Negev Desert, Israel.

In September 2016, I traveled from Berlin to Tel Aviv with a 32 kg heavy metal box containing a cosmic-ray neutron probe, a massive soil driller and an extra-large hammer. For normal people these things seem to be peculiar to travel with, but not so for a Geoecologist.

Not speaking any Hebrew, I had to figure out how to get from Tel Aviv to the Midreshed Sde Boker, an educational center in the middle of the Negev Desert, where I independently conducted the research on soil moisture measurements for my Master thesis. Fortunately, Israelis are extremely helpful. Several young soldiers helped me getting to Sde Boker with the neutron detector. And wow, what a place. A green oasis overviewing the Martian-like desert landscape of the Sde Zin valley, home to a small but flourishing community of about 1800 people, many of them students and researchers of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and its affiliated institutes there.

Desert research in the arid environment of the Negev has a long history, starting in the late 1950s with the establishment of the close-by first experimental farm near Avdat, where Michael Evenari and his colleagues were keen to investigate ancient and innovative practices to meet the challenges of Israeli agriculture. The story of Evenaris farm for runoff and desert ecology research is described in his personal and scientific narrative The Negev: The challenge of a desert, giving an idea of historical environmental research before satellite remote sensing, computer models or neutron probes were invented. When I visited the farm, dust and sand covered books in the library and piles of hand-drawn maps were scattered here and there. The old measurement instruments on the roof of the now abandoned building were fascinating to me, raising my spirits to be a desert researcher.

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At the Evenari desert farm in Avdat, Israel

Basically, what I wanted to do was measure soil water in the desert with cosmic-ray neutrons. My research aimed at quantifying soil moisture over tens of hectares using a combined approach that comprised the novel physical science based CRNS and hyperspectral remote sensing of vegetation. I installed the cosmic-ray neutron probe on the eLTER field site next to the Sde Boker campus and started measuring shortly after my arrival towards the end of the dry season in mid-September.

My daily routine would include walking through the heat to the field site to check the probe and transfer data to a computer. In order to convert the neutron intensity into soil moisture, I needed to conduct three calibration campaigns that consisted of the collection of soil samples in the CRNS probes’ circular footprint area. It turned out that taking soil samples up to a depth of 40 cm is a real challenge in the concrete like, dry desert soil. Although I had helping hands from my colleagues Kristina and Haijun, and from the lab technician Alexander Goldberg, we were not able to use the special soil driller that I brought from Germany to extract the samples. We adjusted the sampling method to the field conditions and used a spade to dig holes and extract the samples by hand for the laboratory analysis.

On seven of the days during my research stay, we conducted hyperspectral measurements of soil and vegetation on the site using a heavy field spectroradiometer. The field work in the heat of the day with temperatures rising up to 40 degrees Celsius and no shade was hard but I always enjoyed the rides to the site in the electric golf cart, when we could get it.

My research at the eLTER site in Israel showed that CRNS is a reliable technique to measure soil moisture content (even in minute amounts) in a natural dryland environment with shrub vegetation. Area average soil moisture values could be derived up to a penetration depth of 46 centimeters over an area of about 28 hectares reliably. The approach to combine CRNS data with remotely sensed vegetation parameters in order to obtain comparable values of soil water content needs to be tested in further (desert) studies. By the end of my research, the vegetation grew only sporadically on the field and I was not able to detect a clear signal of vegetation in the hyperspectral data. Ideally, spectral data can provide vegetation indices such as the Normalized Difference Infrared Index (NDII), a proxy to assess root zone soil moisture which is able to visualize the natural interaction between precipitation events, soil moisture and leaf water content.

I enjoyed my research stay in Sde Boker, learned a lot about Israeli culture and hummus, and met wonderful people from all over the world. In the evenings, I would leave my air conditioned student apartment, and take a five-minute walk to the cliff where the wide view over the Zin Valley never ceased to amaze me, and where the night sky was so clear that I could see the far-far away galaxies sending out continuous streams of cosmic ultra-high-energy particles. My thoughts would drift through space and time like the cosmic-ray neutrons that hit my neutron probe.

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Sampling location on the eLTER research site near the Sde Boker campus, Israel
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Alexander Goldberg with the field spectrometer
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The cosmic-ray neutron probe in the field – powered by the sun
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Me collecting soil samples on the field
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The Sde Zin valley, Israel

About the Author:

Reiter1Stephanie (26) is a graduate student with a MSc. in Geoecology. She is passionate about the importance of soils within our ecosystems. During her research at the eLTER site in Israel, she studied how to measure water in desert soils non-invasively using a novel method called cosmic-ray neutron sensing. Her research stay was supported by the eLTER H2020 Transnational Access grant. When not digging in soils or dealing with extragalactic particles, she enjoys long-distance hiking, gardening and organic food.

E-Mail: stereite@gmail.com

Light and conversation advance the work of the Cairngorms LTSER

Author: Jen Holzer

Cairngorms LTSER

Israeli musicians Ehud Banai and the Refugees muse in the 1987 song, “Magic of the Galil”:

 

“…I imagined Scotland as Tavor Mountain

one dark night when I froze from cold

a guitar helped me

the fire helped me

the morning of renewing light helped me….”

 

While longing for landscapes of the Holy Land throughout the ages is incomparable, nostalgia of Israeli pop songs longing for landscapes abroad is also a noteworthy modern theme. As an Israeli researcher on my first trip to Scotland — in December 2016 – I was inspired by the bucolic and rugged landscapes of Cairngorms National Park, but I was also unduly influenced by the brief daylight, and cold and grey of solstice in the Highlands. To the contrary, when I returned this June 2018 at peak daylength, sunny days seeming to brighten every interaction.

In December 2016, Dr. Jan Dick, a Scottish scientist based at the Center for Ecology and Hydrology, helped to coordinate an interview tour of Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Perth, and the Cairngorms National Park that would comprise a case study of the Cairngorms LTSER, part of a cross-platform study that also includes LTSER platforms in Romania and Spain. During that first visit, we conducted 23 in-depth stakeholder interviews in nine days.

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Cairngorms LTSER stakeholders interviewed in December 2016.

This June, I returned to present our findings, based on those interviews, about how the Cairngorms Long-Term Socio-Ecological Research (LTSER) platform is measuring up to its goals, as well as by comparing it to other LTSER platforms I had visited in Romania and Spain. Days were long and sunny, with Scots seeming to revel in the specialness of these bright but short-lived weeks on the calendar. While I had noticed the Scotch sociability and penchant for storytelling on my last visit, on this visit nearly everyone we met seemed to be taking the opportunity of our meeting to visit a special natural spot or go for a lunchtime jog on the grounds of a nearby estate.

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Presenting interview findings to geologist ‘Ness Kirkbride, on the grounds of Scottish Natural Heritage’s Battleby Conference Centre campus.

Besides the long days and beautiful weather, another particularly special aspect of my experience was the nature of the trip itself. I will explain. My host, Dr. Jan Dick, often refers to her leadership of the EU-sponsored OPENness project by saying something like: “It’s the most fantastic thing. I got paid to take the results of our research back to the stakeholders and ask them if they thought it was useful – or to tell us that it’s rubbish. I don’t care if they do think it’s rubbish – I just want to know whether it was useful!” This was also the mandate of my second trip to Scotland. My PhD research is an evaluation of LTSER platforms in Europe; in particular, the following questions:

 

  • Are social questions being integrated into ecological science?
  • Is it stakeholder-driven science?
  • Is there evidence of impacts?
  • Is there added value to this approach?
  • What are the challenges?

 

One of the novel aspects of this project is that it evaluates research that aims to be transdisciplinary, which means that it attempts to integrate different disciplines, diverse researchers and practitioners, and their varied types of knowledge, and then to make that research directly applicable to the policy and practice of environmental management. So, as outlined in our evaluation approach (Holzer et al. 2018), we believe an essential part of evaluating transdisciplinary research (or research that aims to be transdisciplinary) is to take the evaluation results back to the potential end-users of that knowledge (before publishing) and getting their validation and/or criticism, and to incorporate that into the final results.

 

For the most part, the co-directors of the Cairngorms LTSER did validate our findings, which was affirming in that it meant that our interviewees had corroborated perceptions of local experts, and that on the whole, we had synthesized the interview material to accurately represent the big picture. However, what was perhaps more interesting came up when Dr. Jan Dick turned to me on the way to the LTSER co-directors’ meeting and said, “I’m using you as a boundary object!” A boundary object is any tangible thing – usually a map, graphic, or document — that a group of people, especially people with varied backgrounds and interests, can use as a focal point for their meeting, and to help keep the conversation constructive despite different points of view and reasons for being at the meeting. I realized that while I had been focused on getting feedback on my results, if another important goal was to contribute something to the platform itself, then my visit did inherently give something back in that it provided a clear focus – and perhaps even inspiration — at the LTSER co-directors’ meeting, which was convened because of my visit. To put it bluntly, bringing a visitor from abroad may create an excuse for doing certain things!

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My trip provided an opportunity for Dr. Jan Dick to catch up with her Environmental Change Network colleague ‘Ness Kirkbride.

I have read many accounts of scientists and creatives getting their best ideas while walking, swimming, or sleeping. On this trip, ideas really came together for the paper we hope to co-author with LTSER co-directors when we brought a laptop along to an outdoor café for lunch. If I had to be honest, I would tell you that I’m an introvert, and spending many of my hours manning the helm of my computer is a perk of doing a PhD. But I will also be the first to say that while good ideas may start with a solitary stroll or laps in the pool, they get developed in conversation, all the better if that conversation can take place somewhere beautiful.

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Outlining a manuscript at the café in Pentland Hills Regional Park.
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A morning jog on the Muir Way near Holyrood Park in Edinburgh.

It was a productive and engaging trip, with perks like staying minutes from Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park, getting to work outdoors, and opportunities to socialize with scientists – like at the ESCom Conference  where I had the opportunity to present a flash talk. Now that I’m back in Israel, I’m ready to write the great next pop song longing for another summer in Scotland.


About the Author:

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Jen is a PhD candidate in the Technion Socio-Ecological Research Group in Haifa, Israel. Her research evaluates impacts of the transition in ecological research toward transdisciplinary socio-ecological research. Her trip to Scotland was funded by an eLTER Transnational Access research exchange grant. She is happy to receive your comments, questions, and feedback at jholzer@technion.ac.il.

If you would like to be interviewed by Jen’s colleague Yael Teff-Seker, who will be conducting walking interviews in the Cairngorms National Park in July 2018, please be in touch.

Adventures in the stoichiometry of Braila Island, Research Center in Systems Ecology and Sustainability

Author: Shabnam G.Farahani

Braila eLTER

My scientific trip to Romania started on September 2nd, 2017. On the following day, I visited the Faculty of Biology, of the University of Bucharest where I met  the intimate staff of Biogeochemical Circuits laboratory.

On Monday morning after meeting the team from the Research Center in Systems Ecology and Sustainability, we headed to the Braila Research Station. The Research Centre in Systems Ecology and Sustainability (RCSES) of the University of Bucharest was established in 1999. RCSES coordinates the national Long Term Ecological Research Network and contributes to large scale and long-term research in Europe (e.g. LTER Europe, ILTER, LifeWatch Europe).

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During the three days of my stay in Braila, I was accompanied by a friendly and well organized team who assisted with the sampling and field experiments for my research.

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Braila city is located in the flat plain of Baragan.  On the east side there is the Danube, which forms an island – The Great Braila Island surrounded by the Macin channel, Cremenea channel and Valciu channel. On the northern side there is the Siret river and on the north-western side there is the Buzau River.

Braila took  me back in time as a lively and amazing city. I was genuinely impressed by the city’s past and how it became a cosmopolitan economical center of the previous century, it is really worth seeing for those who want to admire the sights of the Danube and Braila Island. In my PhD thesis at National Academy of Science of Belarus, I am examining the elemental composition of zooplankton and seston communities as it varies seasonally in the littoral and pelagic zones of temperate lakes. As such during my field trip in Braila Island, I focused on spatial differences in seston community as a limiting factor for food quality of freshwater consumers and their C:N ratios in 7 different stations along the Danube river.

After finishing the field trip, we visited the Pontoon of the Small Braila Island Natural Park administration and got acquainted with its staff.

On September 7th, we made a farewell to the beautiful city of Braila and departed for Bucharest in order to carry on the elemental analysis, at the University.

“ KUFTEH “in a foil

Kufteh is a Persian, also middle eastern yummy food which is a kind of herb meat ball in tomato plum sauce which was so similar to what I did in sample preparation for CN machine at Bucharest University . I divided each filter into four pieces, roll them as a ball and packed them in foil, then weighed them by micro scale to place them in machine.

To tell the truth, this trip was a unique opportunity for me not only for learning new things in stoichiometry at the LTSER  site, but also for having so much fun, going with the boat on the Danube, sightseeing in Braila City, cooking steak for the team by my own recipe and 3 nights living in pontoon on beautiful Danube river.

This project would have been really impossible without the support of all my colleagues from the Faculty of Biology.

I am using this opportunity to express them my gratitude for providing the facilities of such exciting exploratory trip.


About the Author:

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Shabnam is a PhD student at Belarus National Academy of Science

CaveGIS – bringing location analysis to the underground

Author: Vojkan Gavojić

eLTER TA site: Postojna Planina Cave System (PPSC)

Postojna-Planina cave systems’ consists of more than 30 km long passages of Postojnska and Planinska jama caves. Their passages collect and conduct surface and underground waters from Pivka and Cerknica and release them to Planinsko polje. It also represents the most biologically diverse cave in the world with more known species of stygobionts (obligate, permanent resident of aquatic subterranean habitats) than any other subterranean site in the world. Such complex system allows researchers to conduct long-term interdisciplinary karstological research that combines knowledge from chemistry, hydrology, physics, geology, geomorphology, meteorology, ecology, zoology etc.  Large amount of different data have been collected through years and decades, often with redundancy, which resulted in multiple data collections for same phenomenon at the same time window and in same space. Intention of this research is to consolidate such data so they can be presented through geographic information system (GIS) within same time-space window, providing all the researchers unified basis for further research. Such basis would consist of spatial, numerical and spatio-temporal data, which all together will allow location analysis in such complex systems such caves are.

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Figure 1: Fixed cave survey point – the basis for determination of location

But, first things first! Where do data come from? And when? Usually, researchers focus on space and time frame that is proposed by their research objectives. The phenomenon that they are tracking is located in space. Corridor type spaces that caves are represented by are plotted on survey maps by speleologists using different methods and tools. Postojnska jama cave, for example, has fixed cave survey points that have been used to determine exact location of points where data about different phenomenon are being collected by automatic monitoring stations or by manual collections.

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Figure 2: Postojnska jama cave corridors with locations of monitoring stations

Data acquisition is dependent on time frame defined by researcher. Intervals can vary from seconds to days within defined time frame. There is variety of phenomenon that can be monitored: cave meteorological data (temperature, humidity, air flow, gases…), hydrological data (pH, water flow, conductivity …), chemical data (presence of metallic elements or solutions), cave species, rock movements, speleothem formation, limestone dissolution etc. So, it is variety of data that can be changes over time.

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Figure 3: One of monitoring stations for cave meteorological data

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Figure 4: Stalagmite formation in Postojnska jama cave

When we determine location of monitoring stations we can present such data in spatio-temporal visualization. For example, using space-time cubes we can visualize the space-time frame of collected data, and determine whether they can be used for our own research. By providing such data from one central place, e.g. GIS database, we can ease researchers in process of data acquisition, and enable them to perform spatio-temporal and location analysis within their frame or research.

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Figure 5: Space-time cube visualization of conductivity values (left) and species number (right) on locations in time


About the Author:

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Vojkan is PhD student of Karstology at University of Nova Gorica, whose research focuses on using GIS and Remote Sensing in Karstology researches.

Contrast & Cadence

By Kelsey Bisson

For a while the ocean existed to me as an abstraction. I grew up in Ohio and I’d never been. I imagined it to be the deepest, darkest, scariest, most enchanting thing on Earth and even so, I couldn’t quite imagine it exactly — it was just too big, too distant, too different.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how we require things to be different in order to define our realties. Minutes, hours, days, months and years of being alive have allowed us to define what is ‘normal’ because we’ve experienced numerous ever-changing extremes. Extreme events, extreme people, and extreme ideas are so named for their departure from our expectations rather than for their absolute value, and in doing so we require them to inform our personal and collective understanding of the world. Most simply said, when it comes to understanding complexity so called ‘opposites’ are needed.

bisson1With that in mind I’ve been playing around with how the contrast between the sciences and arts might be used to greater understand ocean cycles.  Everywhere on Earth, cycles emerge. These cycles are essentially opposites in motion, creating a contrast between what is now, what was then, and probabilistically what will be.  Cycles are in a lot of places but in some of the coolest ways they exist in nature and in music. For instance you could define a song for its durable cadence and ephemeral choruses, for its high and low tempos, for the sounds themselves or for the space they leave in the silence. Similarly we can identify patterns in nature that range in magnitude, shape, rhythm, chaos, and duration. These patterns and processes build on each other, much like instruments in a peaking crescendo that crests into dissolution. Inevitably these systems or songs will reset, retreating back into the stillness that birthed them only to begin again sometime in the future.bisson2

What if we could take a song and stretch it out so that instead of lasting a few minutes it lasted a year long and (abstractly speaking) occupied all of Earth? What might that look like? What might that sound like?

This intrigues me because 1) it’s fun and weird to think about and 2) because sound signals are much like natural fluctuations that can be taken as the sum of many perturbations that together form what we see/hear/smell/taste/feel.

When we scale up a song we could expect patterns that are congruent to the seasonal cycles observed in phytoplankton around the world’s oceans. Phytoplankton are organisms (similar to plants in some ways) that are diverse, tiny, photosynthetic, numerous, global, and lazy. They can’t control their movement; they float in the ocean’s surface waters and harvest energy from the sun. When conditions are good, phytoplankton bloom, much like a huge garden in the sea. They breathe in CO2 and actually contribute nearly half of the oxygen we breathe. Recently I had some fun trying to visualize this* and here is the result:

Naturally a song is not the same thing as an ocean. Even so, comparing their contrasting scales can be scientifically liberating. What differences might arise when looking at a milliliter of ocean water compared to an entire ocean basin? What if we study it for a day or what about for ten years? As people we tend to work on time scales of hours and at distances of feet to miles — but in contrast—  phytoplankton time and spatial scales are much smaller and their life cycles are far more rapid than ours. Because of this it’s really important to consider them at their own tempo (not ours) in order to get insights about the greater roles they play in controlling climate and feeding the world’s oceans.

 

* More accurately I’m visualizing the export efficiency, or the fraction of export of primary production from the surface ocean to the deep. The higher this is, the more CO2 from our atmosphere is removed where it can be stored in the ocean for centuries to millennia. This has profound implications for climate and is thus of much interest!


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Kelsey uses a combination of satellite data, oceanographic data collected from trips at sea, and ecological theory to understand how plankton export carbon into the deep ocean. She is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

email: kelsey.bisson@lifesci.ucsb.edu

Atmospheric nitrogen deposition may endanger carbon storage in peatlands – how do the fungi respond?

By Heikki Kiheri, Natural Resources Institute Finland

Approximately one third of global soil carbon is stored in northern peatlands as slowly decomposing organic material. Peat carbon is accumulated due to net imbalance of production and decomposition. This enormous amount of carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere by plants and accumulated under the waterlogged, acidic conditions in peatlands which considerably reduce the rate of decomposition. Decomposition is a complex process involving many different microorganisms, including archaea, bacteria and fungi. Any increases in the availability of nutrients by atmospheric deposition, such as nitrogen compounds produced as pollution, can increase the rate of decomposition by these microorganisms. If decomposition rates increase, the sequestered carbon within peatlands may be released as greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, and the peatland ecosystem may fundamentally change to a net source of carbon. Peatlands have taken thousands of years to form. Therefore it is critical to understand the potential risks of pollution to peatland ecosystems or we risk further compounding the rate of global warming. This is why we have chosen to study the ecological changes at the long-term fertilization site at Whim Bog, as it is ideal for quantifying the potential effects of increasing atmospheric nitrogen deposition. Whim Bog is an LTER site managed by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology near Edinburgh, Scotland.

Key to understanding changes in the peatland ecosystem is determining changes to the vegetation and their interactions with the microbial community. The predominant groundcover plants found in peatlands include members of the family Ericaceae, such as heather and bilberry. These Ericaceous species, or ericoids, rely on a symbiotic relationship with fungi for access to organic forms of nitrogen, which are relatively inaccessible to the plant. The fungi which associate with ericoid roots form what are called mycorrhizae, which is when fungal mycelia form a close connection between their hyphae and plant roots. In exchange for organic nutrients, ericoid plants provide sugars to the fungi.

At Whim Bog we are able to measure changes to vegetation diversity and biomass, root production, nutrient allocation by plant species and mycorrhizal colonization rates of ericoid plants. By carefully measuring these different factors across several treatments of increasing nitrogen fertilization, we aim to clarify the changes to the ecosystem. These data have the potential to increase the accuracy of global carbon cycle models which do not fully account for the carbon stored in peatlands and thus the importance of peatlands to global carbon cycling.

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Our host Netty van Dijk and Dr. Tuula Larmola surveying the dense heather-cottongrass vegetation on a warm, sunny August day. (Photo by Heikki Kiheri)
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Prof. Raija Laiho collecting root ingrowth cores for root production measurements after the growing season in November. (Photo by Tuula Larmola)

We enjoyed our visits to Whim Bog and the weather was remarkably warm for autumn, with sunshine and comfortable temperatures making our work a pleasure. The beautiful countryside provided many observations of wildlife and picturesque farmland, most especially the lovely gnats. Their occasional bites served to keep us on task and focused. Coming from Finland and working in peatlands much further north, we are accustomed to the attention of biting flies, mosquitoes and swarming gnats. Surprisingly, the Scottish gnats were quite ferocious and reminded us that we should have packed our mosquito net hats. Our visit at the end of August was a fortuitous coincidence with the Edinburgh International Festival. It was a great experience to see the city alive with all manner of arts and crafts. Working with the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology has been thoroughly excellent and we look forward to our continued cooperation.heikki-3

Heikki is a PhD researcher at the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) and studies microbiology at the University of Helsinki, Finland. His research focuses on mycorrhizal fungi associated with Ericaceous plant species in boreal ecosystems and changes to their relationship due to changing environmental conditions and nutrient availability. His visit to the site, with Dr. Tuula Larmola and Prof. Raija Laiho, both from Luke, was supported by eLTER H2020 Transnational Access award and project funding from the Academy of Finland to Dr. Larmola.

Vistas of place-based research in Scotland’s Cairngorms

By Jen Holzer

In December 2016, funded by an eLTER Transnational Access grant, I made a visit to the Cairngorms Long Term Socio-Ecological Research (LTSER) platform. The Cairngorms LTSER is the only such platform in the UK; its boundaries are the same as those of the Cairngorms National Park, established in 2003. My mission: to spend a week speaking with about twenty researchers, land managers, and institutional and local stakeholders, whose work is related to the Cairngorms LTSER. I sought to understand how research activities are prioritized, how research may inform policymaking and management activities, and how satisfied stakeholders are with research as it is currently conducted. This case study is one of several I will ultimately use to characterize the state of socio-ecological research across the global LTSER network. My trip began with interviews in Dundee, St. Andrews, and Aberdeen, interviewing ecologists, social scientists, GIS specialists and others about their work in the park, and then I ventured west to the Cairngorms National Park itself.

I learned that the Cairngorms National Park Authority is mandated to manage ecological conservation and promote economic development, a surprisingly integrated vision considering that many economic and governance models still pit environmental protection against economic development. The Authority itself does not own land, nor does it employ park rangers. Rather, it acts as a planning agency that coordinates stakeholders like Scottish Natural Heritage, landholders like private estates (which might host sheep farming, whisky, grouse hunting, and ATV rides), municipalities, and businesses, all within the park.

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The view from my room at the Grant Arms Hotel in Granton-on-Spey, a town of about 2,600 people. The Grant Arms was founded in 1765; Queen Victoria and Prince Albert stayed here in 1860. Several years ago, a new owner began billing the hotel as “the UK’s wildlife hotel”, with a special focus on birding.

My visit was planned to coincide with a stakeholder meeting co-organized by my host, Dr. Jan Dick of the Center for Ecology and Hydrology, who was tasked with presenting her findings from the EU’s OPENNESS project to the relevant public, and by Dr. Kirsty Blackstock of the James Hutton Institute, who facilitated a discussion with the participants, focusing on stakeholder priorities for future research. This meeting was a highlight of my trip, as I got to participate in a workshop where researchers, land managers, and farmers were able to have an intimate, targeted discussion.

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Pictured left to right: Mr. Andy Wells of Crown Estate, Mr. Richard Owens of the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency and Ann Maclennan, a local farm owner.

Meetings with stakeholders revealed the tensions of striving for management that captures the multiple priorities of diverse stakeholders – local citizens, recreational users, farmers, and estate managers – who sometimes feel the burden of too many rules.

In a post-referendum¹ and post-Brexit² world, Scottish lawmakers are unsure of their relationship to both Westminster and the European Union, and Scottish researchers are anxious about the continuity of some projects funded by these governments. I heard in interviews that officials relied upon EU-level legislation for the strongest environmental protections, and Scottish Parliament has already enshrined these standards into law; however, some expressed concern about whether Westminster would have the power to undo or modify these protections. These issues were mentioned by multiple interviewees, highlighting feelings of uncertainty about how law, governance and policy-making may change in the near future.

So how feels the pulse of the LTSER overall? I interviewed the advisory committee of the LTSER – three research scientists, one land manager, and one executive of the Cairngorms National Park Authority. The general feeling among these experts was that the LTSER was a framework useful for relationship-building across sectors and coordination of research activities across agencies and programs. Specifically, LTSER creates a forum and a framework for ongoing, periodic stakeholder dialogue, needs assessment with regard to research, and the coordination of research activities, funding, and data management. It was described as one layer in a web of institutions and research frameworks, important for coordination of research, data, and funding.

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Blogger Jen Holzer interviewing host Dr. Jan Dick, at the Center for Ecology and Hydrology on the Bush Estate, UK.

Great, ongoing efforts are being made to steward this beautiful, remote place, as fairly and effectively as possible, given competing interests. But it seems no pocket of earth is too far removed from a widespread feeling of change and uncertainty that threaten to interrupt the steady progress of ongoing research nor the inexorable human population growth that continues to put pressure on land management priorities.


¹In May 2016, the Scottish citizenry voted on the question — Should Scotland be an independent country? 55% of citizens, with a voter turnout of 85%, voted no (http://www.bbc.com/news/events/scotland-decides/results).

²On June 23, 2016, British citizens voted 52% to 48% that the UK should leave the European Union. The act of separating from the EU has not yet occurred, and the implications it will bring are as of yet uncertain.


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Jen is a PhD student in the Technion Socio-Ecological Research Group in Haifa, Israel and is affiliated with the Israeli LTSER network, with whom she is currently writing an article about applying transdisciplinary action research at the Negev Highlands platform. Her research evaluates impacts of the transition in ecological research toward transdisciplinary socio-ecological research. Her trip to Scotland was funded by an eLTER Transnational Access research exchange grant. She is happy to receive your comments, questions, and feedback at jholzer@technion.ac.il.

Kelp forest boot camp

By Joey Peters

This past summer I took advantage of an offer to get an early start on my research project in kelp forests off the coast of Santa Barbara. It’s hard to convey here, but I could not have been more thrilled. To put it in perspective, imagine that you’re working in an office cubicle nestled in among dozens of colleagues staring at a computer screens for 40 hours a week. Although you’ve tasted the much coveted ‘9-to-5 life’ of the real world that so many graduate students dream about, you want nothing more than to propel yourself back into the exciting never-ending challenge that is academia. You’ve been accepted into your dream graduate program at the University of California, Santa Barbara and you’re literally counting down the months and days to get started. Then you get that email from your advisory committee asking you to move early to get a head start. It’s all you have ever wanted – and now you can see the root of my excitement. I leaped at the opportunity to be part of the Santa Barbara Coastal Long Term Ecological Research (SBC-LTER) group.

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An exceptional day in the Santa Barbara Channel

Fast forward to July and I was in the water, learning how to be a field ecologist all over again. I couldn’t believe how challenging it was working underwater, coordinating surveys with other divers, and avoiding kelp entanglements. I remember trying to record all my data along a transect: counting all the kelp fronds at 1m height, measuring the holdfasts, recording invertebrate sizes, and suddenly realizing that my air was nearly gone! Somewhat of a contrast to the comforts of office where you can, you know, breathe whenever you want. Add in the fact that it took me forever to learn anything it seemed that there was no end to the frustration. The research team was like a well-oiled machine, seemingly perfect at data collection and hyper efficient. While I tried my best to keep up, it took me months to learn how to get anything down. Learning how to drive a boat  – and not damage it – was likely the hardest part. I still joke with others that each time I drive back to the pier it really becomes a game like Operation, where you have to strategically place the boat to be hoisted up without allowing it touch the dock pilings – never mind the wind and waves. I think my blood pressure peaked at 3 every day over this summer.  And this is why I will always refer to my first field season as: kelp forest boot camp.

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The SBC-LTER boat is launched via a large hoist on the Goleta Pier

While this summer was hardcore, I could not have been happier. Despite any of the frustrations I experienced over the summer, I am truly relieved to be working in the field that I love so much. I’m learning something new each day and building connections with others who have interests in kelp forest ecology, community interactions, and ecosystem functioning. I’m getting better at all of my research skills and with a bit more time and experience I hope to become a seasoned kelp forest ecologist. My favorite part about this summer was reconnecting with the field ecologist inside of me and fostering the internal drive to understand the patterns I see in the world. Each time I swim among the kelps we study in the Santa Barbara Coastal LTER I see something new and intriguing. And this keeps the gears in my head spinning as I ask the how or why questions.

 

I’m really so grateful for the opportunity to join the SBC LTER as a graduate researcher and to be part of the larger LTER network. I truly believe I found the right group of people to connect with in order to learn more about our earth’s ecosystems. I hope to get to know so many of you as I work more with the LTER groups in the future.

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Joey is a PhD student in the Santa Barbara Coastal LTER group at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research focuses on the role of consumer-mediated nutrient cycling in kelp forests.

 

 

Email:

jpeters@lifesci.ucsb.edu

Research gate link

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Joseph_Peters5

Short term trends in long term research?

By Alexandra Linz 

It’s 4:00AM. Between prepping equipment and anxiety about today’s experiments, I only got a couple hours of sleep last night, but I’m full of adrenaline and ready to go. My undergraduate student and I drive to our first sampling site in beautiful northern Wisconsin, USA. The sun isn’t up yet, but the loons are laughing as we disturb Sparkling Lake’s calm waters, paddling our way to the buoy at its center. We drop our instruments into the water and wait a few minutes until exactly 5:00AM. In a flurry of motion, we begin to collect our samples – lake water concentrated through filters that must be collected in under 5 minutes and immediately frozen in liquid nitrogen. It’s over as quickly as it began, and the sun finally makes its way over the horizon. One timepoint down, thirty-five more to go.2016-07-07-04-35-12

I’m an LTER grad student, but this past summer, I ran an experiment on short-term changes in bacterial metabolism. Bacteria are crucial and beneficial members of lake ecosystems, where they recycle nutrients, harvest energy from sunlight, and decompose organic matter. My lab has studied freshwater bacteria in Wisconsin lakes for over a decade. I’m interested in carbon cycling specifically, and to find out what carbon sources are being used by the bacterial community at any given moment, you can collect a molecule called RNA. RNA is a messenger molecule in cells, and deciding what RNA to make and how much is a major way that bacteria regulate their metabolisms. Essentially, it’s the middle step between “I have the enzymes I need to eat this” and “I have the instructions to make those enzymes.” But because it would not be helpful for a cell to have all these old messages hanging around, RNA degrades fast. To collect it, we need to filter our samples quickly and immediately freeze them in the field. On top of that, our bodies make enzymes that degrade RNA as a defense against viruses, so while sampling, you are constantly spewing enzymes with the potential to destroy your experiment. RNA work is not something to embark on lightly.2016-07-09-14-57-32

We initially considered adding RNA sampling to our long-term time series, but there was one major problem: we didn’t know if there were short-term dynamics of RNA in freshwater. I’d just read a study in the ocean where huge changes in RNA were observed at different times of the day, as the bacteria adapted their metabolisms to take advantage of changing light conditions. I was concerned that if we tried to add RNA to our long-term sampling, we’d get different results depending on what time of day we sampled throughout the year. My professor’s response? “You should write a grant to study that!”

Fast-forward a year and a half. I did write a grant, and that grant got funded (!), and here I was at the crack of dawn attempting to sample three lakes every 4 hours for 48 hours each, all within two weeks. See, that ocean study that inspired me used a sampling torpedo. They dropped it off in their current of choice and picked it up a week later, all samples safely stowed on board. I, on the other hand, convinced/begged/harassed everyone I could to help me with the fieldwork. With my amazing volunteers, all the equipment I could haul in a university vehicle, and much trepidation, we began sampling.dsc_0188

I was keenly aware of everything that could go wrong. But after that first timepoint, I felt like I had done everything I could, like I had pushed a start button and now just had to sit back and let events unfold. And amazingly, the field work went quite smoothly! Well, we had to reschedule one timepoint due to thunderstorms, and once the boat flooded and nearly sank in high winds, and there was the time I got stopped by law enforcement on suspicion of illegal night fishing – but I was ready for these things. Call me a pessimist, but that’s how field work is supposed to happen. You react and revise your plans, and you come back with your samples and some crazy stories.

By this point, the samples I collected last summer are nearly all processed and I’m just waiting on the RNA data. I’m excited to learn if bacteria in lakes show the same changes during the day as they do in oceans, and to see how their short term trends compare to the long-term trends we’ve been studying at LTER for years. And then maybe the next LTER grad student can take what I’ve learned and plan a super awesome multi-year RNA experiment!

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Alexandra Linz is a PhD student in the Microbiology Doctoral Training Program at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. She works with Prof. Katherine McMahon studying bacterial carbon cycling in Wisconsin lakes. Alex is passionate about science outreach and also writes for her lab’s blog, uwmcmahonlab.wordpress.com. When not doing crazy experiments, Alex enjoys photography, playing guitar and piano, and reading science fiction.

Plants and Nitrogen – a love & hate relationship

Author: Melanie Batista of Universidade de Lisboa

Hi there!

I want to tell you about my visit to the LTER site at Whim Bog, Edinburgh, Scotland. The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, based on the Natural Environment Research Council, manages a LTER site with facilities to study the effects of dry and wet nitrogen deposition. Nitrogen is an essential element for plant growth, however, like everything in life, too much is just too much. Wet deposition occurs when nitrogen enters the system in the form of precipitation, and dry deposition refers to forms of nitrogen dissolved in the atmosphere. Excess of nitrogen can lead to severe changes in ecosystems, especially if they are oligotrophic – meaning that they are adapted to low nutrient conditions. Studying these changes is exactly what this LTER site is about. The site is a peatland ecosystem, dominated by the shrub Calluna vulgaris and the  sedge Eriophorum vaginatum.

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During my visit I studied the effects of dry deposition of nitrogen in the plant community – I assessed plant diversity and structure, using a set of transects along a gradient of ammonia (NH3). This gradient is imposed to the plant community by an automated free air release facility that releases gaseous ammonia. The  system fumigates only when wind speed and direction are within determined values, creating an ammonia gradient covering about 60 m in extend, with ammonia values ranging between ambient (c. 0.5 NH3 µg m-3) and 100 µg NH3 m-3 (annual averages).

One last thing about the Scottish experience. You ever heard about midges? Before my trip to Edinburgh I never heard about them. And, until my last day of my field work, when I was starting to think the midges were little more than a myth, they appeared in full force. It seems that until then there were never the perfect conditions. But, on that last afternoon, the sun shone brightly after a light rain, the wind had stopped blowing, and from one second to another, millions of little flying dots appeared from under the shrubs to land on our hands, faces, ears… everywhere. So I learned what midges are.

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Melanie is a fellowship researcher at the Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Changes, Universidade de Lisboa. She studies plant functional diversity, mainly of the Mediterranean vegetation in Portugal, in response to different environmental changes, such as desertification and grazing.

Contact: mkobatista@fc.ul.pt

 

URL: http://ce3c.ciencias.ulisboa.pt/member/melanie-koumlbel