Monthly Archives: January 2017

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