Category Archives: LTSER

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.

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.


jh

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.

The Small Island of Braila

By Jen Holzer, Technion Socio-Ecological Research Group

After three days in and around Tulcea, we journeyed by car to the City of Braila, a city of about 200,000, famous as a node for the textile, shipbuilding, and shipping trades, and a surprisingly underdeveloped tourism industry. When our hosts told us this was not a travel destination, we were incredulous and inquired with the hotel reception. But the hotel proprietor confirmed that most hotel patrons are businessmen, mostly people from the Netherlands and England involved in the textile and shipping trades; they advised us to vacation in Brașov, the mountainous, “most beautiful part of Romania”7

After a tour of the University of Bucharest’s beautifully refurbished laboratory facilities in the city, we toured the Faculty’s pontoon on the Danube, complete with laboratories and sleeping quarters, and sat with local environmental managers and scientists for interviews and discussions.8

The next day, we drove to Stăncuţa to meet with the mayor of this communa, a collection of local villages bordering the protected Small Island of Braila, a LTSER platform. Interviewing the mayor and his colleagues at the Town Hall was illuminating for understanding the interplay of stakeholder interests – from EU funding requirements and opportunities to the situation of the veterinary technician who moved back to the hometown of his grandparents but was struggling to make ends meet, to wide local opposition to limits on grazing in the protected area on the Small Island of Braila.9

We were generously hosted for a fantastic lunch by the Mayor at a new research facility on the shores of the Danube, and set out on a short boat tour of Braila Island.

Coming from Israel, I am no stranger to a dynamic and fraught history of political conflict and transition, nor to a reality of contested natural resources. While the purpose of our trip was to understand the progress and barriers made by socio-ecological research in Romania, I was hardly expecting the depth of cultural exchange that took place on every level. I want to express my gratitude to our hosts, not only for their thoughtful hospitality down to the last detail, but also for their incredible patience in answering our questions – from the role of macrophytes in the Danube Delta ecosystem to the residual effects of the Communist period on environmental management to the role of ecologists as educators. As social ecologists, the social context of science is always relevant, on every level, including the personal.

jh

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 Desert platform. Her research evaluates impacts of the transition in ecological research toward transdisciplinary socio-ecological research in Europe. Her trip to Romania was funded by an eLTER Transnational Access research exchange grant. She is happy to receive your comments, feedback, and suggestions for trivia questions about Romania at jholzer@technion.ac.il.

There’s Nothing Trivial about the Danube Delta

 

By: Jen Holzer, Technion Socio-Ecological Research Group

Romania Trivia

  1. Which nations border Romania?
  2. The Danube River empties into which sea?
  3. In what year did Romania become part of the European Union?
  4. Name a Romania-born Nobel Laureate.
  5. This Romanian building is known as the largest building in Europe.

Answers:

  1. Bulgaria, Servia, Hungary, Ukraine, Moldova
  2. Black Sea
  3. 2007
  4. George Emil Palade (Physiology and Medicine, 1974), Elie Weisel (Peace, 1986), Herta Muller (Literature, 2009), Stefan Walter Hell (Chemistry, 2014)
  5. Palace of the Parliament building in Bucharest

Tulcea, Gateway to the Danube Delta

On our first morning in Bucharest, Romania’s capital, Dr. Mihai Adamescu met us (my advisor, Dr. Daniel Orenstein, and myself), and together we walked 10 minutes north, past the Palace of the Parliament, said to be the largest building in Europe and the third-largest in the world, to the Faculty of Biology of Bucharest University, which has programs in biology, biochemistry, and ecology.

After a tour, we drank tea up a steep, narrow staircase in the Systems Ecology faculty – the office of our esteemed hosts, Mihai and his colleague Constantin – and without further ado, we departed on a 4-hour drive to the resort town of Tulcea, gateway to the Danube Delta.

We drove through vast flatland monocultures – sunflowers, corn, and wheat – and then on to solar fields boasting the latest model of German-made wind turbines. Romania currently gets 25% of its energy mix from renewables. The electric wires slumped what looked to be dangerously low across the fields. Finally, after two pit stops, we crossed a bridge straddling the murky Danube, of mythic proportions and Hulk-green.

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On our first day in Tulcea, we boarded a medium-sized motorboat fit for 8 people, and our boatman, Jeru, drove out into the Danube Delta. We took the river downstream, then several canals, two large lakes, and back home, for a full 8-hour tour, including a 2-hour stop in Criştan, the home village of our boatman, for a traditional lunch of fish stew, called chorba.

Our host ecologists took us to the a reflooding project, where the marshland had been drained for agriculture, and then, in a long-fought-for change of policy, was reflooded, about a year ago, to restore the wetlands. A team of horses and a herd of cows roamed the area, marked by man-made dikes, and dotted with native flowers.

They also pointed out the abundance of endemic biodiversity, despite it “not being birding season”. So many birds I had never seen before! Little egret, great egret, the invasive shore plant amorpha fructosa. Great white heron, little tern, black tern, common tern. Juvenile and adult cormorants. Black ibis, geese, swans. A lonely white pelican. A rare Dalmatian pelican. A domesticated pig, a wild boar. An otter. When we stepped onshore, tiny frogs sprang out of the mud in abundance.

We inaugurated our interviews that day with the impromptu questioning of our boat captain, native to the small village of Criştan, accessible only by boat. He shared a dominant view of many locals, who saw the Biosphere Reserve designation as a barrier to poor fishermen like himself, who needed as much catch as they could get. While we were there, our phones picked up the Ukrainian phone network, reminding us of the transboundary nature of the Danube Delta.

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The following day we interviewed the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve Authority Governor Dr. Baboianu, researchers at the Danube Delta Research Institute, and an administrator of the Biosphere Reserve Authority who discussed her daily struggles with enforcing Biosphere regulations.

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Our interviews in Tulcea were done. The next morning we would set out toward the City of Braila, adjacent to the Small Island of Braila, a 15,000 hectare nature reserve dedicated to protecting the natural floodplains and wetland habitat characteristic of the Lower Danube area, another important bird migration corridor between Europe and Africa.

jh

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 Desert platform. Her research evaluates impacts of the transition in ecological research toward transdisciplinary socio-ecological research in Europe. Her trip to Romania was funded by an eLTER Transnational Access research exchange grant. She is happy to receive your comments, feedback, and suggestions for trivia questions about Romania at jholzer@technion.ac.il.