At a high-tech marsh in Edgewater, the future is unclear

The Global Change Research Wetland is like no marsh you've seen before.

Clear plastic chambers are strewn about 53 acres of lush green, connected by a complex infrastructure of grated walkways that weave through tall marsh plants like a high-tech corn maze.

Each chamber is treated with differently — with either carbon dioxide or a nitrogen liquid. There are also untreated chambers that serve as control in what scientists involved say is the longest-running climate change experiment in the world. The gas treatments mimic future environmental conditions.

"It's the most elaborate facility of its kind," lead investigator Pat Megonigal said. "We've been manipulating carbon dioxide concentrations in the air, around marsh plants, for over 30 years."

Now the innovative marsh at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center campus in Edgewater is in jeopardy thanks to sweeping cuts to environmental programs proposed by President Donald Trump.

His budget would slash Environmental Protection Agency funding by more than 30 percent and terminate smaller-scale environmental programs, such as the Chesapeake Bay cleanup largely based in Annapolis.

While the future of that spending plan remains in doubt, a shrunken environmental budget would limit how much the federal government can support research, including the long-running climate change study at the Global Change Research Wetland.

Decades of data and long-term experiments — aimed at forecasting the future of wetlands as they respond to sea level rise and other global changes — have led to surprising findings.

Last year, a Duke University study relied heavily on Global Change Research Wetland data to produce a model that predicted elevated carbon dioxide, a major contributor to climate change, will actually help stabilize tidal marshes as sea level rises, Megonigal said.

Another study by scientist Meng Lu looked at the long-term findings and saw something nobody had seen before: Increasing CO2 is causing plants to shrink.

"We're getting more plants per area, but smaller plants," Megonigal added.

Marsh Madness

Every year Global Change Research Wetland seeks volunteer help to record data for short- and long-term studies.

A volunteer group comprised of local high school and college students gathered Thursday at the high-tech wetland, as part of the annual two-week citizen science project, Marsh Madness.

This year they were assisting Thomas Mozdzer, an assistant biology professor at Bryn Mawr College, with his study on invasive phragmites plant — otherwise known as the common reed.

Volunteers scattered about the marsh to catalog the contents of each chamber. They measured plants using marked PVC pipe, harvested leaf samples and put them in small brown envelopes to be sent for lab testing.

As each chamber is treated uniquely, they yield different levels of plant growth and diversity.

"The phragmites goes crazy in the nitrogen," said Andrew Peresta, a SERC bio-geochemistry lab technician who helps direct volunteers. "The diversity starts slowing down a little bit."

The mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, Peresta added, "adds diversity but also adds even more density."

"When we add nitrogen, it can potentially increase resilience to sea level rise because of enhanced growth," Mozdzer said.

Nitrogen, he added, naturally comes from nonpoint source pollution like overuse of fertilizers on farms and leaky septic systems.

Carbon dioxide

Mozdzer's study raises a complicated question: Is carbon dioxide good or bad for wetlands?

Carbon dioxide helps marsh plants grow rapidly, and that's good because marsh plants create soil, effectively raising the marsh and allowing it to keep up with rising sea levels.

Carbon dioxide also accelerates the spread of invasive species, such as phragmites. That's particularly bad for the Chesapeake Bay because the plants spreading drives fish, crabs, birds and other organisms — essential to the area's economy and culture — from their preferred habitat.

Humans are a leading factor in increasing carbon dioxide levels. Though volunteers varied in their reasoning for helping out at the center last week, some said they wanted to better understand the impact of humans on the environment.

Alexa Poirier, a recent Coastal Carolina University graduate with a degree in marine science, said she really likes plants and feels like "people take them for granted" and don't understand "how much they actually affect us."

Connor Morningred, a rising senior at Arundel High School, said it's interesting "seeing how humans have impacted the earth and the challenges we're going to face if we don't stop."

Marshes support shellfish, fish, birds and mammals. Fish rely on wetlands to spawn, birds feed and rest there during migration, and small mammals — such as muskrats — live there.

Wetlands clean water, and protect homes and infrastructure from storms.

"If a storm surge pushes a lot of water to the bay, it creates a huge tide," Megonigal said. "The marsh slows the tide down and gives it space to flood into."

But marshes also play a role in climate change driven by increasing CO2 by acting as carbon sinks.

Plants absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. Some carbon goes back into the atmosphere through respiration, but the rest is stored as leaves, stems and roots. When the plant dies — usually every winter — the carbon-rich remains are buried in marsh soil.

"Marshes store carbon at really high rates," Megonigal said. "About 50 percent of a plant is carbon."

So losing them would be bad in a number of ways. As it stands, tidal marshes are in danger. If they can't keep up with sea level rise, wetland plants will drown and the area will become open water.

Trump administration

About 70 percent of SERC money comes from competitive federal grants and contracts, said Megonigal. The money from federal agencies is competitive, meaning the best proposals win.

"We've managed to keep our work going for 30 years because we're competitive," Megonigal said. "(We do) excellent research and write competitive proposals."

Doing excellent research and writing the best proposals is irrelevant if the federal research funds aren't available. Trump's proposed budget would make that possible.

In June, Gov. Larry Hogan and a top EPA official downplayed concerns that federal support for Chesapeake Bay cleanup will vanish under the Trump administration.

At the annual meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Program governing board, representatives of the six participating jurisdictions signed a resolution urging Congress and the president to continue the $73 million funding. Hogan said he doesn't expect Trump's proposal to survive the budget process in Washington.

But at the marsh in Edgewater, there remains some doubt.

"We do wonder about the future of these long-term experiments," said Megonigal, who's worked on the experiment for 20 years. "Once the experiments are interrupted, they've ended."

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct how different conditions in the chambers are created.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
34°