Destroying Nature… To Save It?

This summer, I was a REU intern for TIDE at the Plum Island Field Station conducting research on wetland plants.

While parts of the marsh can be a challenge to get to (carrying heavy equipment across narrow bridges, jumping muddy or water-filled mosquito ditches, and swatting greenflies every day!), I can’t lie that I still love spending my days collecting data out in the sun.

It’s extremely peaceful on the marsh, with only the occasional call of a swooping red-winged blackbird or obnoxious mosquito buzzing in your ear disrupting the silence.  In this silent moments, sometimes I just sit back and think about the scale of our projects and the possible implications of our discoveries.  Basically, our project studies a Massachusetts wetland at the ecosystem level.

And coastal wetlands are a big deal.

There’s always a gorgeous view to be seen on the marsh

They help protect us from floods, store carbon by removing CO2 from our atmosphere, and provide a home to young fish until they are large enough to venture out into bigger waters and become a valuable food source. However, our wetlands are in real danger.  Pollution and runoff from our farms, roads, and lawns dump exorbitant amounts of nitrogen into wetland ecosystems.  This extra nitrogen can have significant and devastating effects on the function of these wetlands and action must be taken to protect these valuable environments.

By studying the effects nitrogen pollution has on wetlands, scientists can demonstrate how wetlands will be affected by pollution and hopefully shape policy restricting such pollution.

Our gas analyzer and battery pack we use to study wetland plant productivity. You’re looking at about $60,000+ worth of equipment in this picture alone!

To do this, the TIDE project uses two creeks in our experimental wetland:

  1. One creek left unfertilized, as a control
  2. One creek that receives large amounts of artificial fertilization each incoming tide, to simulate pollution from runoff

We then compare data from the two creeks (plant size/density, fish counts and diets, water quality, etc.) to examine how pollution might change the ecosystem.  One such observed effect is the collapsing of the creek banks.  Essentially, nitrogen pollution is causing the creeks to fall apart.  While I’ve found that the seemingly purposeful destruction of a marsh is unsettling to some people I’ve described the project to, I believe that it’s a completely necessary step to understand how marshes will react to nitrogen pollution in the future – to allow us both to take steps to prevent further marsh loss in currently affected areas AND to convince policy makers to take preventative action to preserve these invaluable ecosystems.

In a way, this project may be viewed as destructive, but the impacts on this wetland over the course of our experiment could pale in comparison to the good that our research will bring if it can be used by policy makers and fellow scientists to save what’s left of these incredible patches of green.



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