OSU researchers work to restore, conserve wetlands

The Jackson-Frazier Wetland is located northeast of Corvallis and contains 147 acres of protected land. The boardwalk loop trail allows hikers to view the local marshes.

Melinda Myers, News Contributor

Freshwater, saltwater wetland ecosystem benefits humans, surrounding wildlife.

Driving around rural Corvallis, the view out the window slowly turns from agriculture to forest to bog as the distance increases. These wetlands are home to wildlife, flora and natural resources that promote biodiversity and benefit society. Oregon State University has researchers working on wetland conservation and restoration on local, national and global scales.

Christopher Janousek, an OSU researcher in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, works with other OSU researchers, the United States Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to survey and map wetlands. Janousek’s main focus is to determine how coastal wetlands are affected by rising sea levels through observations, experiments and models.

“Our goal is to understand the whole coast of the western U.S. from southern California to Washington to understand climate change impacts to the size and composition of coastal marshes,” Janousek said.

According to Janousek, wetland ecosystems provide services such as water purification and storm buffering to wildlife and humans surrounding them. Wetlands such as marshes, bogs, mangroves, seagrass beds and forested tidal swamp systems provide a multitude of services, making them integral to environmental health.

“We care about coastal wetlands for a bunch of reasons,” Janousek said. “They provide a lot of ecosystem services which are important for fish and birds. They’re important because they remove carbon from the atmosphere.”

Other OSU researchers, including Dennis Albert, work to conserve and restore national freshwater wetlands such as the Great Lakes. Albert’s work is primarily focused on managing invasive species such as Phragmites australis, a common reed that has taken over the Great Lakes’ system.

“There is currently no effective way to eliminate most of these invasive plants, which typically degrade fish, waterfowl and shorebird habitat, although there have been millions of dollars dedicated to aerial spraying of herbicides to combat Phragmites australis in recent years,” Albert said via email.

Treating freshwater habitats with herbicides presents a unique set of challenges, according to Albert.

“Herbicide treatment typically results in another cycle of nutrient enrichment and replacement of the treated plant with either algae blooms or other invasive plants,” Albert said in an email.

Additionally, these freshwater wetlands often provide some of the same ecosystem services found in the brackish wetlands that other OSU researchers work on, such as storm buffering, water purification and erosion control, according to Albert.

“Another interesting project has been conducting research in the Hinsdale Wave Research lab to demonstrate some of the basic ecological services provided by wetland plants, including wave-energy attenuation, sediment accumulation, and reduced erosion,” Albert wrote in an email.

Wetland plants also have the ability to provide storm-buffering services, which is useful in an environment that has cyclic heavy, wet weather, such as mangrove environments warm waters. Boone Kauffman, a professor and senior researcher in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, first began his career in Oregon temperate wetlands until he moved on to study mangroves.

“The riparian zones in Oregon, for example, may only be 1 or 2 percent of the land surface in Oregon, but they provide habitat for 83 to 85 percent of all wildlife,” Kauffman said. “That’s why their management and conservation and the need to focus on them is so important for preserving biodiversity.”

Preserving global biodiversity in various habitats provides more opportunities to access services, if done so in a sustainable way, according to Kauffman.

According to Janousek, the data that are collected from his project is compared across the west coast to identify any developing patterns.

“A big collaborative project which includes two researchers at OSU and other institutions around the Pacific Northwest, involves sampling coastal sea grasses, coastal marshes and tidal swamps,” Janousek said. ”We are basically quantifying the amount of carbon these ecosystem types can hold. Another major goal is to relate that to other environmental patterns like salinity.”

Some of the global data that Janousek works with is mangrove data.

“Mangroves are coastal wetlands in the tropics; they’re forested wetlands that live in the intertidal zone between high tide and low tide throughout the tropics. These are the nurseries of the seas, as we say,” Kauffman said. “They provide anywhere between 35 and 85 percent of the commercial fish species in the tropics. They spend part of their life in the mangroves. So we lose the mangroves, we lose the fisheries and therefore the sustainability of many coastal communities.”

One aspect that Kauffman and Janousek collaborate on is the effects of climate change on wetland ecosystems. Climate change has affected wetland ecosystems by increased carbon levels and temperatures, according to Janousek.

“They are not directly related, but it’s another big project I’ve working on started recently. It’s based in the Pacific Northwest,” Janousek said. “Our goal is to understand how much carbon these lands are sequestering or holding. This is related to climate change in that these habitats could be valuable ways to reduce additional atmospheric carbon.”

Sequestering, or taking in carbon, is one of the leading services for combating climate change. According to Kauffman. The global average of carbon as of October 2017 was 403.64 ppm (parts per million), showing an increase of 2.07 ppm since October 2016, according to the Mauna Loa Observatory, an NOAA-designated atmospheric observatory.

Mangrove wetlands are important for conservation in terms of climate change, according to Kauffman. Compared to other global forest ecosystems, mangrove wetlands have among the highest carbon storage, and when they are deforested, aboveground and soil carbon are lost as greenhouse gas emissions. The emissions from mangrove deforestation is among the highest of any land use on earth. Additionally, the high rates of mangrove wetland deforestation, due to their proximity to coastlines and people, lead to a loss of many other important ecosystem services, Kauffman added.

Overall, mangrove wetlands aid in slowing rates of climate change, protect communities from storm surges during hurricanes, maintain fishery resources and are critical for water detoxification, according to Kauffman.

“They’re also not only the nurseries of the sea, we call them the kidneys of the landscape because they really do have an important role in water purification,” Kauffman said. “They take the toxins out of the waters and provide clean water then for the seagrass and coral reefs offshore.”

Researchers can define the parameters of a healthy system by comparing data to national standards. These standards are defined by governmental agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency.

Alan Herlihy, a senior research professor associated with the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, works with the EPA with wetland researchers to turn raw data into meaningful analysis.

“I do epidemiology for stream health instead of human health,” Herlihy said. “A lot of what we do is like telling you, ‘Don’t smoke or your risk of getting lung cancer will increase,’ but for streams.”

Herlihy uses statistical analysis software to store, analyze and interpret data from wetland researchers to answer questions and monitor health. According to Herlihy, one initial challenge before conducting research is defining the boundaries of the study.

“Where do you sample, what do you sample, how often do you have to sample?” Herlihy said. “Once you pick your random set of lakes, there’s a whole lot of research questions.”

In an age of advanced communications, collaboration between researchers, stakeholders and citizens is becoming more accessible. According to Herlihy, the EPA collaborates with OSU to share information and conduct ecological strategies.

Collaborative processes in STEM projects have shown to improve the overall process, according to Janousek.

“I enjoy the collaborative process because we have researchers from a variety of backgrounds, which I think always improves the quality of the project,” Janousek said. “In the carbon project in particular, we’re trying to work with policy managers and stakeholders to share information. Hopefully they can develop ways to manage these resources using this information.”

Citizens can do their part to reduce their carbon footprint and conserve local, national and global wetlands through ways such as being mindful of where their food comes from, according to Kauffman. For instance, one cause of the loss of mangroves is converting the land into shrimp ponds. Actions such as this not only destroy the habitat, but eliminate positive ecosystem services, Kauffman added.

“And we have found that probably, in terms of a carbon footprint, there’s nothing in this planet you could put in your mouth that has a higher carbon footprint than shrimp from a shrimp pond from a mangrove,” Kauffman said.

According to Kauffman, one pound of shrimp creates over 1,700 pounds of CO2 through loss of mangroves alone.

“What we do in our everyday lives, the choices we make with the food, you know, thinking globally and eating locally maybe would be one way (to minimize carbon footprints),” Kauffman said. “The other one is just being aware of our actions. Where does our food, clothing products our sources of energy, even our paper products, come from? Be aware that there is a cost.”