Researchers at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater, MD are hard at work conducting a series of non-traditional experiments in the tidal marsh on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay, to simulate the effects of climate change and water pollution on a vital ecosystem. The group is working hard to study plant processes that may predict the conditions of wetlands in approximately 100 years.

The field study actually began nearly 30 years ago, back in 1987. It serves as the only one of its kind in the world, examining how factors like air and water will affect tidal wetlands. This will become increasingly important to protect against storms and sea-level rise that are expected to occur in conjunction with global warming.

SERC Study

Dozens of translucent enclosures are present above the reeds and grasses of the tidal marsh on the Chesapeake Bay. The structures contain motors powering fans that are flooding the plants inside the chambers with carbon dioxide gas. The enclosures are made from PVC piping and clear plastic sheeting. In an attempt to imitate the fertilizer runoff that commonly seeps into bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay, SERC scientists squirt nitrogen-rich water into the soil inside the enclosures once a month.

The plants in the enclosures are exposed to a carbon dioxide concentration approximately double that of today’s atmosphere. Scientists estimate that the higher level will be the standard by 2100, much in part to the burning of fossil fuels. The gas is produced by the same tanks used to make soft drinks.
Plants require carbon dioxide and nitrogen to grow, but SERC studies have found that some species grow much quicker when exposed to higher levels of CO2 and nitrogen, while this has little effect on other types. Predicting the outcome is no small matter. The additional nutrients increase plant growth and soil formation, which could offset sea-level rise. However, nitrogen also boosts microbe activity, speeding up the breakdown of biomass in the soil and decreasing the wetland’s capacity to function as a carbon sink to combat carbon dioxide emissions.

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