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Scientists research wetland-based methane emissions

by Courtney Deeren - Lifestyles Editor
Tue, Oct 8th 2019 01:00 pm
Professor Rachel Schultz (right) and graduate student Courtney Scoles (left) are collecting readings on methane emissions in wetlands and comparing areas with native plant species to those with native cattails.
Professor Rachel Schultz (right) and graduate student Courtney Scoles (left) are collecting readings on methane emissions in wetlands and comparing areas with native plant species to those with native cattails.

Professor Rachel Schultz, Ph.D. and graduate student Courtney Scoles, as well as a few undergraduate students, have been studying the effects of wetlands on climate change. The study began in the summer of 2019 when Schultz and her students began collecting readings of methane emissions in wetlands along Braddock Bay in Rochester, New York. 

“So what we’re looking at is Braddock Bay Wildlife Management Area has several wetlands that have been invaded by a plant called cattail,” Schultz said. “And actually that represents a few species, but they have become dominated by cattail and so what managers have done in Braddock Bay is they’ve gone in and removed cattail from certain areas of Braddock Bay to improve the wildlife habitat. This has already been done on several islands in this particular area.”

Schultz explained wetlands are important because they benefit wildlife, water quality, flood control and climate mitigation. 

“What climate mitigation is is a lessening of the impact of climate change and what wetlands do is they’re able to store carbon dioxide that’s fixed from the atmosphere,” Schultz said. “Carbon dioxide — being a major greenhouse gas — gets fixed into systems and stored in the wetlands. Wetlands naturally also emit a powerful greenhouse gas called methane.”

Methane is approximately 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to Schultz.  

“There ends up being what we call a carbon balance that we look at,” Schultz said. “There’s a carbon sink so carbon is being absorbed and stored, but some of that is being released as methane which can also cause a warming effect.”

Scoles came to Schultz with the idea for this research after seeing a study regarding invasive cattails and the amount of methane they release. 

“My graduate student Courtney Scoles brought this to me — she found a study that invasion by what we call the hybrid cattails led there to be three times the amount of methane released from marsh systems in Great Lakes coastal islands than a similar community that was made up of native species,” Schultz said. “What she was curious to know is whether the restoration that removed cattail and planted native species in their place, if there was a response in a lowering of the methane from those particular areas. She’s looking at both the areas that had kept the cattails and the areas that removed and replanted with native vegetation in cattail areas to see if there is an effect.”

Schultz said the thing that is particularly exciting about this project is that while people want to improve wildlife quality in the areas, they may also be lowering greenhouse gas emissions by changing how the land is used.

According to Schultz, there is a current plan in New York state to reduce methane emissions, but it focuses mainly on the agriculture industry instead of natural climate change solutions. Looking at the research and taking action is falling more on land managers now. 

“Can wetland managers say ‘OK I want one of the values of this area to be climate mitigation,’” Schultz said. “I want to enhance those particular services. Well, this type of research gives them the tools to say OK, you know these researchers found that replacing cattail with a more diverse wetland plant community had a decrease in methane emissions and present increase in whatever we do find.”

This project, according to Schultz, is able to be carried out due to a grant that gave them access to important technology.

“This study is particularly enabled because of, what we have is called a backpack greenhouse gas analyzer and prior to this technology it would have been — it would not have been possible in this area because it’s very cumbersome to try to measure greenhouse gasses using basically the older technology so we’re able to be out in the fields in these wetlands,” Schultz said. 

One of the undergraduate students who worked with Schultz and Scoles, Rob Sickler, was thankful for the experience. 

“Working on this project was a great opportunity to gain experience in a way that prepares you for the job sites typical in a career in environmental science,” Sickler said. “While the courses in the major are full of important and relevant information to prepare for a prospective job, going the extra mile to be involved in work outside the classroom both looks good on a resume, and is a good indicator for what to expect for many jobs in this field, particularly for positions that hire those who have just recently gotten their degree.”

The proposal for the project clearly states the necessity of this type of study.

“Currently ecosystem-based management of wetlands is not included in New York State’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (NYSDEC 2017), even though wetlands contribute 15-32% of the methane source to the atmosphere in temperate North America (Kirschke et al. 2013).”

The study aims to understand the way methane emissions have changed in the area. 

“Results of this study will provide baseline information on methane emissions from freshwater wetlands on Lake Ontario to add to the New York State Greenhouse Gas Inventory,” the proposal reads. “We will also be able to estimate the carbon storage associated with cattail monocultures compared with areas where cattail has been treated.”

The research is still ongoing and no official findings have been released by Scoles, who will be publishing the findings as part of her master’s thesis. The thesis will be available for review in Drake Memorial Library after its publication. 

 

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