Friday, October 04, 2013

Teachers learn about peatlands, carbon, climate change at Michigan Tech's Global Change Institute

By Michele Bourdieu

Carrie Wilkinson (center), science teacher at Grayling Middle School, and Kevin Murphy, high school physics teacher from Kalamazoo, work on the "bog in a bottle" project during the July 2013 Teachers' Institute on Global Change at Michigan Tech. (Photos by Keweenaw Now)

HOUGHTON -- Carrie Wilkinson, a science teacher at Grayling (Mich.) Middle School, may begin one of her science classes this fall by showing students how to make "a bog in a bottle" -- one of the take-home projects resulting from a week at Michigan Tech's summer Teachers' Institute on Global Change July 8-12, 2013.

During the 5-day institute, Wilkinson said she was learning a lot about exposure of soils and peatland to the global carbon cycle and hoped she could apply this new knowledge in her classroom.

Evan Kane, Michigan Tech assistant professor in forestry, with a specialization in soils, and Lynette Potvin, U.S. Forest Service ecologist, shared their own research on peatlands and climate change with a group of eight teachers, offering them ideas for learning activities they might use in their own classes.

Evan Kane, Michigan Tech assistant professor in forestry (center) talks about part of his research experiment on peatlands and the effects of climate change on their ability to hold carbon. The research project is located at the US Forest Service Forestry Sciences Laboratory on the Michigan Tech campus.

Kane said their research project, now in its third year, is based on the fact that peatlands cover only three percent of the earth's landscape but harbor more than 20 percent of carbon.

"We're doing some climate change scenarios to see how the ability of these peatlands to hold onto their carbon is likely to change in an altered climate," Kane explained.

He noted they expect the future to bring longer periods of drought as well as greater inundation.

"Basically it's going to get weirder," he said, "and almost everyone agrees that it's likely to get warmer."

The reason why these systems accumulate carbon is that there isn't much oxygen in there, Kane noted, but different plant functional groups have different consequences for oxygen delivery. Sedges, for example, pump oxygen into the peat, and the oxygen accelerates the rate of decomposition (letting carbon into the air).

Evan Kane displays one of the peat files in the climate change experiment. Sedges are growing on the top.

"Beneath the water table we can actually measure that change," he added.

When there is less oxygen, decomposition is slower.

Different plants have different strategies for getting nutrients; e.g., shrubs don't enhance decomposition by oxygen but have unique communities associated with their roots, Kane explained. Those communities are more active for decomposing the peat -- releasing carbon and making nutrients available.

This box includes a mixture of ericaceous shrubs and sedges. In a tunnel underneath the box the water table and roots can be studied. Other boxes contain only sedges or only shrubs for comparison.

Eryn Grupido, Michigan Tech student in ecology, works on maintaining vegetation treatments, which includes picking out separate species of plants from the boxes of mixed sedge and shrub communities. Here she is holding some rosemary, a bog plant.

"So the whole impetus for this is how climate change is going to affect the ability of these (plants) to alter decomposition," Kane said. "So the two treatments that we're interested in are how changes in water table interact with the vegetation community and how those affect the ability of the peat to hold onto its carbon."

The researchers have manipulated plant communities -- made some sedges, some shrubs -- and superimposed changes in water table height. Climate change is likely to nudge these communities in certain ways.

The teachers also had a chance to see what was under the plants in the boxes -- large bins in a kind of tunnel, where two different water table levels could be observed and the roots of the plants viewed through glass.

Researcher Lynette Potvin, U.S. Forest Service ecologist, fields questions from the teachers concerning the water treatment of the plants, which can be viewed below the surface of the ground through the windows of the bins.

"We have seen changes in the plant community based on the water table," Potvin said.

Two sets of water treatments -- with low and high water table levels -- were being applied to three different vegetation communities: 1) only shrubs, 2) only sedges and 3) shrubs and sedges, Potvin explained.

Lynette Potvin indicates the water table height in one of the bins.

Potvin noted climate change projections are for prolonged drought in summer. Thus, with changes in climate there could be differences in plant communities based on water availability.

"The precipitation side of climate change is hard to predict," Potvin said. "It's a little bit harder to nail down than the temperature side of things."

During the "bog in a bottle" activity to apply what they learned about the peat and carbon to their classroom teaching, some of the teachers commented on the institute.

Evan cuts some hunks of peat for the "bog in a bottle" activity as teachers Kevin Murphy of Kalamazoo and Chelsea Laurn of Tamarack City observe. At the time of this institute, Chelsea was a substitute teacher looking for a position in biology and integrated science.

High school physics teacher Kevin Murphy of Kalamazoo said, "This is a little out of my area, but I'm enjoying it."

Evan Kane demonstrates the "bog in a bottle" -- placing a hunk of the peatland vegetation into a bottle with water to keep it moist for taking home.

Dave Hokenson, who teaches elementary school social studies in South Range, noted applications to his teaching field.

"It relates to social studies both economically and environmentally -- through our regional wetlands," Hokenson said.

He said he also enjoyed the field trips.

"We went to L'Anse to look at forest growth that's been monitored through temperature control," Hokenson noted.

Preceding this institute, Hokenson participated in the Great Lakes Watershed Institute (June 24-28, 2013) in which teachers explored the physical, chemical, and biological components of the Great Lakes ecosystem, using the Lake Superior watershed as the classroom -- collecting data aboard the Agassiz research vessel and visiting streams, wetlands, and stewardship projects.

"That was really interesting, too. We learned a lot about the habitat of lake trout and whitefish," he said. "We also learned about bogs and how Tech is involved in research on the Great Lakes."

Joan Chadde, director of the Center for Science and Environmental Outreach at Michigan Tech and course coordinator of the Center's Teacher Institutes, emphasizes the practical applications of the courses for the teachers' K-12 classrooms.

"We offer hands-on teacher institutes taught by scientists so that teachers can enrich their curriculum with content and engaging activities to teach students about often complex topics," Chadde said.

Chadde noted the lead instructor for the Teachers' Institute on Global Change was Andrew Burton, Michigan Tech professor of forest ecology, whose research integrates soil science, hydrology, plant physiology and ecology in order to determine how ecosystems are affected by and adjust to environmental stresses and human manipulations.

Government "shutdown" affects federally funded research project

The peatlands research project, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), began at Michigan Tech in 2009, Kane explained, when both he and Potvin began working on it here. Unfortunately it is experiencing some difficulty right now because of the government "shutdown." Potvin, a federal employee, is unable to work on it at present.

"The 'shutdown' has made things difficult here, and Lynette is actually furloughed for the time being," Kane said. "I can wear my MTU hat at this time, and so have the privilege of working during the shutdown."

The global importance of the project is stated in the project summary: "Peatlands are globally important ecosystems that are critical and vulnerable components of terrestrial carbon storage. Insights from the proposed work should enhance our ability to manage and model the plant communities and carbon dynamics of these ecosystems in the face of anticipated climate change."

In addition, the project helped fund this Teacher's Institute on Global Change, in collaboration with Michigan Tech's Center for Science and Environmental Outreach.
It also includes training of both graduate and undergraduate students working on the project.

Click here for more information about Michigan Tech's teacher education programs and coming events at the university's new Great Lakes Research Center.

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