Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Backyard Ecology


Worldwide, populations have been moving from farms and rural areas to cities and suburbs. The shopping malls, Starbucks and parking lots that people build in these urban and suburban areas all create impermeable surfaces that alter how water drains from the land. Combined with pollution from fertilizers, human waste and fossil fuel combustion, urbanization often has direct impacts on surrounding ecosystems, which can be transferred to downstream ecosystems by the flow of rivers.
Figure 1. Plum Island Ecosystems LTER located on the suburban North Shore of Boston.


            The Plum Island Estuary is located on the North Shore of Massachusetts, where urban sprawl from Boston has been slowly creeping across the watershed since the middle of the 20th century. Research at the Plum Island Ecosystems (PIE) LTER site highlights the spatial linkages between ecosystems, with investigations studying local watersheds, the marsh, the estuary and the coastal ocean. One specific goal of the PIE LTER is to quantify how land use change in the watersheds affects nutrient delivery to the Plum Island Estuary. This research began in 1993 and sampling continues to maintain a long-term dataset that I am using as part of my doctoral research.

Unlike other LTER sites, where researchers might commute to their research sites in a helicopter or boat, my field day often begins by sitting in Boston traffic. The suburban context that defines the PIE LTER system makes it unique, and I enjoy working at a site where I am constantly reminded of how my work is readily applicable to societal issues and ecosystem management. As part of this work, I collect regular grab samples and perform maintenance of the equipment at five long-term monitoring sites.


Figure 2. Slow down people!

Two of the five long-term monitoring sites are located at dams along the mainstem of the Ipswich and Parker Rivers, both of which drain into the Plum Island Estuary.  The remaining three monitoring sites represent headwater streams of differing land use within the watershed: a suburban site in Burlington, MA, a wetland-dominated stream in Reading, MA, and a forested stream within a wildlife refuge in Byfield, MA. At each site a Sigma autosampler collects daily streamwater samples, and conductivity and water level loggers provide us with additional stream data every 15 minutes.
 
Figure 3. Our autosampler setup in some conservation land in suburban Burlington, MA.
 
To keep the autosamplers running, I have to replace the sample bottles and batteries every 24 days. In the process, I have become an expert in troubleshooting autosamplers and have experienced everything from blown fuses to rodent infestations.

Figure 4. It looks like such a good place to build a nest until that jerk shows up every 3 weeks and they have to start over from scratch….
 
I am currently using this long-term dataset that was collected by me and the many people before me to understand the influence of land use change on nutrient export to the Plum Island Estuary.



Contributed by:
Nathaniel Morse
Plum Island Ecosystems
Natural Resources and the Environment
Water Systems Analysis Group, Earth Systems Research Center,
Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space: University of New Hampshire
nat.morse@unh.edu


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