MORGANTOWN, W.Va. The factors that contribute to potential climate change are varied and complex, so the scholarly approach to understanding them has to be equally multifaceted. A team of West Virginia University researchers demonstrated the value of a multidisciplinary approach in their study of wetlands in the Mid-Atlantic Highlands.
The team included scholars from WVU’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, and the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, along with the Canaan Valley Institute. Wildlife scientists teamed with civil engineers, biologists, and forest hydrologists to study over a century’s worth of meteorological data to understand the impact of climate change on these complex ecosystems.
WVU doctoral students Jonathan Pitchford and Chenjie Wu turned interdisciplinary research into lead authorship of an article for Wetlands, the journal of the Society of Wetland Scientists. Photo by Lindsay A. Willey.
Chenjie Wu, a doctoral candidate in Statler’s civil and environmental engineering program, had more than 100 years worth of climate data for the Mid-Atlantic, tracking temperature and precipitation trends. Jonathan Pitchford, a doctoral candidate in Davis’s wildlife and fisheries resources program, wanted to determine what a continuation of climate trends would mean for wetlands in the region.
“Although there have been several studies looking at climate trends in the Mid-Atlantic, no one has looked at the potential impacts of these changes on wetlands in the region,” Pitchford said. “There are several published studies that indicate that our region is likely to experience temperature increases from 1 to 5°C over the next century. We wanted to see how Chenjie’s data fit in with other published projections and compare and contrast potential impacts for wetlands given multiple scenarios.”
Wu’s climate data indicated that the Mid-Atlantic Highlands has been slightly cooling over the past 100 years and the intensity of precipitation events has increased. Using these trends in empirical models of evapotranspiration— evaporation and plant capacity to retain water—showed that the extent of wetlands within the Mid-Atlantic Highlands could possibly increase if these trends continue.
“Although initially a decrease in temperature and an increase in water seems to be a good thing, this scenario would also bring with it a unique set of challenges for land managers interested in conservation of wetlands, such as decreases in floodwater storage and water quality and potential negative effects for certain wetland species that prefer only temporary flooding,” Pitchford said.
Wetlands provide many valuable functions including floodwater storage, carbon sequestration, nutrient processing, sediment stabilization, and habitat for numerous wildlife species. Due to the large number of stressors on these ecosystems, it is becoming increasingly important to use research and modeling efforts to prepare for climate induced changes and conserve these valuable functions.
Temperature increases would have a different set of impacts on wetlands due to increases in evapotranspiration resulting in a decrease in the land area consisting of wetlands.
“This scenario could lead to decreases in carbon sequestration and available habitat for most species of wetland wildlife and increases in floodwater storage capacity of wetlands,” Pitchford said. “We really wanted to contrast these potential impacts for each scenario to demonstrate that there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding climate change, and that more research is needed to adequately prepare from a land management perspective. We were hoping that this paper could serve as a potential framework to address this uncertainty using some simple, yet valuable conceptual and empirical models.”
Wu and Pitchford were lead authors on an article published in Wetlands, the journal of the Society of Wetland Scientists.
Faculty colleagues on the project included LianShin Lin, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Todd Petty, Walter Veselka, and Jim Anderson, faculty in wildlife and fisheries resources; Richard Thomas, professor of biology, forest hydrologist Nicholas Zegre, and Danny Welsch, director of science for the Canaan Valley Institute.
The project was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association grant that created West Virginia University’s Environmental Research Center, a unit that specializes in this kind of interdisciplinary research on complex issues.
“Interdisciplinary research is essential for addressing the numerous critical issues our society faces,” said Anderson, director of the Environmental Research Center. “This research project benefitted by having experts in amphibians, aquatic and wetland systems, climate change, fish, hydrology, and modeling as well as broadly trained scientists capable of melding multiple disciplines together.”
WVU has stressed the importance of interdisciplinary work in its 2020 Strategic Plan for the Future.
“There is also increased interest and emphasis on interdisciplinary research by funding agencies as they realize the potential payoffs from research occurring at the fringes of multiple disciplines,” Anderson said. “This is why investment in and cultivation of interdisciplinary centers like the Environmental Research Center are vitally important for growing the research enterprise.”
CONTACT: David Welsh, Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Design