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Environment: L.A. students help scientists measure climate change

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Strawberry Swamp at Hobcaw Barony still shows the effects of Hurricane Hugo.

Ocean water flooded the low land nearly 26 years ago, and the salt left behind in the soil has thinned the trees that once provided a healthy canopy. Wax myrtle and poison ivy are more prevalent in what Baruch scientists call the “apex of death,” an area where salt in the swamp’s soil is measured at five parts per thousand.

Dr. William Conner, professor and assistant director of the Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology and Forest Science, arrived a year after Hugo in 1990 and has made a career of studying how the forests and swamps react to outside agents, both natural and man made.

Conner is getting some extra help collecting scientific data this summer from volunteers through the Earthwatch organization. A team of elementary and middle school teachers from California preceded a team of high school students from Los Angeles who received scholarships from the Durfee Foundation. Earthwatch organizes groups to work side by side with scientists to learn more about the natural world. They are helping Conner and Dr. Alex Chow examine what climate change could mean for the plants, animals and people that depend on tidal freshwater wetlands. By understanding these changes, Conner said, scientists can recommend the best ways to protect the environment.

The students, said the Earthwatch facilitator, Tera Dornfield, aren’t necessarily science geeks, but they have an aptitude for adventure and learning. “My job is to make sure it all goes smoothly while they are entrusted with scientific research duties,” she said. “It’s been really rewarding. They can’t believe how much trust has been put in them. This data will be used in publications.”

The students come from different high schools around Los Angeles. There’s a reality television aspect to their being at Hobcaw. Wearing Earthwatch T-shirts, they first met at the Los Angeles airport to catch their flight. They are living in student housing at Hobcaw, shopping at Piggly Wiggly and learning about mosquitoes and chiggers in the middle of July.

“They are used to hot and dry desert with no water and no bugs,” said Dornfield, a doctoral candidate at the University of California-Irvine. “This is something very different for them. The cool thing about high school students is they are very excited about new experiences. Every day they are ready to come out in the field.”

While they have been ready to go, it’s not been easy in the heat and humidity, said Lois Kim, a student at Granada Hills Charter High School in Los Angeles. “It’s been an eye-opening experience,” she said, “because the majority of conditions are new. I’ve never been in this type of weather. Sometimes, like oh man, it’s been really hot. I don’t know if I want to go into the swamp. I have to. I don’t know if I’ll have this opportunity again.”

On one especially hot afternoon, Conner allowed the students to leave their chest waders behind when they went into the swamp. He thought they would be crossing knee-deep water, but it proved to be a little deeper. The whole group had the experience of “swamp stomping with Dr. Conner,” he said.

Baruch scientists have given the students some manual labor along with their scientific responsibility. They carried lumber from a road to the edge of Strawberry Swamp to extend a foot bridge. Conner said Earthwatch encourages citizen scientists who believe in the mission and become advocates when they go home.

The students from Los Angeles have been measuring the circumference of the swamp’s trees to monitor monthly growth. They use instruments to measure gas emissions from the soil and analyze water samples in the lab. By comparing data month to month, scientists monitor the swamp for changes in a variety of ways.

Strawberry Swamp, Conner said, is a lab unto itself. There are 74 trees that have electronic instruments monitoring sap. “This is probably the largest sap flow study going on in the country, maybe the world,” he said. Two probes are attached to each tree. A computer sends a signal to heat the lower probe, heating the sap and causing it to rise. When the sap crosses the upper probe, the instrument measures the temperature to see how much it has cooled and that tells how fast water is moving up the tree. “The water out here is the thing that drives the system,” Conner said.

The standing water in Strawberry Swamp is all fresh water. Most of the salt has settled two feet below the surface. Conner and his associates track the growth of trees and shrubs in the salinity zone and compare it to other areas of the swamp. How long trees survive once exposed to salt water is a question that he’s still trying to answer.

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