The other day one of my friends told me she doesn't know what I do. My sister has told me the same thing before. I even have a wetland manager I interact with who doesn't know what I do. Sometimes I don't know either. It's hard to remember sometimes that everyone I meet doesn't know or care about Great Salt Lake wetland ecology as much as I do. As the conversation with my friend continued, we discussed Radiolab, and how great they are at bringing science to the masses. I'm a big believer in making science relatable and in helping people understand what I do and why they should care, but that's hard work. Everything about graduate school and academia drives you to focus on gaining acceptance from faculty members by catering to their area of expertise and to woo funding agencies by closely following their jargon-laden calls for proposals. All of that aside, I can't think of a way to make my research Radiolab-cool, but I don't have any impending deadlines and thought I'd take a shot at making my research understandable here on the blog.
The official title of my project is "Determining the impact of impoundment and water management on Great Salt Lake wetland condition." Blarg. Long titles can be descriptive, but they're also mind numbing. To show you why you might care about my project I'll deconstruct the title to talk about four things: 1) wetlands are amazing, 2) Great Salt Lake wetlands are extra amazing, 3) impounded wetlands are intriguing, and 4) wetland condition is a way to answer my pressing questions.
1) Wetlands are amazing. Wetlands are soggy places. Some are wet and soggy all year long and some are only muddy for part of the year, but they're all wet long enough to be different from terrestrial environments like forests and deserts, but not flooded deep enough to be considered aquatic environments like a lake, river, or ocean. Wetlands are the swamps, marshes, bogs, and quagmires you've all hopefully wandered into at some point. Wetlands are considered ecotones, they're transitional ecosystems between terrestrial and aquatic environments and share qualities of both. In the larger scheme of things, they look like this:
|Upland, wetland, and aquatic ecosystems. The black line represents the soil surface, the blue line represents the water surface.|
- Pickleweed (Salicornia rubra) - my favorite - can live in water and very salty places by storing water and salt in its tissues. Its other common name is swampfire because it changes from green to red during the fall. Pickleweed can also be used to salt or preserve foods.
- Alkali bulrush (Schoenoplectus maritimus) thrives in wetlands with fluctuating water levels because it can reproduce by seeds on dry ground and through rhizomes that create another stem of bulrush that is still connected to the original plant under flooded conditions. In this way, alkali bulrush can form large, single species stands.
- Hardstem bulrush (Schoenoplectus acutus) can grow in deeply flooded wetlands because its stems are full of air pockets call aerenchyma that allow the stem to stay erect until it grows up through the water surface. These aerenchyma can then send oxygen from the parts of the plants above the water to the submerged parts.
Lack of oxygen due to flooding also makes wetland soils different. Without oxygen bacterial decomposers work slower and organic matter tends to accumulate as muck (which is exactly like it sounds) or peat. The bacteria that survive in wetland soils often have to use an element other oxygen to complete cell processes that generate energy. Nitrogen, manganese, iron, and sulfur are converted to different chemical forms by bacteria in flooded soils and that causes changes in color (in the case of manganese and iron) and smell (in the case of sulfur); these are the characteristics of hydric soils.
|Wetland soils are the best!|
|The saltiest part of the Great Salt Lake|
|Great Salt Lake wetlands|
|Sago pondweed above and below|
|Duck nests in emergent wetlands|
|That's a wetland full of surprises right there. While it looks solid, you couldn't drive a truck across it without getting stuck|
|Wetland drought is real, my friends.|
|All those ponds with straight boundaries are impounded wetlands, natural wetlands don't have straight borders.|
|Two large impoundments one mile apart - the left flooded deeply, the right drawn down during late summer|
(Yeah, there's a song about condition, but it doesn't sound like they're talking about wetlands.)
Once I committed to a PhD project trying to figure out this whole impounded wetland business I had to figure out a way to measure the impact of impoundment and condition assessments seemed to be the way to go. My condition assessment is based on the vegetation within each wetland, which I will survey for at least three years. Based on a survey of the plant community, I hope to be able to say how much a site deviates from a natural state and how stressed a wetland is based on the plant traits mentioned in section 1. In this way, I can judge each wetland (and I'm surveying 50 of them) as excellent, good, eh, and poor. For example, a wetland in excellent condition would be composed only of awesome, native species (no weeds here) and have a water regime that looks normal (not too deep, not too dry). A poor condition wetland might have lots of weeds and spend too much of the year too dry to support cooler wetland plants.
|From left to right: Excellent, Good, Eh, Poor|
|Examples of wetland water regimes put together based on my piezometer data.|
I've only got preliminary results so far, but I can see that impounded wetlands are different from un-impounded wetlands because they are usually flooded for a longer part of the year. Because the water level is higher in the impoundments there are more wetland plants. In wetlands where the water level gets really low (more than 2 feet below the soil surface) I've found more species of plants you would usually find in drier places (I call them weeds, because I don't think they belong in my wetlands).
|Nodding beggarstick, a plant not often found in impounded wetlands.|
So there you have it, why I would study GSL wetlands and how I intend to determine the impact of impoundment. And my desperate plea for snow.