Villanova, Pa. - Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have one thing in common – all were significantly more devastating because of marsh loss. Marshes around the globe are disappearing as global temperatures warm and sea levels rise. Now, research into tidal marsh change by a Villanova Biology professor, Adam Langley, PhD, has been awarded a $450,000, five-year National Science Foundation Long Term Research in Environmental Biology grant.
Marshes serve to protect the mainland, filter out pollutants, give a home to plants and nourish animals. Dr. Langley’s project “Twenty-Nine Years of Tidal Marsh Environmental Change,” on which he is the principal investigator, is working to simulate future conditions of carbon dioxide concentration in the Smithsonian’s Global Change Research Wetland in the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis, Maryland. Dr. Langley is working alongside co-principal investigator (PI) Patrick Megonigal, PhD, senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and co-PI Thomas Mozdzer, PhD, assistant professor at Bryn Mawr College. The grant helps fund the longest running field-based carbon dioxide experiment in the world.
“We’re essentially time-traveling to the year 2100 AD with our research by simulating future carbon dioxide levels,” said Dr. Langley. “Working with the Smithsonian is the perfect marriage. The Smithsonian maintains the experiment and Villanova teams of undergraduate and graduate students measure and process the data. It gives a great framework for our students to do research. Ecological changes are slow, but in this case, students can see high impact results in one growing season since they’re jumping right into an established experiment.”
The project is focusing on two impacts of carbon dioxide: plant response and sea level rise. As Dr. Langley explains, everything in a marsh ecosystem starts with plants. Plants feed on carbon dioxide, but they also need other nutrients. Some plants take advantage of more carbon dioxide while others are inhibited, thus disrupting the delicate balance of the plant community.
The team is also monitoring the effect of sea level rise on the marsh and more specifically, if the rate of elevation gain caused by organic matter decomposition can keep up. Right now, sea level rise is at three millimeters per year, but some experts are estimating that will be as much as six millimeters by the year 2100. Preliminary findings show that the Smithsonian marsh, and others like it, may already be falling behind sea-level rise.
“Projects like this are important because we have to have long term data,” explained Dr. Langley. “The composition of the whole plant community, which is going to matter more in the future than the response of individual plants, is not something you can measure in a short-term project. If you lose the plants, then you lose the marsh and the life that it sustains, as well as clean water and a clean atmosphere.”
“This National Science Foundation grant represents an outstanding opportunity for our undergraduate and graduate Biology students to team with scientists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center,” said Adele Lindenmeyr, PhD, dean, Villanova University College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “It also recognizes the significance of Dr. Langley’s research.”