Kelsey piloted the boat up a smaller creek, stopping in front of a wooden-plank boardwalk leading to a tall eddy covariance flux tower. The tower comprises a series of instruments that take regular measurements that provide a comprehensive picture of carbon dioxide exchange, evaporation, and energy exchange in the coastal marsh. Put simply, the flux towers record the very breathing of the marsh ecosystem.
In 2016 and 2017, blogger and photographer Erika Zambello launched a road trip to visit as many LTER sites as possible. Follow her travels through the LTER Road Trip StoryMap or peruse the stories below.
See more of Erika’s work at E. Zambello Writing and Photography.
Parking under a bridge, I walked down a short dirt road to the cutgrass (Zizaniopsis miliacea) marsh. The bright green stalks waved overhead, completely immersing me as I stepped onto a narrow boardwalk that provides access to the gridded plots. The air was hot and humid, t-shirts and shorts sticking to arms and legs as students and researchers moved amid the marsh.
Every month, Field Technician Tim Montgomery loads his equipment onto a center console motorboat and heads off into the marshes surrounding Sapelo Island, Georgia. Over the course of several hours, he stops at multiple sites to check on the Georgia Coastal Ecosystem LTER network of data loggers continually collecting water quality parameters as they gently bob in the water. On one particular morning, I had the opportunity to go with him.
I paused at the top of Coweeta Hydrologic Lab’s transect #327, peering down, down, down at the slope beneath me. Katie Bower, a research technician at Coweeta, and two summer interns had already started down the narrow pathway, accustomed to its slippery leaf layer and sharp contours. Taking a deep breath, I followed slowly behind.
I flip open my copy of The Franklin Press while sipping coffee at a field station, and there, in a bi-monthly column, is an article by Coweeta Hydrologic Lab staff, answering the scientific questions of local citizens. The column is just one part of the Coweeta Listening Project (CLP), an initiative of the Coweeta LTER.
Salamanders are very sensitive to changes in both precipitation and temperature, and scientists at the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab have discovered that they represent a hotbed of evolutionary activity. That’s right – evolution is happening before our eyes, in real time.
To evaluate the effects of soil warming, scientists have measured soil gases including methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide as well as nitrogen fluxes every month since 1991, comparing the heated plots to control plots nearby. One of the most interesting results they have documented comes from the forest’s tiniest organisms – the microbes that digest downed leaves and branches (also known as the ecosystem’s detritus). At first, the microbes worked overtime in the heated plots, releasing more carbon dioxide through their respiration.
The hemlock is a native tree species that was once common from northern Alabama to Nova Scotia. Stretching tall with thick needles, the hemlock creates an entire ecosystem beneath its large branches. In the Smoky Mountains, its shade used to cool streams just enough to allow the eastern brook trout to thrive. Unfortunately, these hemlocks are in dramatic decline.
The boat whizzed past the mangrove trees in Everglades National Park, creating a blur of blue water and green leaves. Rafael Travieso, our captain and lead technician for Florida Coastal Everglades (FCE) LTER, expertly guided us through Shark Slough to a partially hidden wooden dock. Slowing down, we glided forward until the tip of the boat barely tapped the wooden structure, which created a platform for a solar panel and what looks like a barrel.
Viviana Mazzei studies organisms that cannot be seen with the naked eye. When I toured the Florida Coastal Everglades LTER research sites in Everglades National Park, my eyes were drawn to the mangrove trees, the dolphins, the birds. But when Mazzei, a Ph.D. student at Florida International University, wades through these ecosystems, she is on the look-out for something much smaller: diatoms, a type of single-cell algae, that thrive in this aquatic environment.