Consider an eerie photograph of a desolate ghost forest in a swamp where a thriving forest once stood.
Recall the dramatic footage earlier this year of people in western Washington trapped in their homes as floodwaters raged through once-quiet neighborhoods.
These shocking images underscore the importance of understanding what happens in nature’s transition zones – areas that can sometimes be dry land and underwater at other times.
The two examples also illustrate how these changes occur on different timescales: decades in some cases, days in others.
Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are leading a multi-agency collaboration focused on better understanding the impact that flooding, rising tides and sea level changes can have on trees, plants, soil and water.
They hope to learn how and why transition zones shrink and expand in response to natural and anthropogenic events. This information will help us better understand the impact of climate change, as well as guide efforts to protect our forests and homes from storms that can wreak havoc.
However, before researchers can understand the fundamental mechanisms that control what happens in these coastal ecosystems, they must study the associated biological, geological, and chemical systems and collect data at scales ranging from the microscopic level to multi-state regions.
PNNL is doing just that as part of a set of studies involving four other national laboratories, two universities and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
The effort, funded by the DOE’s Office of Science, is called COMPASS — short for Coastal Observations, Mechanisms and Predictions Across Systems and Scales.
Largest COMPASS project focuses on collecting samples, taking measurements, and performing experiments in the Chesapeake Bay and Western Lake Erie, two distinct regions with saltwater and freshwater coasts .
The researchers aim to fill the critical knowledge gap on the causes, mechanisms and consequences of specific activities in transition zones, also known as coastal land-aquatic interfaces.
What they learn about the similarities and differences in these areas will be applicable around the world, including the North West.
A day in the life of a researcher could involve collecting weather data as well as measuring soil conditions, greenhouse gas emissions, groundwater profiles, microbial activity or even collecting information about carbon and nitrogen in plants and sap flow in nearby trees.
Scientists work on laboratory experiments to explore how materials collected in the field behave under controlled conditions.
They also conduct large-scale field experiments to see how entire ecosystems can respond to change.
Part of the study near the Chesapeake Bay involves deliberately flooding land with salt and fresh water to compare the differences between a storm surge and precipitation.
Scientists will take measurements from upland upland areas to the edge of wetlands to closely examine the interactions between hydrology, soils and vegetation.
COMPASS research will ultimately improve our ability to predict how coastal land-aquatic interfaces will respond to short-term changes, such as prolonged rainfall, as well as long-term changes, such as increasing temperatures or rising sea levels. sea level.
Researchers will develop ways to represent the transformations and exchanges that take place across transition zones in Earth system models.
These data will improve our ability to predict behavior at land and ocean interfaces, which is a notable gap in current models that focus on land, ocean, and atmosphere separately.
COMPASS will provide a prototype module that can be integrated into such models and made available to the research community.
PNNL’s leadership role in COMPASS illustrates our expertise in earth science, soil science, biology, data science and chemistry.
Today, scientists focus on understanding processes; however, their research will ultimately have broad societal impacts related to the planning and management of these critical areas which are sometimes underwater and sometimes on dry land.
Steven Ashby is director of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.