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VCU wetlands research will help improve models that predict global climate change

A project at the Rice Rivers Center fills a unique gap because it will capture data from a source that is both tidal and freshwater, which is “rare in tidal regions because of proximity to saltwater.”
Stephen Chan conducting a site evaluation of a tower that gathers greenhouse gas data at VCU Rice Rivers Center.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded $11 million in funding for research projects — including at Virginia Commonwealth University — focused on how ecosystems such as forests, arid lands and coastal environments are affected by extreme weather events, including floods, droughts and heat waves. The goal is to help scientists improve their ability to accurately predict the effects of climate and environmental change.

The project at VCU will be led by Chris Gough, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and will investigate fluxes of methane and carbon dioxide at the VCU Rice Rivers Center. It will involve gathering greenhouse gas data from a tower, as well as conducting field experiments to simulate powerful storms.

“Simulation models rely on data to generate the predictive algorithms used to forecast climate change,” Gough said. “Data for coastal wetlands are particularly sparse and our network of coastal research greenhouse gas towers will fill an important knowledge gap by supplying information on wetland methane and carbon dioxide exchange with the atmosphere.”

The Rice Rivers Center tower is part of the AmeriFlux network, a group of sites measuring ecosystem carbon dioxide, methane, water and energy fluxes in North, Central and South America.

“This project will allow VCU to continue as a contributor to this global initiative to understand greenhouse gas exchange between ecosystems and the atmosphere,” Gough said. “Our VCU wetland fills a very unique gap because it’s tidal and freshwater, the latter being very rare in tidal regions because of proximity to saltwater.”

Gough’s team is particularly interested in exploring how pulse precipitation events — fast and heavy rainstorms, like from a hurricane, that are increasingly common in coastal regions — will affect greenhouse gas exchange with the atmosphere.

“Coastal wetlands are especially vulnerable to these events because they are recipients of the excess precipitation and chemicals that result from pulse precipitation events,” Gough said.

The project also will focus on how much carbon is sequestered by coastal wetlands and how much methane they emit.

“The balance between carbon sequestration and methane release is important to determining whether these ecosystems have a net cooling or warming effect,” Gough said.

The VCU project is part of a larger $1 million project, “High-frequency Data Integration for Landscape Model Calibration of Carbon Fluxes Across Diverse Tidal Marshes,” led by Patty Oikawa, an assistant professor at California State University East Bay. It was one of 17 grants awarded last week by the Department of Energy.

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