Microorganisms Help Wetlands

Seeing microorganisms and cellular structures brought about a new era of scientific discovery, from understanding infectious agents to recognizing sub-cellular structures in living tissues. Microscopy allows us to observe the smallest parts of our natural world invisible to the human eye. Different types of microscopes and other analyzing tools have allowed ecologists and environmental scientists to assess the health of wetlands in coastal Louisiana. From geologists to botanists, sedimentologists to ecologists, microorganisms are a vital ally in the fight against wetland loss in coastal Louisiana.

Microorganisms like phytoplankton (microscopic plants) can be great indicators of aquatic and wetland habitat health because they are easily affected by changes and easy to observe under a microscope. Studies across the Gulf Coast sample phytoplankton and zooplankton (microscopic animals) to keep tabs on large-scale changes in water quality. For example, algal blooms, which are huge growths of phytoplankton, often lead to the death of important fisheries species. These blooms also indicate poor water quality and contribute to the worsening of hypoxia.

Soil microbes can give information on marsh platform health. In response to stressful situations, these microbes can change their cell walls’ chemical makeup to reduce physiological damage. By identifying both the stressed and non-stressed types of molecules, soils can be assessed quickly. Healthy soils are important in keeping nutrients cycling, which is crucial in keeping wetland plants alive and growing.  Without a stable microbiome supporting plant growth, marsh platforms degrade and can no longer sustain life or provide any ecosystem services.

Microscopic organisms also play a huge role in coastal Louisiana’s wetlands because they are crucial in regulating marsh platforms, feeding our fisheries, and producing a huge portion of atmospheric oxygen for all terrestrial life on the planet. Coastal scientists study these tiny indicator species to quantify the health of wetland ecosystems. For example, fisheries rely on trophic interactions (food web/food chain) that include phytoplankton as the primary producers. Since seafood is such a profitable industry in Louisiana, we have a great appreciation for microbes. Louisiana’s crucial shrimp harvest and signature oysters rely directly on plankton, and larger sport fish rely on eating other things that eat plankton.

Although tiny, microorganisms play an important role in Louisiana’s coastal wetlands. As complex a system as our coast is, it’s easy to see direct impacts that a weak microbial community may have on certain pieces of the full ecosystem. We urge our scientists, engineers, and legislators to be conscious of each problem our coastal zone faces and the tricky side effects that may come with them. When restoring our coast, we must look at the big picture as well as the key parts involved in our coastal wetland system!

 

Sources:

https://www.epa.gov/national-aquatic-resource-surveys/indicators-zooplankton

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s100400050013

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Colin_Jackson11/publication/225750153_Effects_of_Salinity_and_Nutrients_on_Microbial_Assemblages_in_Louisiana_Wetland_Sediments/links/587e38e408ae4445c06fac52/Effects-of-Salinity-and-Nutrients-on-Microbial-Assemblages-in-Louisiana-Wetland-Sediments.pdf

Featured image of a Haptophyte from https://johandecelle.wordpress.com/2014/10/02/a-novel-diversity-of-haptophytes-unveiled-by-metabarcoding/

Land Loss and Human Impacts

Louisiana’s shrinking coastal zone is due to both natural causes such as rising sea levels and wave erosion, but human activity intensifies these evolutionary processes. Some of the most impactful land loss processes further increased by human activity include salt water intrusion, proliferation of invasive species, and subsidence.

Hurricanes and other storm events push salt water inland, increasing the salinity of wetlands to levels that damage local flora adapted to lower salinities, causing those plants to die, which in turn decreases their potential to reduce storm surge around human settlements. Dredged canals for oil and gas exploration provide easy pathways for salt water to move inland since these canals are often straight. [1] Healthy marshes decrease the distance that storm surges can infiltrate, so any man-made development that diminishes intermediate or salt marshes indirectly affects freshwater wetlands as well.

Invasive species are plants, animals, or other biota that are from other regions of the world that cause harm to our local native environment. One such invasive species with extensive ramifications for our coastal wetlands is the Coypu, or “nutria rat.” This large rodent devastates stands of native graminoids such as cordgrasses (Spartina spp) and bulrushes (Schoenoplectus spp). Coypu specifically target the base of stems and roots, digging for them in soft sediment platforms. [2] Lower root concentration in soils and active disturbance make for weakened substrates that are more susceptible to being washed away. Other invasive species have similar outcomes, but not necessarily by the same method. We have several invasive animals and plants in Louisiana, each introduced by humans either on purpose or accidentally, and each one has a destructive presence along our coast. CWPPRA actively works to counter the destruction of invasive species through research, engineering and reward-based mitigation, such as the Coastwide Nutria Control Program. [3]

Louisiana was built by the Mississippi River over the past several thousand years, depositing layer after layer of soft, uncompacted sediment. Naturally, that sediment will compact, causing the surface to sink. Developing human settlements might speed up this process due to increased weight. Some cities are sinking as fast as 12 millimeters per year. Combined with rising sea levels, these areas are getting 15 millimeters (.6 inches) closer to sea level each year. [4] Combining the natural subsidence rates with unnatural marsh degradation, flooding will continue to worsen in our towns and cities. The Coastwide Reference Monitoring System (CRMS) tracks subsidence as well as several other ecological conditions and CWPPRA project performance over 391 sites along the Louisiana Gulf Coast. [5] Human activity is an integral component of Louisiana’s coastal zone, and CWPPRA works with biologists, engineers, local governments, volunteers, and residents to study those adverse impacts and devise innovative methods to address and deter them.

 

Sources:

[1] http://web.mit.edu/12.000/www/m2010/finalwebsite/background/wetlands/wetlands-degradation.html

[2] http://www.columbia.edu/itc/cerc/danoff-burg/invasion_bio/inv_spp_summ/Myocastor_coypus.htm

[3] https://www.nutria.com/site9.php

[4] https://www.nola.com/news/environment/article_fc2fc043-f0a3-55a5-b1a5-ce96dc712c3e.html

[5] https://www.lacoast.gov/crms/Home.aspx#

 

Featured Image from JennyCuervo [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Dynamic and Restored Wetland Habitats

Many animals and a few plants are adaptable to changing conditions in their habitats, which is a vital ability in dynamic landscapes such as wetlands. With seasonal flooding, temperature shifts, storm pressure, nutrient availability, species density and variation, and many other factors, many species are adaptable to changes that are predictable. Unfortunately, there are man-made and natural changes that may disrupt entire ecosystems by destabilizing one “keystone species” or by changing a crucial abiotic factor such as salinity. In coastal restoration, groups like CWPPRA ensure that they are not causing a sudden shift in any ecosystem in which they are working. CWPPRA projects must abide by the results of an Environmental Impact Survey (EIS) to ensure that the proposed project is not going to disrupt key processes including reproductive cycles, migration, or nutrient replenishment.

Freshwater diversion projects are a hot topic on the restoration circuit these days, because although they seek to restore land that has been lost or save areas that are degrading, there are key stakeholders, such as oystermen, who have moved into and now rely on these now-open waters for their livelihood. Restoration groups conduct an EIS for each project to understand the impact of a project for Louisiana’s working people as well as ecosystems.

Coastal Restoration is a complex issue with many intertwined components. Ecosystems are fairly resilient, but they are threatened by large-scale, sudden changes. Storms can increase salinity in freshwater wetlands, which causes many plants and animals to die. Freshwater wetlands are constantly under pressure at their fringes because our coastal zone is moving further and further inland. This shrinkage allows more salinity influence in areas that, historically, were safe behind their salt marshes that are now deteriorating or already lost.

Restoring the coast can’t happen soon enough for the people and other animals that live there, as well as plants and even people who live outside of Louisiana. A recent state poll demonstrates that over half of Louisiana’s residents recognize that coastal land loss will directly impact them this year, and that number jumps to over 75% expecting to be impacted in the next ten years.[1] It is clear that the concern for our rapidly disappearing coast is gaining ground, and CWPPRA stands ready to restore, rebuild and maintain Louisiana’s wetlands for the near-term and the future.

 

[1] http://mississippiriverdelta.org/coastal-poll-2019/

Coastal Careers

Wetland career opportunities are as diverse as the ecosystems they focus on. Whether you want to restore, study, inform, or otherwise utilize the abundance of ecosystem services, wetlands can provide a lifelong, rewarding career.  Involvement in wetlands is not limited to the sciences; it includes numerous different disciplines. Wetland careers also span various organizations from local to the federal level and from the private sector, nonprofits, and public service positions.

Wetland restoration involves several professions within the bounds of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Coastal biologists, hydrologists, botanists, engineers, modelers, and GIS specialists are all involved in planning, constructing, and monitoring CWPPRA restoration projects. In addition to STEM professionals, the coast needs professionals that work with the communities who are impacted by coastal wetland loss and policymakers who leverage the law to ensure local, state, and federal governments prioritize coastal wetland restoration. Coastal organizations also need grant writers and development professionals to generate funds for advocacy, engagement, and restoration projects as well as individuals who are involved in the day-to-day operations of the organization.

In addition to coastal restoration careers, many individuals benefit financially from the services and resources the wetlands provide. Wetlands supply jobs in fossil fuel production, the seafood industry, and agriculture production for Louisiana’s workforce and contribute billions of dollars to our state each year. These industries have a variety of careers within STEM, social sciences, administrative, and communication fields.

Tourism and education professionals are also invested in keeping wetlands healthy. These professionals are enthusiastic to share the splendor of our state with visitors from far and wide. Teaching both our native population and out-of-state neighbors the importance of keeping wetlands working properly is one of the main goals of the CWPPRA Outreach Office, alongside many great friends and partners from groups like BTNEP and RESTORE the Mississippi River Delta.

Wetlands can also inspire careers within the arts. Artists find some of their greatest stories and strongest inspiration in the wetlands of Louisiana’s. Painters such as George Rodrigue, photographers like Frank Relle, writers such as James Lee Burke, and musicians such as Lost Bayou Ramblers, to name a few, have all found inspiration in our charming, vibrant wetlands.

If you’re interested in wetlands, there’s probably a job for you that incorporates your other interests. The fight to restore and protect our wetlands is all encompassing and there’s numerous outlets for your curiosity, creativity and innovation!

 

 

 

Evolving Study of Wetlands

From towing an airboat to a site, to driving the vessel, to taking samples in the hot, humid sun, there are many challenges for researchers as they study coastal wetlands.  Thanks to innovations in drone technology, researchers can study the wetlands a little easier. With free movement in every direction, a camera, and various other attachments, drones can gather enormous amounts of data in a fraction of the time that it would take more traditional methods. Drones are far from alone on the forefront of technological advancement. Innovations in drones sit alongside and often work synergistically with GIS/GPS, remote sensing, and machine learning breakthroughs, to name a few.

In addition to the evolution of drone technology, computer software and hardware systems evolve just as quickly, consistently streamlining data collection, processing, and analysis. The two go hand-in-hand, of course; complex software can only be run with more powerful or specialized computer hardware, tailored to the task it will be performing. Major game-changers challenge the norms and traditions of science increasingly more often. In the past several decades, satellite imagery has become more prevalent, drones have allowed scientists and others to access new perspectives, and machine learning has grown to process more parameters at higher speeds. All of this advancement in computing has allowed scientists to develop greater understandings of systems, connectivity, and changes in wetlands.

In addition to improvements in drones, software, and processing power, researchers have improved the development of environmental models. Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, one of CWPPRA’s managing agencies, joined with LSU to design, manufacture, and implement the Center for River Studies’ scale model of the Mississippi River in 2017. An amazing feat of engineering, the river model allows scientists to study several aspects of our coastal zone. Using a sediment medium that mimics Mississippi River sediments, studies can predict what will happen during a flood event, if a diversion gets installed, and so many other situations. Hydrology, sedimentation, and potential ecological impacts can all be measured on this 10,000 square-foot platform at approximately a 13:1-time scale, i.e. one full day running the model represents about thirteen full days on the real Mississippi River.

In a dynamic landscape like coastal Louisiana, good equipment is a huge benefit to studies and planning for the future. Land loss is a complex issue with several moving parts that need to be studied and addressed. It is imperative that there is a good understanding of the full system before any changes are made that could have detrimental effects on any important aspects of our productive, populated, and protective coast.

 

Related articles:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364815217311295

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/earth-and-planetary-sciences/remote-sensing

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0925857417303658

 

Featured image from https://blog.nature.org/science/2016/09/27/flight-over-the-bas-ogooue-using-drones-to-map-gabons-wetlands/

Cooperation is Key

The American Shore & Beach Preservation Association (ASBPA) celebrates America’s beaches annually by highlighting recently restored recreational coastal areas. The Caminada Headland’s beach restoration is one of the four winners of the ASBPA’s Best Restored Beach award, alongside South Padre Island in Texas, Waypoint Park Beach in Washington, and Duval County in Florida. [1] The Caminada Headland restoration project was spearheaded by our state partner, CPRA, and multiple CWPPRA projects preceeded it and work synergistically to  improve the entire Caminada barrier island system.

CPRA’s Caminada Headland Beach and Dune Restoration is a barrier island restoration project with two increments (BA-45 and BA-143) constructed in 2015 and 2017. Since the input of approximately 5.4 million cubic yards of sediment, the beach has improved habitat for shorebirds and plants. In addition to the direct benefits of the beach as a habitat, the healthy barrier island will better protect the marsh on the bay side as well as inland wetlands from storm surge and wave energy.

CWPPRA’s Caminada Headlands Back Barrier Marsh Creation increments 1&2 (BA-171, BA-193) is directly behind CPRA’s Caminada Headland Beach and Dune Restoration and greatly benefits from the project.  Together CPRA and CWPPRA have restored a complete barrier island, which would have been difficult and costly to do without partners. Our coast’s future depends on the cooperation of organizations and their projects. Louisiana’s land loss crisis is too large to tackle in one way or by one group, and successful collaboration leads to the best available science, innovative design, and systems-based approaches. CWPPRA and our state partners are working towards a common goal: a healthy coast for the future of our state.

[1] http://asbpa.org/2019/05/20/celebrating-americas-beaches-asbpa-names-its-best-restored-beaches-for-2019/

https://www.lacoast.gov/reports/project/20180601_BI_lessons_learned_SOC18__Darin_Lee.pdf

 

Featured image from https://www.audubon.org/magazine/fall-2017/louisiana-restoring-its-barrier-islands-defend

Airboats: A Tool for Restoration

Navigating wetlands can be difficult for traditional boats due to the changes in water depth and the amount of mud and muck, as well as the meandering of the waterways. Because of these complications, boats that travel both over land and water are needed to explore coastal wetlands. The creation of airboats and innovations in their design have allowed for greater exploration of wetlands and are vital to CWPPRA’s wetland restoration.

Airboats evolved since their introduction in 1905 by Alexander Graham Bell, who is also credited as the inventor of the telephone. His first model was named the “Ugly Duckling”, a crude test vehicle that incorporated an aircraft propeller mounted on the back of a simple pontoon boat. Over the next decade, further developments turned airboats into World War I reconnaissance vessels. Following the end of the war, commercialization led to a rise in popularity among civilians with companies designing taxis and recreation vessels alongside independent innovators creating their own airboat designs. One of the most revolutionary models was built in 1943 at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah and dubbed the “Alligator I”. This design was the first known to use air rudders rather than traditional rudders, and most airboats today replicate the Alligator I’s flat bottom hull with air rudders. [1]

Thanks to the inventors at Bear River, Louisiana’s wetlands are more navigable than ever. Further developments have allowed airboats to pass over land, increased passenger capacity and engine horsepower, allowing those in pursuit of recreation, scientific research, and sport hunting/fishing to reach previously inaccessible parts of our wetlands. CWPPRA teams visit project sites using airboats to help get an idea of problems to be addressed through the duration of projects, ensuring the best quality of restoration for our coast. Restoration and preservation have been made easier with creative solutions like airboats, so we would like to recognize the innovators who worked a century ago to improve upon each other’s designs. Once again, the land loss crisis and need for wetland restoration in Louisiana is too large for us to do it alone. We need all the help we can get from innovators like those at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge to help restore our coast.

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airboat#First_prototypes

Featured image is from a CWPPRA site visit to our BA-34-2 project.