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/

Advertisements

EcoSTEAM Summer Camp

Lafayette Consolidated Government’s Project Front Yard hosts five weeks of a summer camp focused on environmental issues and STEAM activities. Eco-STEAM began June 17 and CWPPRA joined campers June 24 through 28. Our Wetland Warriors program included three days of wetland-based activities, outlining important adaptations that help plants and animal species with survival in the dynamic coastal wetlands of Louisiana.

We began on Monday with Wetland Jeopardy because it leads into discussion about wetland ecosystem services and children enjoy the friendly competition. The next day, we focused more specifically on wetland plants and their importance to overall ecosystem health. The Girard Park pond was helpful to discuss adaptations like the bald cypress. Our last day centered on wetland animals, mostly birds, and some of their adaptation for wetlands habitats. Birds are an excellent teaching tool because some can swim, walk, and fly, and beak variability can have some serious implications on species distribution. The campers enjoyed the beak variability activity, which challenged them to use a spoon, a fork, a straw and a toothpick to pick up various shaped snacks like gummy worms, sunflower seeds, goldfish crackers, and mini M&Ms. Our week of wetland instruction concluded with a field trip to Lafayette’s Acadiana Park Nature Station.

This was the Eco-STEAM’s second year and CWPPRA was thrilled to be included again, alongside great community partners including local IT giant CGI, UL Lafayette’s Hilliard Art Museum, the McComb-Veazey Neighborhood Coterie, and Lafayette Consolidated Government’s Office of Community Development, Parks and Recreation Department, and Recycling Division. This program is offered as an affordable summer option for area kindergarten through eighth grade students and we interacted with just over 100 eager new “Wetland Warriors.”

 

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.

World Oceans Day

In 2008, the United Nations designated June 8 World Oceans Day. World Oceans Day, an independent organization established in 2002 advocates for ocean preservation. Even earlier in 1992, there was discussion about a need to raise awareness across the world about the importance of a healthy ocean. Hundreds of visitors streamed through the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas on Saturday, June 8, 2019 to celebrate the oceans of the world.

We were excited to celebrate the health of our oceans at the Aquarium of the Americas because so many of Louisiana’s citizens rely on it for their livelihoods. Alongside partners such as BTNEP, our Outreach Team visited with hundreds of enthusiastic aquarium-goers from across the country. Our table was at the mouth of the Mississippi River section on the second floor, next to one of the Audubon Institute’s famed “leucistic” (partial loss of pigment, appearing white) alligators, Tchompitoulas.

Each family at the event was given an activity sheet as they entered, directing them to each of the different tables to collect stamps. To earn their butterfly stamp from CWPPRA, they had to learn the average number of minutes it takes to lose one acre, or a football field, of land in coastal Louisiana. On top of that, many of the younger participants were really excited to learn about the animals in our habitat toss game. Despite not being allowed to take the bean bags home, they still had fun learning about different coastal habitats and the resources they provide.

Writing on the Bayou

On Saturday, June 1, our CWPPRA Outreach Coordinator, Jennifer Ritter Guidry, attended the Bayou Culture Collaborative’s Writing on the Bayou workshop at the Terrebonne Parish Library in Gray, LA. Led by Nicholls State University English professor Dr. Michael Martin, the small group of writers shared their background in writing fiction, non-fiction and memoir, poetry and songs. After a discussion of types of writing styles and a brief examination of writing samples, we talked about Louisiana’s landscape and its sensorial aspects, and how to incorporate that in your writing. And then, we wrote about an experience within the Louisiana landscape and read our pieces to the group. Each story captured the essence of the landscape, from one person’s writing nook overlooking the bayou to another’s memory of pulling potatoes and driving the tractor with her father. Here’s Jennifer’s piece.

 

Louisiana’s landscape is its primary determining factor in all of its development—it drove early peoples to high ground to settle and offered multiple avenues for travel, dictated the types and variety of available food, discouraged European colonists who instead chose to impose control over the environment (New Orleans, anyone?). Landscape allowed for early roads to follow the numerous waterways and determined a mixed system for industry and transport.

The roads today in Lafayette seem to make no sense. The original grid of Vermilionville centered around the church has expanded into a tangled web of roads, intersections, alleys, and absurd traffic. The old joke is that the roads were mapped by a fellow who followed a car as it wandered through the area. In truth, first came the railroad, which avoided traversing the water at all coasts and instead paralleled it. Then came the roads, which had no other alternative than to mirror those riverine twists and turns.

It doesn’t matter where you are in Lafayette, you can always hear the late-night trains blasting through town, whistles at top volume. I grew up near the Vermilion River and as a determinedly introspective teen, my favorite thing to do was to sneak out of my bedroom window in the middle of the night and walk down to the river and watch the mist rising off the water.

 

Wetlands Filtration

The United Nations celebrates World Environment Day today, June 5, to bring more awareness to issues of environmental protection and restoration. This year’s theme is combating air pollution. We rely on our wetlands for oxygen production, carbon sequestration, and physical protection from natural disasters. As humans aggravate and change our environments, we lose these life supporting benefits and the impacts of global climate change become a local occurrence. [1] CWPPRA works to restore Louisiana wetlands so they can continue to filter pollution and improve air and water quality.

Coastal Louisiana contains about 40 percent of the United States’ wetlands, but we are experiencing around 80 percent of the nation’s land loss. [2] Recent studies have found that wetlands are some of the most productive ecosystems in the world, including estuaries, swamps, and marshes, all of which are found throughout coastal Louisiana. [3] Productivity is important because the more plant and animal material an ecosystem accumulates, the more carbon is absorbed, or sequestered, from the atmosphere. Plants grow through photosynthesis, which is a process that uses sunlight to bind carbon dioxide from the air into sugars that the plants can use for food. Wetlands have an impressive ability to store carbon in diverse plant tissues, both living and dead.

Although all plants and animals need nutrients, agricultural runoff introduces huge amounts of excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus to our wetlands as well, which impact wetland ecosystems. Nutrient pollution can cause weakened plant roots that are less effective at retaining sediment. [5,6] Additionally, nutrient pollution leads to algal blooms that deplete oxygen in the water, a process known as hypoxia, which leads to dead zones that kill aquatic species and causes health concerns for humans. Wetlands do a great job at filtering water to improve water quality, but they have their limits. Restoring wetlands will have greater potential to reduce nutrient pollution in the Gulf that damages the seafood industry, poses threats to human health, and degrades Louisiana’s coastal zone. Healthy plant communities in wetlands will sequester excess nutrients as well as other pollutants, improving water quality and decreasing potential risks downstream. [7] Wetlands can even be used as wastewater treatment plants. [8]

Atmospheric and aquatic nutrients can be filtered and stored by wetland plants, with long-lasting benefits to the world’s oceans and climate. CWPPRA realizes how many benefits we receive from wetlands and we have been working since 1990 to protect and restore our critical coastal environments. Alongside our partners, we hope that our wetland projects help our marshes and swamps continue to provide social, cultural, economic, and environmental benefits.

 

  1. https://phys.org/news/2017-02-wetlands-vital-role-carbon-storage.html
  2. https://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/la-wetlands/
  3. https://globalchange.umich.edu/globalchange1/current/lectures/kling/energyflow/energyflow.html
  4. https://www.aswm.org/wetland-science/wetlands-and-climate-change/carbon-sequestration
  5. https://climateactiontool.org/content/restore-affected-estuaries-reduce-nutrient-pollution
  6. https://nicholas.duke.edu/about/news/dead-roots-not-just-waves-account-marsh-losses-gulf
  7. http://www.wetlands-initiative.org/nutrient-removal
  8. http://efc.web.unc.edu/2016/09/23/constructed-wetlands-wastewater-treatment-walnut-cove-nc/

First Day of Spring

Spring is in the air! That means a burst of life in our coastal wetlands. You may already see flowers blooming, new leaves on trees, and a variety of migratory birds returning to their nesting habitat. Today, on the first day of spring, let’s explore the annual rebirth of Louisiana’s coastal habitats.

As plants proliferate in the warmer temperatures, so too a riot of colors joins the landscape. Some coastal favorites are seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), and salt marsh morning glory (Ipomoea sagittata) for good reason: they produce attractive flowers that saturate the wetlands with color. Other plants have less colorful flowering and fruiting structures but are more prevalent. Many sedges (Family Cyperaceae) are beginning to put out their iconic inflorescences, the branching flower clusters, as are several grasses (Family Poaceae). Other popular marsh plants including Juncus and Spartina species also begin their pollination cycle. The reliable reproduction of these graminoid (grass-like) plants is helpful in CWPPRA marsh creation projects because those species repopulate new land more quickly than woody plants. Once they move in and put down healthy roots, they demonstrate the effectiveness of CWPPRA projects and their success!

Plant enthusiasts aren’t the only ones excited for springtime; wildlife watchers, especially birders, see an infusion of new plant growth and wildlife offspring. Many birds return from their wintering grounds in South America to the warm nesting grounds along the Mississippi Flyway. Songbirds like the beloved prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea) fly across the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and our coastal waters to take advantage of the new plant life and insect population booms. South American migrants use the flyway to get further north alongside other species that use our coastal zone as a wintering habitat. Whether they are just stopping over or will be staying for the summer, Louisiana’s spring is one of the most exciting times to birdwatch. [1] Ultimately, birdwatching success diminishes at the same rate as our disappearing coastal wetlands. Habitat loss has major implications for population declines of bird species. Because birds have “favorite” wintering and nesting habitats, they are especially susceptible. Both their wintering and nesting habitats face the threat of deterioration and require protection. This part of the year is great for exploring all the natural areas that Louisiana has to offer, we suggest that you find a day that works in your schedule and visit a wetland near you; you’re bound to find something interesting. [2] We wish you all a happy spring and encourage environmental stewardship each and every day!

 

[1] https://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/explore/regions/southeast/louisiana/louisiana-birding-season-spring.php

[2] https://www.crt.state.la.us/louisiana-state-parks/maps/index