Wade into Wetlands Research
May is American Wetlands Month—so we're taking some time out to talk about this important National Treasure that shelters us from storms and provides a unique habitat for wildlife.
Jennifer LaVista asks USGS National Wetlands Research Center Director, Phil Turnipseed a few questions on the importance of wetlands
Wade into Wetlands Research
Jennifer LaVista: Hello and welcome to the latest edition of CoreCast. April is American Wetlands Month. So, we're taking some time out to talk about this important national treasure. I'm Jennifer LaVista and joining me on the phone is Phil Turnipseed. He is the director for the US Geological Survey National Wetlands Research Center which is located in Lafayette, Louisiana. Phil thanks for joining us.
Phil Turnipseed: Thanks for having me Jen.
Jennifer LaVista: Now, first let's start off with the basics. I think all of us kind of have an idea of what wetlands are, but can you give us your perspective?
Phil Turnipseed: Sure. Actually, I grow up calling them wastelands. Earlier in my years, they were considered, those lands where you couldn't develop anything, you couldn't really have agriculture, you couldn't have a lot of the things that people use in terms of land use, but these are lands that are very valuable to us. And there are things like bogs, and marshes, and estuaries, coral reef which are kind of like the rainforest of wetlands in the ocean.
Lagoons, swamps, prairie pothole, lakes....
Jennifer LaVista: Wait of these are wetlands?
Phil Turnipseed: These are all wetlands. Yes they are.
Jennifer LaVista: Is any body of water wetland then?
Phil Turnipseed: Basically yes, but the wetlands that we study at the USGS National Wetlands Research Center usually involve marshes, estuaries and swamps like prairie potholes for example.
Jennifer LaVista: And what is a prairie pothole?
Phil Turnipseed: They are these lake-like marshes that exist in the upper plains and Lily are the habitat for millions upon millions of waterfowl in North America.
Jennifer LaVista: What are some of the notable wetlands that you study at the USGS?
Phil Turnipseed: At the National Wetlands Research Center, we have a lot of studies in those wetland ecosystem habitat and forest ecosystem habitat.
In terms of wetlands, we're talking about the marshes, the fresh water marshes, the brackish marshes, and the saline marshes that occur along the coastline in Louisiana. And in terms of forest ecosystem wetlands, we're talking about swamps like Cypress, and Tupelo gum, and mangrove swamps.
Jennifer LaVista: And why are you studying all of these wetlands? Why are wetlands important?
Phil Turnipseed: It just plays an essential role in giving us food and water. They serve as a filter for water. They shelter us from storms, floods, coastal erosion, as well as providing habitat for birds and fish, and other wildlife. They clean and store water for the human population in the world.
Jennifer LaVista: And I understand that there's an endangered species that live in wetlands as well?
Phil Turnipseed: There are. A lot of the species because wetlands are disappearing across the globe.
There are some unique plants and animals that occur only in wetlands. And as the wetlands disappear, so disappear the habitat for those animals and fish, and wildlife.
Jennifer LaVista: So, this area is not only important to the people who live there, but on a global scale.
Phil Turnipseed: They really are Jen. Wetlands are kind of in that cycle of life that as scientists and the human population, we need to go out because they are more or less the 'canary in the mineshaft' in terms of how are ecosystems are affected by not only climate, but by man made changes.
Jennifer LaVista: Okay, now speaking of climate and changes, how have wetlands change over let's say the last century or so?
Phil Turnipseed: They have disappeared. We have in Southern Louisiana lost an area equivalent to the size of Delaware in the last 80 years.
Probably a quarter, 25 percent of our wetlands have been lost in the last 80 years.
Jennifer LaVista: Is anything being done to protect these areas?
Phil Turnipseed: There are some current national efforts. One of note is the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force which is a high level task force that has been appointed by the President and has the head of EPA, the undersecretary, the Army, and a lot of really high level government officials that are trying to initiate something that will stop the decline, the overall decline in the Gulf of Mexico.
There are programs already in place that are working in places like the Delta Bay Area in San Francisco, the Chesapeake Bay, the Northern Plains prairie potholes. There are some efforts underway to slow the decline of this very important resource.
Jennifer LaVista: What are the reasons for this area to decline?
Phil Turnipseed: It really depends on where you are Jennifer because climate change of course is happening. The US Geological Survey has been studying climate change for decades now and it does vary regionally in its effect.
But for instance in the coastal wetlands of Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama, there is a sea level rise and because the areas on the coastal are so low lying and there elevation is so already close to the sea level, just a small rise in sea level could be devastating loss of wetlands.
Jennifer LaVista: How is the USGS National Wetlands Research Center involved in studying wetlands?
Phil Turnipseed: We are involved in several ways. We have several globally recognized ecologists and wildlife biologists that are looking at this problem. We're looking in sea level rise change, the effects of increase carbon dioxide on plant grove. We're looking at how resilient marsh grasses are with different flooded levels of not only just water, but the concentration of salt inside that water.
We're also looking at invasive species. We have a lot of new, not only plants species such as giant salvinia, but we also have this invasive fish, the Asian carp, the zebra mussel that are actually coming in and are having a detrimental effect on wetlands and waterway in general in North America.
Jennifer LaVista: So, I imagine your team spends a lot of time in the field, can you tell me some interesting techniques or some of the cool things that they are doing out in the landscape to study these wetlands?
Phil Turnipseed: Sure. We have a fleet of motor boat craft as well as a fleet of air boats. So, we have the marshes and estuaries continually throughout the country, not just in coastal Louisiana, but all the way up the Mississippi into Illinois all the way over to Florida. We have studies in the 10 thousand islands region of South Florida. We have field research ecologists on the landscape almost continuously throughout the calendar year.
They are measuring the sizes of species, the percent cover of different species, the diameters of trees, the height of trees. They are trying to characterized those ecosystems, so that we'll have a baseline and a continually changing baseline of ecosystem structure.
Jennifer LaVista: Phil thanks so much for shedding some light on wetlands research during American Wetlands Month. Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Phil Turnipseed: I think the nation needs to know that 40 percent of the coastal wetlands are here in Louisiana. It is such a fragile ecosystem and it's a national tragedy that we're losing and our hope that the country will become alerted, become knowledgeable, and help us save this globally important ecosystem we have down here on the Northern Gulf of Mexico.
Jennifer LaVista: Phil thank you so much for spending time with us.
Phil Turnipseed: You're welcome Jen. Thanks for the opportunity.
Jennifer LaVista: And thanks to all of you for listening. CoreCast is a product of the US Geological Survey Department of the Interior.