LSU’s College of the Coast & Environment is Leading the Way on World Wetlands Day
February 2, 2021
BATON ROUGE — Each year, World Wetlands Day is celebrated internationally on February 2 to raise awareness of the significance of wetlands in our global environment. In Louisiana, our community is already keenly aware of the contributions that wetlands make to our way of life each and every day. Here along the Mississippi River Delta, these fascinating and fragile ecosystems support livelihoods; offer recreation; and provide essential habitat for birds, waterfowl, and aquatic life.
Located right along the banks of the Mississippi, it makes sense that LSU’s College of the Coast & Environment, or CC&E, would house the largest group of wetlands experts under one roof in Louisiana. In fact, more than a fourth of CC&E’s faculty have a primary focus on wetlands research, and four of the top 10 published wetlands scientists in the U.S. work at CC&E, according to Web of Science. Their work leads to a better understanding of the complex causes of wetlands loss, potential methods for restoration, and ways to better manage these systems.
“I think one of the coolest things about the LSU College of the Coast & Environment is that we're all very invested in the future of Louisiana wetlands—wetland deterioration, restoration, and management. Much of our collective research falls under the umbrella of an applied wetlands theme,” said Tracy Quirk, wetlands expert and associate professor in the Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences.
Here are some of the many ways we are contributing to wetlands research.
Coastal Restoration and Carbon Capture
Worldwide, wetlands make up only five to six percent of the land’s surface, but they contain approximately one-third of the world’s carbon captured in their soil, making wetlands research critical in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In Louisiana, river diversions are the most popular method used to offset land loss in the Mississippi River Delta. CC&E scientists are exploring how river sediment diversions may affect increasing wetland plant productivity and decomposition and the potential for these wetland creation projects to function as blue carbon sinks, or ecosystems that absorb more carbon than they release as carbon dioxide.
Additionally, we are studying how warmer temperatures are impacting greenhouse-gas producing microbes in the high latitude wetlands in northeast China, which are underlaid by permafrost. These high latitude wetlands store large amounts of carbon that can be decomposed by microbes and released to the atmosphere as greenhouse gasses when warmer temperatures cause the permafrost to thaw.
Furthermore, thousands of Native Americans live in coastal Louisiana, and coastal land loss is taking pieces of their history, culture, livelihoods, and identity with it. To prevent this, we are working in collaboration with Grand Caillou and Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians to reverse wetlands loss near sacred native sites by backfilling retired oil and gas canals.
Water Quality and Oil Spills
CC&E scientists are working to improve water quality in the Mississippi River watershed by understanding the relationship between wetland losses and nutrient runoff contributing to the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone, or “Dead Zone.” Moreover, in an effort to understand how wetlands can reduce nutrient runoff to the Gulf Coast and improve water quality, we are measuring how much water moves between river channels and wetlands in a river delta, then calculating how long it remains in the wetland region. We have found that wetland regions actually receive nearly half of the water moving through the system, which is important because those wetlands can remove excess nutrients from the water and reduce nutrient pollution in the Gulf of Mexico.
Additionally, we are exploring how long it might take a newly-created artificial wetland to provide the same ecosystems services as a natural wetland. Preliminary results show that water quality improvement in artificial wetlands seems to achieve parity with that of natural wetlands more quickly than other processes, such as carbon capture and plant growth.
Oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico also affect Louisiana’s wetlands. Our researchers are identifying the ongoing effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on sedimentary animals exposed to oil in Terrebonne Bay and Barataria Bay as well as the effects of oil on plants and soil microbes.
Hurricanes and Urban Planning
CC&E scientists are assessing how storms can make coastal erosion worse even when they do not directly strike these vulnerable areas. We found that indirect hurricane strikes, even when storm centers are hundreds of miles away, still cause substantial erosion. For example, in Barataria Bay, we discovered that erosion rates were up to 60 times higher than the four-year long-term average, due to an increase in hurricanes in 2020.
Furthermore, wetlands make up part of coastal watersheds, which are complex, multi-jurisdictional, and socio-environmental systems. We are analyzing the reciprocal interactions between infrastructure and wetlands and how coastal and urban planning systems impact these environmental systems.
Computer modeling plays an important role in understanding ecosystem dynamics. We are working on a comprehensive model that predicts future wetland changes and will serve as a critical resource for assessing the effectiveness of wetland restoration activities.
Other CC&E models include a wetland water quality model that would assess whether levee breaks along major drainage channels in Bayou Boeuf Basin, a sub-basin of the Barataria Basin estuary, would significantly improve water quality by allowing water flow into surrounding wetlands.
Beneficial Algal Communities and Harmful Algal Blooms
Algal communities in marsh surface sediments can be beneficial to the ecosystems they inhabit by serving as critical food resources for marsh sediment animals across coastal Louisiana. As such, CC&E scientists are working to assess their abundance and positive impacts on Louisiana wetlands. Conversely, harmful algal blooms, or HABs, can severely affect human health. We are also evaluating the HABs that occur in the Pontchartrain Basin and other Louisiana ecosystems to help prepare stakeholders for future occurrences that may negatively impact humans, fisheries, and the ecosystem.
According to John White, CC&E’s associate dean of research and wetlands expert, “The sea level rise contributing to Louisiana wetlands loss today is what the rest of the world's going to see in 50 to 75 years. So, it is more important than ever that—in addition to conducting our own research—we provide the education needed for the next generation of wetland scientists to help tackle this growing, global challenge.”
At the time of this writing, 15 percent of all alumni of CC&E’s graduate programs have graduated as wetlands experts, and collectively, they have published more than 118 theses and dissertations on the subject.
Contact Christine Wendling
LSU College of the Coast & Environment