Researchers study Southeast Alaska watershed changes

JUNEAU (AP) — Southeast Alaska’s watersheds are changing quickly, and researchers are working to figure out how, why, and what those changes mean.

Sanjay Pyare, Assistant Professor of Geographic Information Systems and Landscape Ecology, Sonia Nagorski, Research Assistant Professor of Environmental Sciences, Brian Buma, Assistant Professor of Forest Ecosystem Ecology, and other researchers affiliated with the University of Alaska and the Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center — including graduate and undergraduate students — on a recent Friday led local residents and teachers on a rainy walk out Herbert River Trail. Along the way, researchers shared some of the questions they’re trying to answer, and the ways they’re trying to answer them. It was the second annual such walk, focusing on research funded by a program called EPSCoR. Pyare is leading Southeast Alaska’s involvement.

What does glacial recession mean for marine ecosystems, for example? What do changes in the glaciers mean for helicopter tours offered to tourists? What kind of economic impact would it have if the Herbert River became a salmon stream? How much airborne mercury is being deposited in Alaska, and what does that mean for ecosystems’ health?

EPSCoR is a National Science Foundation program that stands for “Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.” It aims, in part, to more evenly distribute research funding across the states. Usually, states with high populations and a large number of research institutions — like California — get a disproportionate amount of funding, Pyare said.

The University of Alaska system in 2012 was granted $20 million through the program, to be distributed over five years across the three branches. The state matched that, contributing $5 million.

The Herbert River watershed is a microcosm of many across Southeast. In the colder months, it’s a forest-dominated system; in the warmer months, with more glacial melt, it’s a glacier-dominated system.

Much of the research in Southeast is focusing on Berners Bay. With an icefield, major rivers and estuaries, it supports and provides information about a vast variety of life.

Graduate student Michael Winfree is attempting to tie landscape characteristics to stream temperature. He’s looking at 40 watersheds this summer, and 20 more the next, all across Southeast Alaska.

Some of Nagorski’s research focuses on mercury’s aerial arrival in Southeast Alaska.

“There are growing indications we have more and more mercury in Alaska, probably mostly from Asia, as it’s in coal,” Nagorski said.

Buma spoke about the fluctuating health of different trees’ populations. Especially on the coast and farther south, yellow cedar trees are dying. They’re “tricked” by warm weather in the spring, leading late-season freezes to kill them by freezing their shallow roots, especially if there’s no snowpack. Alder trees are also important to deglaciated environments, as they add nitrogen to the soil.

Part of graduate student Jeff Frederick’s research focuses on mountain goats in Berners Bay. Warmer summers may lead to higher mortality, he said, due in part to an abundance of low quality forage, and to temperature-regulating coping techniques that use up energy and lead to less time for foraging.

Emily Whitney is researching near shore food webs, and Melissa Rhodes-Reece is researching marine iron.

The list of Southeast Alaskan climate-change research topics goes on. The U.S. Forest Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game also have a hand in much of that research.

With the warming of Southeast Alaskan winters, and a change from a snow-dominated system to a rain-dominated system, the studies are even more important. Some watersheds can serve as a future vision of others, Pyare said.

The point of EPSCoR-funded research is to help Alaskan communities figure out how to respond to social and environmental changes. The final goal, according to Alaska’s EPSCoR page, is to “establish a permanent Center for the Adaptation of Northern Social-Ecological Systems.”

For information about Alaska’s EPSCoR research in Southeast and the rest of Alaska, visit this site: http://www.alaska.edu/epscor.

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