Marine sciences professor tracks environmental changes down the coast
Wetlands are really valuable habitats. They’re important for young fish, crabs, shrimp, and they’re also critical for protecting land from floods and for storing carbon.
In addition to the plant life that converts carbon to its own fuel source via photosynthesis, wetland soil traps excess carbon from escaping into the atmosphere. Scientists estimate about a third of all the Earth’s carbon is stored in wetland soil.
That’s why it was concerning to Alber when she and her post-doctoral associate, Jessica O’Connell, noticed from PhenoCam data that areas of wetland marsh grasses were greening up earlier with every season. After analyzing temperature data, she found that soil temperatures over the past 70 years had gradually risen as well.
“We think there’s been a long-term change, with plants greening up earlier over time,” she said. “So, what does that mean for the future? What does that mean for the marshes if this trend continues?”
At the bare minimum, an earlier spring green-up has implications for the animals that rely on the grasses for nourishment. At its most extreme, it could shift the carbon cycle and have reverberating effects on atmospheric carbon levels.
Equally troubling is the potential for development at the edge of coastal marshes.
Like with other bodies of water, there’s a swath of land along the water that isn’t suitable for development. But unlike with streams or rivers, it’s a bit less clear where that buffer zone begins and ends. When the Georgia Department of Natural Resources was wrestling with this question, Alber stepped in.
As head of the Georgia Coastal Research Council, she works with resource managers regularly to offer science-backed advice. In this case, Alber explained the importance of vegetated buffers for reducing potential pollutants and protecting wetland habitats. The Department of Natural Resources expanded the buffers to better protect coastal ecosystems.
Alber’s dedication to putting her research to work in the community recently earned her the Margaret A. Davidson Award for Stewardship from the Coastal & Estuarine Research Federation.
“A lot of what I do is basic research, but it’s motivated by wanting to work on things that are relevant to society,” Alber said. “Part of why I am a scientist is to be able to share information with people who can use it for making management decisions.”