Published with permission from the Texas State Newsroom
SAN MARCOS – NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry (OCEAN) has awarded $750,000 to a multi-institution project led by Texas State University to study the vulnerability of the Lake Huron ecosystem to global change.
Jason Martina, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology, will serve as the principal investigator. Texas State will receive approximately $400,000 from the three-year grant. Other participating universities are Michigan Technological University, Michigan State University, University of Michigan, University of Northern Iowa and the University of Texas-Dallas.
The project has two primary goals: one is to assess changes in aquatic ecosystems around Lake Huron in response to pressures of nutrient inflow, invasive vegetation and water level changes over a 30-year period; and the other is to increase underrepresented undergraduates and minority students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research.
“What we are trying to better understand is the vulnerability of Lake Huron to global change drivers, such as eutrophication (excessive nutrient inflow), water level change and invasive species. These are the key elements of change in the Great Lakes,” Martina said. “Our main objective, what we are really trying to understand, is the role of coastal wetlands in regulating what happens in the Great Lakes. We picked Lake Huron for our research as a starting point because the region encompasses a nice gradient of land use, with agriculture and dense urban areas in the south and forested landscapes in the north. We will hopefully expand the study in the future with additional funding.”
Water levels in the Great Lakes can fluctuate dramatically over time. Some of the fluctuations are believed to be tied to climate change, but the impact is difficult to predict. During periods of low water levels, emergent wetlands colonize the shoreline and act as a buffer against the inflow of excessive nutrients to the Great Lakes. During periods of high water, the wetlands are inundated and that emergent coastal vegetation is eradicated. With unchecked inflows of nutrients into the lakes, large algae blooms can follow. As the algae decomposes, it robs the water of oxygen, leading to fish die-offs.
“We don’t want the Great Lakes to get this huge rush of nutrients, because they’d become eutrophic, there’d be huge algae blooms, some of which are toxic. So, these wetlands play a critical role in buffering nutrients going into the Great Lakes,” said Martina, who is originally from the Chicago area and had been studying the Great Lakes for the past decade. “Is there a cycle that’s been going on the past 20 or so years, where during high water levels you get pulses of nutrients into the Great Lakes and at low water levels it’s more buffered?
“We don’t know that right now. That’s why we hope to be able to use remote sensing data from the past and to inform and calibrate two important process-based models we’ve developed,” he said. “One’s a hydrology model and one’s a wetland ecosystem model. We’re going to link them and run them in past scenarios and see how the wetlands could have actually functioned during times of extreme water level change. Ultimately, we want to know their role in buffering what happens in these Great Lakes systems.”
NASA’s MUREP program is designed to increase the number of underrepresented and minority undergraduates in STEM research field. Sophomores and juniors at Texas State will be recruited for the two-year program, where they will be trained in remote sensing, data science and simulation modeling before traveling to Michigan for on-site research.
“We developed a cross-institutional program called CETUP (Coastal Ecohydrology Training Undergraduate Program) for this,” Martina said. “The participating students are going to be working with scientists from Michigan State, University of Michigan and Michigan Tech on both remote sensing and simulation modeling. They’ll be going into the field to validate the products of remote sensing.
“Our students are going to get great hands-on experience and come back to Texas State to work on their own projects. They’re going to do that for two summers in a row,” he said. “We specifically have tasks in the grant that are going to be key for the undergraduates to be a part of. The students are going to conduct their own research projects and present at regional and national conferences. The science side and the underrepresented engagement side of this project are both very important.”