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Maine Fieldwork Part 2: The Bog | PalEON Project

A nice summary of our recent field work adventure in Maine is now up at the PalEON blog:

Maine Fieldwork Part 2: The Bog | PalEON Project.


It includes a fun video, which is embedded below as well…



Divestment from fossil fuels (student guest post)

Over the next month, I hope to post some of the highlights from the journals of EES-28 students.  If students put together a particularly well-written and thoughtful entry, they are given the option of editing it and putting it here for others in the class (and the world) to see.

Divestment from fossil fuels 

College of the Atlantic, Foothill-De Anza Community College, Green Mountain College, Hampshire College, Naropa University, Peralta Community College, Prescott College, San Francisco State University, Sterling College, and Unity College. What do these schools have in common? These schools, along with numerous cities and foundations across the country, have boldly chosen not to invest in any of the 200 largest fossil fuel corporations over the next few years. The campaign for fossil-fuel divestment has been gaining steam since its start a few years ago, and the movement essentially calls for institutions to divest their endowments from the dirty and dangerous fossil fuel industry that has had catastrophic effects on the environment. The fundamental goal of the movement is to have universities and foundations invest in a safe, clean future for current students and generations to come. Nationwide there are approximately 300 colleges and universities engaged in divestment campaigns.

Divestment at Lehigh University

Experts agree that the burning of fossil fuels has and will continue to have catastrophic effects on environment, including climate change, ocean acidification, as well as extraction related disasters, and the recent IPCC report highlights the urgency of these problems.

In September of 2013, Lehigh University joined the nationwide divestment movement. The movement on campus is being led by Lehigh’s premier environmental advocacy group, Green Action. Green Action has called upon President Gast and Lehigh’s Board of Trustees to:

“immediately freeze any new investment in companies responsible for the extraction, refinement, and processing of fossil fuels, and any companies whose sole purpose is to support these aforementioned companies, completely divest within five years from direct ownership and from any commingled funds that include public equities and corporate bonds associated with the companies mentioned above and increase investments in renewable energy companies.”

The campaign has also specifically requested that the Board of Trustees ensures that the next university president is truly committed to sustainable development, and is willing to make Lehigh University a model university by divesting from fossil fuels. Currently many students are unaware of the movement at Lehigh, which is why Green Action is actively trying to generate awareness.


Lehigh University’s endowment totals over one billion dollars, and therefore how it choses to invest these funds should be based on BOTH economics and ethics.  The university has recently emphasized sustainability on campus, implementing a nearly 30-page Campus Sustainability Plan that incorporates climate and energy, food and dining services, and building and land use.  However, by continuing to invest in the fossil fuel industry instead of renewables, the present management of the endowment undermines these activities. Most arguments against divestment center on economics, although several analyses reveal that divestment has not resulted in lower returns on investment, and institutions of higher learning should certainly also consider the ethics of investments.  If Lehigh were to successfully divest, they would set a strong example for other schools and become a leader in the effort to slow the rate of climate change. Although Lehigh’s current president, Alice Gast, is on the Board of Directors at Chevron, she will hopefully still be able to lend her support to this campaign.


There is also a petition that allows students to display their support for the divestment campaign. Please support the campaign by signing the petition:



Tweeting for conservation and biodiversity

A year ago I would have told you that Twitter was for folks with time to waste. My perception of the social media platform was that it was useful if you felt the need to share what you had for breakfast with the world. Or perhaps to share pictures of your pets while wittily anthropomorphizing in 140-characters or less. And the fact that the most-followed tweeter in the world was Justin Bieber didn’t exactly sell me on using it for science communication and outreach. And besides, one-hundred forty characters sure seemed arbitrary. And all the hashtags….#ugh.

Perspectives change though. With a nudge from my brother and a couple of colleagues, I gave it a try and was pleasantly surprised.  Not only have I enjoyed connecting with people that I would have previously only seen at conferences once a year, but it has led me to papers, articles, and blog posts that I would have certainly otherwise missed. Yes, twitter has been an enriching experience. And I have yet to learn about anyone’s breakfast.

Admittedly, at first I found Twitter a bit overwhelming; in fact, in some ways I still do. However, after using it for about six months I began thinking about how it might augment a course, as a potential way to stimulate discussion outside of class. I cheerfully imagined a group of engaged and passionate students busily tweeting information, ideas, and links to each other. However, I also imagined various scenarios where a classroom Twitter experiment would end in disaster.  I read quite a few articles on the use of Twitter in college-level courses, both inside and outside the classroom (e.g., here, here), but precisely how well this would work in the context of my introductory environmental science course was unclear.  The first day of class did little to ease my mind, as when I told the students that we were going to use Twitter their expressions ranged from disbelief to horror. However, it was not a disaster. In fact, the students took to it much more than I had anticipated.  As the semester comes to a close, I am absolutely convinced that it enhanced the learning experience.

The course structure

Conservation and Biodiversity (EES-28) is an introductory conservation biology course aimed at non-majors and potential majors (see here for example syllabus from 2011).  The course consists of lectures, activities, case studies, and discussions.  Instead of a traditional textbook, the students read David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo, a 1997 book that provides them with knowledge of the scientific process, a personal view on what natural scientists do, background in some fundamental ecology, and a historical perspective on the development of some important scientific ideas. The lectures then provide up-to-date summaries of conservation biology and basic ecology.  In addition, the students listen to several conservation-related podcasts culled from various news sources (mostly NPR) each week, highlighting the relevance of the course material to current events. They keep a journal of their thoughts on the podcasts and book, as well as any other thoughts related to the topic of the course. My primary objective with Twitter was for the students to share notes, links, and thoughts related to the readings and the podcasts. However, there were also a number of unanticipated benefits. I detail below what I see as the major ways that Twitter benefited the course (in reverse order of significance).

Benefit #6: Class updates and communication

Twitter was a much easier and more efficient tool than email to communicate with the class about assignments, due dates, and other logistical issues.  When students asked me questions through twitter, their questions and my answers would be seen by the entire class. Since I generally had to only  answer questions once, this decreased my course-related email volume tremendously by eliminating redundancy.

Benefit #5: I learned a lot!

The students collectively shared links to course-related information that they stumbled upon. Many of these enhanced my own education! And some were just plain fun…

Benefit #4: Sharing summaries of in-class, small-group discussions with other groups.

Small-group discussion in Conservation & Biodiversity (EES-28) on a beautiful spring day at Lehigh University.

Small-group discussion in Conservation & Biodiversity (EES-28) on a beautiful spring day at Lehigh University.

Throughout the course we devoted some classes to the discussion of Quammen’s Song of the Dodo, and given that there were over 40 students we broke into smaller groups for these book discussions.  I sincerely believe that face-to-face conversations are an important part of the educational experience, but twitter served as a useful way for the small groups to share some of their thoughts with the rest of the class.

Benefit #3: Students shared information on campus events outside of class.

Students shared thoughts, pictures, and announcements of things that were happening locally and regionally.  These included simple ecological observations on campus (e.g., here), announcements of regional events and happenings (e.g., here), and events in their lives that were related to the course topics (e.g.,here, here). In particular, I was pleasantly surprised when students started live-tweeting a public talk by Bill McKibben! The students’ tweets about personal and campus events contributed to a fun class atmosphere and promoted a sense of community engagement.  Here are some tweets from students about the McKibben lecture:

Benefit #2: Note sharing and studying

The students shared notes on the podcasts and readings with each other, and used the course twitter feed to study for exams. When possible, I also incorporated the student’s tweets into lectures, which helped to keep students engaged. All course tweets used the hashtag #ees028, so that students could examine the entire twitter feed by searching this tag.  Several students remarked on this benefit in their journals.

“I absolutely loved the use of twitter for this course. It was great to be able to read my classmates’ thoughts about the podcasts and compare their tweets to mine. There was always a little feeling of satisfaction and pride when I saw my personal tweets during class lectures.”

“I think the most beneficial part of this class (outside of lecture) was the twitter feed. It kept me engaged and curious the entire semester. It was also extremely helpful to scroll through the twitter feed during exam time because it helped to jog my memory about what each podcast was about.”

“Twitter  allowed me to become more engaged in what was being taught in lecture or heard in the podcasts, and encouraged me to do my own research on the latest news.”  “I thought it was a fun way to educate the rest of the class by tweeting information, videos and news articles.”

“The idea of tweeting about podcasts and various other readings is something I think most teachers should implement. Not only is it a great way to “note-take,” but being able to read tweets from our peers and communicate with the instructor as well as some of the more famous ecologists on twitter was something I found extremely cool!”

“I had never used Twitter in a class before, but I think that it is a really good idea.” “Not only could we follow people in the class to see their thoughts on the material, we could also follow the people that we were hearing speak in our podcasts… which was really cool. Twitter has been a great resource through out the class and especially to review for tests.”

Benefit #1: The students were able to directly engage people outside of the class

On several occasions, the students were able to directly open up a dialogue with the scientists and authors featured in the podcasts, readings, and lectures.  A nice example is an exchange that they had with Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecologist that studies the causes and consequences of Late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions (see here for the correspondence that she had with the class). However, the students were really excited when they realized that they could directly ask David Quammen questions about Song of the Dodo. In fact, the first student to do this was so excited that she captured an image of her phone!

Here are few more selections:

A less tangible benefit? Engaging and educating the world.

During the duration of the course, a total of over 4,500 tweets on topics related to the biodiversity crisis and the science of conservation were sent out to the twitter-sphere. Maybe through the twitter-sphere we made a few more people aware of the profound impact that humans are having on the biosphere. Maybe if other environmental science courses started using twitter we could reach more. And think of the impact we might have if we started tagging Justin Bieber in our science-related tweets.

-rkb- (@StatelyTrees)

Monteverde memories (student guest post)

The cloud forest of Monteverde. (Photo: LMW).

The cloud forest of Monteverde. (Photo: LMW).

“Couldn’t stay in bed so I went outside around 5am. No one was around so I had a chance to take a deep breath and enjoy the surroundings. I felt relaxed and appreciated the moment.  The efforts made by Costa Ricans to conserve and protect these beautiful areas of nature must be a contributing factor to their culture of peace. Maintaining these areas not only protects biodiversity and the environment, but also serves as a symbol of the country’s national identity. Before this trip, whenever I told people that I was going to Costa Rica the inevitable response was “I’ve heard it’s beautiful there.”

It is. One of the reasons why it is so beautiful is that the people that live here make it a priority to keep it that way.”

Those excerpts from my journal encapsulate my feelings about Costa Rica. My trip was not for field study, nor was the main point of it to explore the amazing biodiversity and conservation ethic of the country. The trip was was part of a course entitled “Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution.” Part of the course was a 10-day trip to Costa Rica, which admittedly was the main reason I became interested in the first place. We explored aspects of Costa Rican society and listened to lectures from speakers from different disciplines and backgrounds (e.g., education, government, conservation, culture). We took field trips aimed at studying Costa Rica’s “culture of peace” and how it permeates virtually every aspect of their society, including the government. The trip to Monteverde, where I wrote the journal entry quoted above, was actually our time off: taking us out of San Jose for 2 nights and giving us a bit of a break from our long days in the classroom and buses. It was a wonderful respite from the bustle.

Cloud forest in Monteverede. (Photo: LMW)

Cloud forest in Monteverede. (Photo: LMW)

A few years prior, a friend of mine had taken a trip to Costa Rica for a field study in herpetology and all he could talk about was how amazingly GREEN everything was. I had not seen anything to fit that description. But all of that changed when we arrived in Monteverde – which literally means “green mountain.” I remember thinking: here is Costa Rica! Immediately I was struck by the diversity of plants, many of which were unlike anything I had ever seen before. Nearly 4% of the total number of species in the world are in Costa Rica!

But where were the animals? Where were these amazing technicolor frogs I had read so much about? The two things I looked forward to seeing most were spiders and frogs, and probably like most people, I had the mistaken impression that they would be everywhere; that you would practically have to avoid stepping on them. However, I was only able to catch a glimpse(I mean literally, a tiny peek) at a frog. A single solitary frog. And that wasn’t even on my morning hike on the trails around the lodge, but was on a night hike with a guide that had eagle eyes and knew the area like the back of his hand. However, I did get to see some really cool spiders and lots of other plants and animals. But I still secretly wondered: where were the frogs?

Spider in the cloud forest. (Photo: LMW).

Spider in the cloud forest. (Photo: LMW).

Night-hike in the cloud forest. (Photo: LMW)

Night-hike in the cloud forest. (Photo: LMW)

Not that my anecdotal “froglessness” should be interpreted as representative of frog populations sizes in Costa Rica, but it did get me thinking about extinction. Apparently even in Costa Rica, a place that is known for its efforts in conservation, reforestation, preservation, and any other environmentally conscious word ending in -“ation” that you can think of, they are losing species at an alarming rate. Deforestation has been primary cause of biodiversity in Costa Rica, but increasingly climate change is seen as a major biodiversity threat, particularly in mountainous areas. Among the most vulnerable organisms to climate change are the amphibians, as recent research has documented linkages between pathogen outbreaks and global warming. The golden toad. Gone. The Monteverde harlequin frog. Gone.  And these extinctions are before the “escalator effect” even gets going. This NPR podcast is a nice summary of the situation.

 “A few of us heard that there was a suspension bridge on one of the trails, so we went for a little hike before leaving Monteverde.  I could have spent the whole day on that trail, just listening to the sounds of the birds and nothing else. We didn’t talk much, instead just thinking about how lucky we were to be there.”

And almost 2 years later, I still feel the same way. The remaining species of frogs probably do too.


Blast From the Past: Raised History Video

Chris Fastie making the Raised History video in 2004.

Chris Fastie saw the video of our recent Wisconsin field work and kindly uploaded a video he made back in 2004. The video features a group of us collecting a core from Bloomingdale Bog in the Adirondacks of New York. Perhaps it is a bit dated, but it is very professionally done and quite funny!  I sometimes use this video to introduce paleoecology in my classes.

Raised History from Chris Fastie on Vimeo.

From Chris: “Extracting a three meter peat core from Bloomingdale Bog near Saranac Lake, New York on September 17, 2004. This video lived on DVDs until July, 2012 when it was encoded as mp4.”

Deep in the Northern Wisconsin Peat (with video)

How will ecosystems respond to ongoing and future climate change?   Will changes in ecological communities track temperature and precipitation in a linear fashion?  Or will abrupt changes occur when particular climatic thresholds are crossed?  What sorts of information might help us better anticipate future ecological change?

After a sweltering week of fieldwork, these questions seem quite timely….

A portion of a sediment core from the Triangle Lake bog mat in northern Wisconsin. This drive captures the organic-rich sediments at the very bottom of the basin, which accumulated  when the lake first formed, likely over 10,000 years ago.

Ecosystem state shifts and long-term perspectives.  The possibility of rapid transformation of ecosystems in response to climate change is of great concern to ecologists and land managers.  Abrupt and dramatic changes in the composition and functioning of ecosystems, commonly referred to as “state-shifts,” have occurred in the past, and may be triggered by climate-induced disturbance events, such as fires or droughts.  However, the past century of climate and ecological changes provide only a few examples of such events, and lack long-term perspectives on their effects.  Paleoenvironmental records provide long-term perspectives on both climate and ecosystem dynamics, and are therefore well suited for studies of climate-ecosystem relationships.

Google Earth image of northern Wisconsin showing the abundance of kettlehole ecosystems in the region.

The Northern Wisconsin Landscape.  Northern Wisconsin is a land of lakes…and peat-accumulating wetlands (i.e., peatlands).  When the glaciers retreated from this region, they left behind blocks of ice.  These ice blocks melted and the depressions that were left on the landscape became the region’s many lakes and wetlands.  These basins are commonly referred to as kettles or kettleholes, and are often occupied by lakes or peatlands  – and in many cases contain some combination of both.  Commonly, kettle lakes are bordered by a peatland that floats on a trapped water layer.  When you walk on these peat mats, it feels like you are walking on a waterbed.  “Quaking bogs,” “floating bogs,” and “schwingmoors,” are just some of the names used to refer to these unusual ecosystems.

Kettlehole ecosystems and paleoecology.  Kettlehole ecosystems provide a range of benefits (i.e., ecosystem services), including habitat for biodiversity, groundwater recharge, sites of carbon storage, and areas for recreation.  In addition, these systems have tremendous scientific value, particularly for the study of past ecosystem responses to climate variability, because they leave a detailed record of their own development in the form of peat and lake sediments.  By collecting and examining sediment cores from these systems, much can be learned about how they have changed in response to past climate changes.

Triangle Lake in northern Wisconsin. The bog mat along the edge is dominated by Sphagnum mosses and leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata).

Recent research has demonstrated that extreme drought and water-level fluctuations probably trigger the initiation and expansion of peatland in kettlehole ecosystems (see related paper), effectively transforming the ecosystem from an open lake to a peatland (with or without a central lake).  This transformation likely occurs quite rapidly (i.e., likely within a decade or so) and would be expected to cause abrupt changes in ecological communities and processes.  For example, peatland establishment along the margin of lakes leads to changes in lake-water chemistry (e.g., higher acidity, higher dissolved organic carbon) and lakes with and without peat mats are characterized by very different aquatic communities and food-web structure.  In fact, lakes with extensive peatland can become too acid to support fish populations.  Furthermore, the transformation of kettle lake systems into peat-accumulating wetlands results in dramatic changes in biogeochemical processes, particularly rates of carbon storage.

We are investigating these ideas further by examining the history of peatland development in kettlehole ecosystems along a landscape gradient in northern Wisconsin.  Our research aims to provide a long-term perspectives on the role of hydroclimate variability in triggering abrupt and permanent state shifts in ecosystems, as well as to better understand and characterize the immediate and long-term ecological consequences of these events.  Such threshold responses are difficult to anticipate, and our results will hopefully provide a foundation for evaluating the relative sensitivity and vulnerability of ecological systems.

“Wading through the slimy ooze

You can drive away your blues

Romping through the swamp”

– Peter Stampel-

Alex Ireland measuring the depth of the basin with a probe rod.

Two weeks of fieldwork in late June and early July.    Nice work if you can get it?  Not really.  By the third day, we were almost drained of our life force by wood ticks and deer ticks (the ones that carry Lyme disease). What little blood remained in our bodies nearly boiled in the brutally hot temperatures that followed for the remainder of the work.  However, we did manage to make a great deal of progress.  The field crew included myself, Alex Ireland (postdoc, Lehigh University), and Michael Clifford (PhD student, Lehigh University).

Our work this summer was focused on two sites – Triangle Lake and Long Lake.  The first several days were spent measuring basin depths with a probe rod so that maps of the underlying basin morphologies could be developed.  We then collected a series of peat cores at the two sites, located along transects that captured the gradients of basin depth. The peat and sediments will be analyzed for plant remains and carbon content later this summer and fall, and used in conjunction with radiocarbon dating to determine when the peat-mat established in different portions of the basins.  This information will allow us to reconstruct how and when the peat mat expanded at the two sites.  The timing of peat mat expansion will be compared between the two sites, as well as to other sites in the region and to paleoclimate records, to assess the role of climate variability in triggering peat-mat expansion.  Last winter we collected sediment cores from the central lakes that occupy the Triangle and Long Basins, and these will be examined to assess how the lake ecosystem responded to bog-mat advances of the past (see related blog post and video here).  Ultimately the datasets from the lake and peatland components of the ecosystem will be integrated and used to develop a predictive model of bog mat expansion and impacts, which will be used to anticipate potential future changes in these valuable ecosystems.  A short video highlighting some of our activities during the past few weeks is below.

-rkb and awi-

A portion of one day’s field notes.  The stratigraphic boundary between peat and aquatic sediment is not always easy to delineate in the field.  Laboratory analyses are often needed to precisely identify the position of the boundary.

A fun video highlighting some of the fieldwork:

Spring break in Wisconsin!

Pulling coring equipment out to a small lake in Northern Wisconsin.

Perhaps Northern Wisconsin is not a typical spring break destination…it certainly doesn’t make any top ten lists.  However, for seven people from three universities (Lehigh University, University of Wisconsin, and University of Minnesota) it was our Miami Beach for the past week.  We did not do any body surfing or swimming; in fact, we were glad that the abundant lakes in this region were well frozen.  We did not do any ice fishing, skating, or skiing either.  Nor did we go to sample cheese.  We were there to travel back in time.

Alex Ireland (PhD student, Lehigh University) and Randy Calcote (Research Scientist, University of Minnesota) cutting the coring tube on Open Bog Lake.


Specifically, we went to collect sediment cores from several lakes as part of a project aimed at understanding how aquatic and wetland ecosystems have responded to past climate changes.  We are working in this region because there are abundant kettle depressions –  low areas occupied by lakes and wetlands that were formed many thousands of years ago as glaciers retreated northward following the last major glaciation.  These areas provide a range of ecological services, including wetland and aquatic habitat for biodiversity, sites for groundwater recharge, important roles in biogeochemical cycles (e.g., carbon storage), and areas for recreation.  Lake chemistry and regional groundwater flow has also been well characterized in this region of northern Wisconsin, because it is part of the US Long Term Ecological Research Network (North Temperate Lakes LTER).

Kettlehole ecosystems are also ideal for the study of past ecological responses to climate variability. They have significant linkages to the broader landscape through groundwater flow, are hydrologically sensitive to changes in precipitation, and most importantly, they leave a detailed record of their own development in the form of peat and lake sediments.  We are using the paleoecological record preserved in these ecosystems to determine how they have responded to climate changes of the past 10,000 years – and hopefully use this information to better anticipate how these and other ecological systems may change in the future.

Jennifer Schmitz (PhD student, University of Wisconsin), Alex Ireland (PhD student, Lehigh University), and Sara Hotchkiss (Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin) coring Triangle Lake.

Kettlehole basins are typically occupied by lakes, peatlands, or some combination these two habitat types.  Lakes that are bordered by extensive peatland are quite different in water chemistry and biological communities than those that lack adjacent peatland, and systems characterized by peatland can serve as large carbon sinks (i.e., they take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it as peat) and are therefore important when considering regional carbon budgets.  Data from other studies indicate that the establishment and expansion of peatland in kettlehole basins is triggered by moisture variability, particularly prolonged drought events, and peatland expansion can occur rapidly – probably within a decade or two.  Threshold responses like this are difficult to anticipate or predict.  Abrupt peatland expansion in these systems likely leads to rapid changes in carbon accumulation rates and alters lake-water chemistry and lake biota.  However, dynamics, rates, and characteristics of these changes are not well understood.

Although this trip was focused on coring lakes, we will return this summer to collect cores from the peatland component of these basins.    Below is a homemade video documentary showing the progress we made last week and the kind of work that is involved in the collection of lake sediments.  Over 30 meters of lake sediment has now been transported back to the laboratory, where it will be analyzed to obtain information on past environmental changes.  As you can see, spring break in Wisconsin was a lot of fun!

Video created using iMovie and a Canon Powershot D10 (waterproof!).  Music credits: Winter Wonderland (Sonny Rollins), I walk the line (Johnny Cash), Nice work if you can get it (Thelonious Monk), Cold water (Tom Waits), Broke down engine (Bob Dylan), When the levee breaks (Led Zeppelin), Two little feet (Greg Brown), Nameless Banjo Riff (Pete Seeger), All work and no play (Van Morrison).


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