Thursday, Aug 17, 2023

Student Research Highlight

Meet Alyssa! Alyssa is a recent graduate from Michigan Tech with a degree in Applied Ecology and Environmental Science, with a minor in Plant Science. She has a long held interest in wetlands, and was able to explore that interest with a senior capstone project that culminated in a land management plan for 80 acres of forest with vernal pools in the Keweenaw Peninsula.

For the capstone project, she and her group mates created a management plan for the forest with a focus on climate change. With climate change comes warming temperatures and fluctuating weather patterns, and species will vary in their tolerance to these changes in their system, prompting scientists to plan for climate adaptation. 

To make their plan, the group explored various aspects of the forest. Following her interest in wetlands, Alyssa armed herself with a soil probe and walked transects across the 80 acres, stopping for soil samples at as many potential pools as she was able with the goal of confirming and mapping the forest's vernal pools. Since it was the fall and many of the pools were dry, she was looking for fingernail clams as confirmation, but she had other indicators as well – shallow depressions, dark leaf litter, stained tree trunks, and hummocks with sedges.

In her field work, Alyssa noted the hydrology, soil, and vegetation in the locations of the potential pools. The influence of a stream that ran across the forest was apparent; many pools were found near but not connected to the stream. In her soil sampling, she classified the soil as either sandy loam or loamy sand, with a small percentage of the forest being gay muck, a hydric soil. She noticed that she found more pools in the areas of the forest with sugar maples and red oaks, or at least they were more frequently observed because of their obvious deciduous leaf litter versus the limited litter of coniferous trees. And despite the freezing ground of the Upper Peninsula fall, she collected 43 soil samples across 18 plots, but there was not a fingernail clam to be found!

The results of her project recommended that further vernal pool mapping is required to manage the area for climate change. The diligent samples Alyssa took were from just a fraction of the potential areas that she thought might be vernal pools, but there is only so much time in a semester when the winter is fast approaching. Her work is an example of the challenges small wetlands face in mapping and ultimately, protection. Since vernal pools only hold water for a short period of time, confirming their presence and boundaries via ground truthing in their dry season can be challenging and you are often up against a clock. While she found aerial imagery to be helpful in the process, many vernal pools are too small to be visible and require more fine-scale radar and LIDAR mapping to fully capture them. While we have this technology, it is not yet fully accessible to our researchers. Without comprehensive maps and data, it will be difficult to predict and manage the impact of climate change on vernal pools and what changes this will have across a greater landscape scale. 

After graduating, Alyssa followed her interest in wetlands all the way to her current position as a Wetland Delineator with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Her job is to look at the vegetation, soil, and hydrology of potential wetlands to confirm their presence and determine the wetland boundaries! We asked her what she would recommend you do if you find a vernal pool on your property, and she said,     

1. Submit your pool to the MNFI Vernal Pool database
2. Reach out to local university because vernal pools are a great teaching opportunity for students and can also be helpful resources to the landowner
3. And for the most part, leave them alone and leave a protective buffer around it!

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