Originally published Jan. 2012
By Laura L. Acosta
The earth’s rising temperature can be measured through the effects that it is having on the planet’s fragile ecosystems.
For the past three years, Vanessa L. Lougheed, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences, and her team of student researchers have trekked to Barrow, Alaska, to study the impact of climate change on Arctic tundra ponds.
With Arctic air temperatures warming faster than any other place on the planet, Lougheed is checking to see if the ponds are acting to store carbon or release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which may have implications for climate change.
“If there’s more dioxide being released, then that could amplify the effect of climate change because carbon dioxide is a main greenhouse gas. But if there’s more carbon dioxide being taken up by Arctic ponds, then that could moderate the effect of climate change,” Lougheed said. “We’re looking at how much carbon is being taken up by these aquatic plants and algae and how that differs from 40 years ago.
Scientists first studied the ponds 40 years ago. Their findings were published in the book, The Limnology of Tundra Ponds, and Lougheed is comparing her research with theirs to see how much the ecology and energy flow of the ponds has changed during the last four decades.
Students collect water and algae samples and use aerial photography to determine differences among sites and through time.
Christian G. Andresen, an environmental science and engineering doctoral candidate, is studying the hydrology of the ponds to see if the wetlands are increasing or diminishing in size. Andresen attached a point-and-shoot camera to a kite to take photos of the plants from up in the air. He is comparing the photos to historical imagery from the 1940s to see how much the area has changed over time.
Andresen’s interest in climate change was piqued the first time he traveled to Barrow to study the ponds in 2008 as an undergraduate research assistant.
“That research is pretty significant in terms of impact,” Andresen said. “As soon as I saw how things were changing, I got more and more interested in (climate change). I witnessed those changes. I was like, ‘Wow this is really happening.’”
In addition to her field studies, Lougheed is also rescuing valuable historic data. One of her students, environmental science major Gabriela Contreras, is transferring data that Lougheed received from her predecessors into a database to make it accessible to other scientists.
All of Lougheed’s research assistants have been recruited from UTEP’s undergraduate research programs. Lougheed serves as the director of the Undergraduate Research Mentoring (URM) program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and provides research and mentoring opportunities to undergraduate students interested in environmental sciences and ecology.
For more information on UTEP’s Aquatic Ecology Lab, visit ael.utep.edu.