Drones fly over the Eagle Creek Reservoir monitoring algal blooms; researchers work with a farmer to improve agricultural practices; a 20-year study aims to address forest restoration in degraded riparian landscapes. These are some of the ways the Center for Earth and Environmental Science at IUPUI is engaging with the community in research.
The Center for Earth and Environmental Science (CEES) supports research that crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries by bringing together faculty from different academic backgrounds to discuss complex issues, pursue grants, and collaborate on projects. Research carried out at the center by CEES staff, affiliated faculty, and community partners facilitates science-based decision making and feeds the center’s education programming.
Through multiple projects in the community, CEES is working to address key community issues, such as water quality and environmental restoration.
At Eagle Creek, Greg Druschel, Associate Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences and an affiliate of CEES, in partnership with IUPUI’s Center for Aerial Unmanned Systems Imaging (CAUSI), uses drone technology to monitor cyanobacteria in the reservoir. Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, produce compounds that cause “taste and odor” issues if the algae become overly abundant.
By combining traditional water sampling methods with specialized aerial photography of the reservoir, Druschel and his team are developing models that will allow drone photography to replace, or at least reduce the need for, the more time-intensive methods currently required to monitor algal abundance. Because the use of drones is far less expensive than traditional physical sampling methods, municipalities could evaluate water supplies more frequently and would therefore be more likely to identify potential problems before cyanobacteria numbers reached harmful levels. Treating water to prevent harmful algal blooms is easier – and cheaper – than treating water to remove the noxious compounds after taste and odor issues develop. A cost-effective model that facilitates early detection of harmful algal blooms has the potential to benefit communities around the country, said Dr. Victoria Schmalhofer, an ecologist and Assistant Director of CEES.
CEES is also leading a project to evaluate the impacts of traditional and alternative farming practices on sediment- and nutrient-loading in streams. Through a partnership with Mike Starkey, a farmer in Brownsburg, and the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), researchers are studying whether the types of cover crops used and the method and timing of fertilizer application affects sedimentation and nutrient-loading of a local stream after rainfall events.
In order to control the movement of water over his land, Starkey engages in no-till agriculture and micro-application of fertilizer, uses his own particular mix of cover crops, and has planted buffer strips along the stream. Employing these methods, he has been able to reduce or eliminate the channel carving and ponding that used to occur in his fields after heavy rains.
Starkey is participating in the Edge of Field program, which was developed by the NRCS to manage water associated with agricultural fields. Sediment is the main pollutant in Indiana waterways, and loss of agricultural topsoil through erosion is a major issue throughout the United States. Additionally, the nutrients carried with sediments contribute to problems both locally, including algal blooms in local streams and lakes, and regionally, such as the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
At Starkey Farm, the first Edge of Field project in Indiana, traditional methods or Starkey’s methods are being used on adjacent fields to determine whether the practices differ in their impacts on sediment movement to School Branch, the stream that separates the two fields. Since 2015, environmental scientist Danielle Follette and other CEES staff have managed the project, collecting water samples after every rainfall event and evaluating the samples for sediment and nutrient content. If Starkey’s methods prove to significantly reduce the movement of sediments and nutrients into School Branch, it will have widespread implications for farming practices throughout Indiana and beyond, Schmalhofer said.
On the western edge of campus, along a one-mile stretch of the White River extending from 10th Street to New York Street, lies the Lilly ARBOR. Originally called the White River Riparian Restoration Project (WRRRP), the ARBOR is an 8.5 acre experimental forest designed to answer questions concerning how best to reforest highly degraded riparian landscapes – hence its acronym: Answers for Restoring the Banks of Our River.
During fall of 2000, over 1300 saplings were planted in the field of turf grass that bordered the river. Twelve different tree species, selected for their presumed ability to survive at the site, were incorporated in the study. Additionally, three commonly used planting methods were and are still being evaluated: containerized (older saplings grown in 3 gallon pots), bare-root (younger saplings with bare roots), and bare-root with weed mat (a weed mat was put in place after planting to reduce potential overgrowth of the young tree by weeds and grasses).
Twenty years later, the area is a thriving young forest. Distinct differences in tree survival are apparent: honey locusts, green ashes, hackberries, and silver maples have done well – with a 45% or better survival rate; cottonwoods, sycamores, and willows fared poorly – with a less than 10% survival rate; buckeyes, red maples, chinkapin oaks, swamp white oaks, and hawthorns have been moderately successful – with survival rates between 20-40%.
Planting method also was found to have an impact: after one year, “containerized” saplings enjoyed an advantage over “bare root” saplings, with a 91% vs. 78% survival rate. That persisted at the ten-year mark, with a 47% vs. 38% survival rate, and continues to the present with a 41% vs. 27% survival rate.
Current work at the ARBOR is led by Dr. Victoria Schmalhofer. The next phase of research at the ARBOR will include a thorough evaluation of the trees and herbaceous plants that have colonized the area over the past 20 years, as well as surveys of the many animal species that make their homes in the forest.
The ARBOR is more than just a research site. Over the years, hundreds of IUPUI students have visited the ARBOR to engage in and learn about the importance of environmental stewardship as they helped to remove invasive species and clean up trash, and dozens of students have used the area for their senior capstone projects. In addition to functioning as an outdoor classroom and place for experiential learning, the ARBOR also provides opportunities for passive recreation.
To encourage students and members of the community to explore the ARBOR and other green spaces along the White River, CEES is developing the Welcoming Campus Trail (WCT). The WCT will utilize technology to provide users with an interactive, informative experience that draws attention to points of interest along the White River greenway near campus. By making the ARBOR and its history more widely known, CEES hopes to inspire community members to consider the need for, as well as the possibilities of, environmental restoration, Schmalhofer said.