February 11, 2009

Scientist creates climate change displays

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A researcher at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is traveling to Chicago this week to help teach basics about climate change to policy makers and others interested in science.

Dale Vitt, professor and chairperson of the Department of Plant Biology in the College of Science at SIUC, is building interactive displays that will demonstrate the effect of plant-based carbon on the environment. The displays are part of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, publisher of the journal “Science.”

AAAS tapped Vitt for his expertise in working with peat, a huge natural carbon source on Earth. His invitation also grew out of his participation in Peat Net, part of the Research Coordination Network project put together by the National Science Foundation. Peat Net coordinates research on peat among scientists in the Northern Hemisphere.

The theme of the meeting is “Our Planet and Its Life: Origins and Futures,” and is based on the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin in 2009. With climate change a concern for the future, Vitt’s task lies in helping meeting attendees grasp some basic concepts about naturally occurring carbon in plants and its potential environmental impact.

Peat bogs are environmentally unique. In a normal, balanced plant system, such as an upland forest, plants use photosynthesis to remove carbon dioxide from the air and grow. Microscopic creatures later release that carbon as gas when they eat the plant material that falls to the ground, decomposing it.

Peat bogs, however, develop when thick vegetation grows in a waterlogged area. The plants still remove the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but the water loses its oxygen content, greatly slowing the rate of decomposition in plant material. This makes it build up faster, trapping the carbon dioxide with it, and keeping it out of the atmosphere.

One-third of the terresterial carbon in the world is locked away in peat, such as in the massive bogs of Siberia and western Canada.

“In Chicago, we want to address how the effects of climate change could affect peatland carbon,” Vitt said. “If climate change is severe enough to dry peat lands, the peat would continue decomposing and move the carbon into atmosphere.”

Vitt is helping design three displays, including one focusing on tree growth rings, a peat core and a carbon flux instrument. He is working with a colleague from Villanova University on the project.

The tree ring display will demonstrate how fire cycles affect the overall ecosystem. Fires are visible in the tree ring record, and often are followed by periods of rapid growth as the fire opens the canopy to more sunlight. The demonstration will look at fires, how trees grow and how scientists piece together information about past climate and environmental responses.

Vitt also is working on an exhibit that will use a 3-meter core sample from peatlands to demonstrate how scientists use it to look back in time. Because peat deteriorates so slowly, scientists can use core samples to find out what plant species grew there many years ago. They can then determine past climates based on the water levels such plants require to live, he said. Attendees will be able to view samples of plants under a microscope.

The two researchers also will use a carbon flux meter to show how peat can absorb or emit carbon, depending on light conditions and other factors.