Archive for February, 2014

History Repeats

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

ice core

A team of University of Maine scientists studying nearly 11,700-year-old ice cores from Greenland found that history is repeating.

Paul Mayewski, director and distinguished professor of UMaine’s Climate Change Institute, says today’s climate situation in the Arctic is equivalent to, but more localized, than the warming during the Younger Dryas/Holocene shift about 11,700 years ago.

Mayewski led the research team that examined Arctic ice formed 11,700 years ago during a rapid climate transition from the Younger Dryas (near-glacial) period to the Holocene era (period of relative warm since then). Ice cores, in essence, are timelines of past climates.

The abrupt shift then included a northward shift in the jet stream, an abrupt decrease in North Atlantic sea ice and more moisture in Greenland. These changes resulted in milder weather, fewer storms and initially more than a doubling of the length of the summer season around Greenland, the team says.

“It is highly unlikely that future change in climate will be linear as evidenced by the past and by the recent, abrupt and massive warming in the Arctic,” Mayewski says. “Understanding and ideally predicting the likelihood, timing and location of future nonlinearities in climate is essential to realistic climate prediction, adaptation and sustainability.”

The ice formed during that one-year onset of the Holocene climate “sheds light on the structure of past abrupt climate changes and provides unparalleled perspective with which to assess the potential for near-term rapid shifts in atmospheric circulation and seasonality,” Mayewski says.

Additional exploration of the ice cores, with respect to the length of seasons, is expected to yield information about precursors for abrupt climate shifts. “Identifying and using the precursors will fill an essential void in climate prediction models by testing for sensitivity in the context of past analogs,” the researchers say.

In the university’s W.M. Keck Laser Ice Facility, the researchers had the first-ever ultra-high-resolution look at ice cores formed during the swift shift from the near-glacial period to the current period of relative warmth. The ice core samples were removed from a depth spanning 1,677.5 meters to 1,678.5 meters, or from 11,643 to 11,675 years ago.

Mayewski has led more than 50 expeditions to the Arctic, Antarctica, Himalayas, Tibetan Plateau, Tierra del Fuego and the Andes. He has shared his research with numerous media venues including “60 Minutes,” “NOVA,” BBC, “Fresh Air” and “The Diane Rehm Show.”

The research team includes Sharon Sneed, Sean Birkel, Andrei Kurbatov and Kirk Maasch, all from UMaine. The researchers’ findings are included in the article, “Holocene warming marked by abrupt onset of longer summers and reduced storm frequency around Greenland,” published in the January 2014 issue of the Journal of Quaternary Science.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777

Making Sense of Maple Syrup

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

maple syrup

Understanding more about the relationship between weather and maple sap flow, and how Maine syrup producers will adapt to climate change is the focus of research being conducted by a University of Maine graduate student.

Jenny Shrum, a Ph.D. candidate in the ecology and environmental sciences graduate program in the UMaine School of Biology and Ecology, is attempting to unravel the biophysical relationships between weather and sap flow. The goal is to better understand what drives flow and how expected trends in climate may affect the processes and harvesters in the future.

Shrum plans to collect on-site weather station data and sap flow rates at three test sites and to interview small- and large-scale producers to determine if those who have been managing sugar maple stands for years will be more or less resilient to climate change, and if large-scale producers will be better equipped to adapt. Her research is supported by the National Science Foundation and EPSCoR through UMaine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative and its Effects of Climate Change on Organisms research project.

The physiological process for sap flow is not completely understood, Shrum says. It involves a complex interaction between freezing and thawing of the xylem tissue within the tree, and the molecule sucrose which maple trees use to store carbohydrates between seasons.

“When the tree defrosts, the frozen liquid in the tree becomes fluid and that provides a medium for the sugars that are stored in the trunk to get to the branches,” Shrum says, adding that in order to continue flowing, the ground also has to be defrosted so the tree can pull in water during the next freeze cycle and recharge the positive pressure in the trunk to restart sap flow.

Sugar maple trees grow as far north as New Brunswick and as far south as Georgia, yet maple syrup is only produced commercially in the 13 most northern states because of the colder weather, Shrum says.

In Maine and other northern areas, more than one freeze-thaw event happens during the winter. This lets the process repeat and allows the season to last between six and eight weeks as opposed to a few days, which is likely in southern states such as Georgia and Missouri, where maple trees grow but aren’t commercially tapped. Warm weather or microbial build-up in taps usually ends the season, according to Shrum.

In Maine, the season usually starts sometime between the middle of February and the middle of March, and continues for about six weeks, Shrum says.

“This winter has been really weird; we’ve had really warm weather and really cold weather and as far as sap flow, that might be a good thing,” Shrum says. “But not enough is known.”

One change that has been proven is the start time of the sap season.

“Studies are starting to show that the preferred block of time for tapping is starting earlier if you base it on ideal temperatures,” Shrum says, citing a 2010 Cornell University study by Chris Skinner that found that by 2100, the sap season could start a month earlier than it does now.

For big-time operations, Shrum says an earlier season probably won’t be a problem because they can just tap their lines earlier, but she’s not sure how smaller Maine operations will adapt.

“They might not be able to change their season,” she says. “A lot of the smaller operators have multiple jobs; they make money off maple syrup, but also in other fields such as woodcutting or construction. It just so happens maple syrup is a block of time when they’re not doing anything else, so it makes sense. But if that season changes, it might not fit into their schedule as well.”

Shrum will interview a variety of producers — small- and large-scale operators, people who have been tapping trees for 30 or more years and people who started within the past five years — to learn the reasons for tapping and better understand resilience within these groups.

To record weather and sap flow data, Shrum, who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Humboldt State University, will deploy weather stations at maple tree stands in Albion, Dixmont and Orono. She’s also using iButtons to record soil temperatures and time-lapse photography of the buckets to record hourly sap flow rates. She can then relate flow rates to variables the weather stations record, such as temperature, precipitation and sunlight.

Although climate change is likely to affect sap flow, Shrum is confident there will always be maple syrup made in Maine.

“None of the climate change scenarios that have come up result in maple trees not growing in Maine. We’re definitely still going to have freezing events in Maine; it’s not going to get so warm that that’s not going to happen,” she says.

Shrum says maple syrup could become a big commodity in Maine if more of a market was created through government incentive plans, and if the state decided to make it a priority — similar to Vermont.

“Everything is good about maple syrup. There’s very little that’s controversial about it, and the biology is fascinating,” Shrum says.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747

Pooling Expertise

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

colorimeter

University of Maine researchers have designed a handheld device that can quickly detect disease-causing and toxin-producing pathogens, including algal species that can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning.

The device — a colorimeter — could be instrumental in monitoring coastal water in real-time, thereby preventing human deaths and beach closures, says lead researcher Janice Duy, a recent graduate of UMaine’s Graduate School of Biomedical Science and Engineering. Duy is now conducting postdoctoral research at Fort Detrick in Maryland.

The research team, which includes UMaine professors Rosemary Smith, Scott Collins and Laurie Connell, built a prototype two-wavelength colorimeter using primarily off-the-shelf commercial parts. The water-resistant apparatus produces results comparable to those obtained with an expensive bench-top spectrophotometer that requires technical expertise to operate, says the research team.

The instrument’s ease of use, low cost and portability are significant, say the researchers. The prototype cost researchers about $200 to build; a top-shelf spectrophotometer can cost about $10,000.

A touch screen prompts users at each step of the protocol. Researchers say an Android app is being developed to enable future smartphone integration of the measurement system.

Duy says the device almost instantaneously identifies pathogenic organisms by capturing target RNA with synthetic probe molecules called peptide nucleic acids (PNAs). A cyanine dye is added to visualize the presence of probe-target complexes, which show up as a purple solution; solutions without the target RNA are blue.

The versatile instrument can also be adapted to detect other organisms. The researchers say, in theory, any organism that contains nucleic acids could be detected with the simple colorimetric test. They have verified the system works with RNA from a soil-borne fungus that infects potatoes.

The research team’s teaching and expertise spans several UMaine schools and departments, including Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, the Laboratory for Surface Science and Technology, the Graduate School of Biomedical Science and Engineering, the Department of Chemistry, the School of Marine Sciences and the Department of Molecular and Biomedical Sciences.

The instrument is being incorporated into fresh and marine water testing in the Republic of Korea and the researchers say they’ll give several devices to state officials to test and use in the field in Maine.

The researchers published their findings in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777

Functioning Family Forests

Friday, February 7th, 2014

functioning family forest

Finding more efficient ways to serve Maine landowners by incorporating social work strategies — including effective communication and resource- linking skills — into forest management is the goal of a collaborative project between researchers at two schools in the University of Maine College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture.

Jessica Leahy, an associate professor of human dimensions of natural resources in the UMaine School of Forest Resources, is leading the study that tests social work approaches to conservation in the Cumberland County town of Baldwin and surrounding communities. Researchers hope to determine if these strategies could lead to more effective outcomes to landowners’ challenges as opposed to using traditional forestry solutions, such as management plans and outreach materials.

“Social workers are good at listening to people — understanding their needs and connecting people to appropriate resources,” Leahy says. “That’s why we need social workers to help landowners; to listen to what they’d like to do with their land, and then connect and coordinate services from natural resource professionals.”

There are more than 85,000 families in Maine that own at least 10 acres of woods, Leahy says. Their needs can be addressed by UMaine, the Maine Forest Service and others if those organizations can provide services that work for landowners, she adds.

Many conservation problems are related to social and economic factors. While foresters and other natural resource professionals help landowners make decisions about land management, they may not be equipped to handle the challenges landowners face that involve family dynamics. A social work approach could be the answer to solving these conservation problems, Leahy says.

“Foresters specialize in land management and trees, but landowners are often dealing with human issues such as how to afford their taxes and how to talk to their family about what they’d like to happen with their land after they pass away,” she says. “Landowners also often don’t know what a forester can do for them nor do they know how to coordinate all the potential natural resource professionals that are there to help them.”

Leahy, the project’s forestry expert, hired Doug Robertson and Chris Young, students in the UMaine School of Social Work. Both Robertson, a senior in the bachelor’s of social work program from Benton, Maine, and Young, a first-year graduate student of social work from Bangor, Maine, grew up around Maine woodland owners. They’re interested in connecting with landowners through the project and learning more about the land that many families rely on and how community organizations can help.

Pam Wells, a licensed clinical social worker, is supervising the students and translating the social work aspect of the project. She is also a landowner who recognizes areas where social work and forestry intersect.

“Pam often talks about how challenging it is to find, understand and coordinate the various assistance programs that are out there for landowners like the Tree Growth Tax Law, Natural Resources Conservation Service cost-share programs and programs offered by the Maine Forest Service,” Leahy says.

Kevin Doran and Andy Shultz of the Maine Forest Service are also helping with the study.

The one-year project, which began in Sept. 2013 and runs through August 2014, received a $6,500 Maine Community Foundation grant. The project’s social work approach to conservation has been untested to date, Leahy says.

“It’s an innovative, highly experimental, never-been-done-before project that is bridging forestry and social work together in an effort to better engage and serve rural families who own forestland in southern Maine,” she says.

Part of the project will include the development of a forest-specific wraparound case management process that will be implemented with one landowning family. The wraparound process in social work recognizes that all aspects of someone’s life — social, economic and ecological — are related. This understanding is then used to help the individual by focusing on incremental progress, involving community support and using science-based interventions, according to Leahy.

The focus of the project will be on measuring and evaluating the outcomes of the approach to improve future efforts.

“Ultimately, we hope more landowners will be empowered to be stewards of their land, and that will lead to healthy forests, healthy rural economies and healthy families,” Leahy says.

Other aspects of the community project include assisting the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine with succession planning efforts, offering peer-to-peer learning experiences such as suppers and forums, organizing workshops for natural resource professionals to increase their cultural competency and researching community interest in creating a low-income wood bank — similar to a food bank — for the Baldwin area.

Upcoming peer-to-peer learning events include the project’s second woods forum and community supper Feb. 7, a workshop on estate planning for landowners Feb. 27 and a Forester’s Institute brown bag lunch on cultural competency April 11.

Robertson and Young are looking for a family to work with on the project. Interested families must live in Sebago, Hiram, Cornish, Limington, Baldwin or Standish and own at least 10 acres. To participate or for more information on the project or scheduled workshops, call Robertson, 207.435.4798, or Young, 207.992.6182.