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WVU Researchers Working to Help West Virginia Weather Climate Change

Photo by John McCabe Richard Thomas, chairman of West Virginia University’s Department of Biology, discusses the impact of climate change on trees during the Academic Media Day event.

CHARLESTON — While Congress debates the Green New Deal, scientists and researchers at West Virginia University are looking at trees and soil to determine the effects of climate change and how West Virginia can weather the changes.

The program was part of WVU’s Academic Media Day on Monday at the Erickson Alumni Center in Morgantown. Media from around the state listened and spoke to experts from WVU’s academic departments, institutes and laboratories, with one-on-one time to ask questions.

Experts with the WVU Mountain Hydrology Laboratory, the Department of Geology and Geography and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering briefed media earlier in the day on water security and resources engineering and how the rings of trees can help scientists interpret climate data. In the afternoon, the focus turned to the soil and plant life and how increases in temperature could affect West Virginia’s forests and farms.

Richard Thomas, professor and chairman of the Department of Biology, gave a presentation, “The Clean Air Act and Climate Change Leave Their Fingerprints on Forest Health in West Virginia.” Last May, Thomas and doctoral candidate Justin Mathias released a study on the recovery of red spruce trees since the passage of the Clean Air Act.

According to the study, Thomas and Mathias studied the rings and carbon dioxide isotopes in red spruce tree rings at three locations within the Monongahela National Forest, where the trees are downwind of carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants along the Ohio River Valley. The researchers looked at trees that are more than 75 years old to compare differences.

“Red spruce is kind of an iconic tree species in West Virginia,” Thomas said. “It was a beautiful place to work.”

Thomas and Mathias found that the red spruces started to show recovery after 1989 when pollutants in the atmosphere started to be highly regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through the Clean Air Act. The chances for acid rain began to decline due to technologies such as scrubbers installed in the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants.

The ring growth was larger during periods of decreased pollutants in the atmosphere, but during the worst of the pollution, tree ring growth slowed down. For example, the study showed that ring growth increased during the period of the Great Depression in the 1930s due to decreases in heavy manufacturing, but tree ring growth slowed between 1962 and 1986, when sulphur pollution was at its highest.

“We saw a decline in growth,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t mean the trees were getting smaller, but it means the growth rings were getting more tight … acid rain was devastating the forest.”

While scrubbers and use of low-sulfur coal helped diminish the threat of acid rain, it hasn’t stopped the increase of carbon dioxide. However, the red spruces have benefited from the increased carbon dioxide coupled with warmer springs.

“Climate change, at this point, is helping these trees grow better,” Thomas said. “We don’t know what will happen as that temperature continues to increase. This is a very small increase in temperature. … If the temperature change continues to increase, we don’t know if that positive effect will last.”

Researchers also are studying how soil allows for carbon storage and how to increase that storage. Edward Brzostek, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, detailed the work of his students on soil carbon storage.

There is more carbon stored in soil than in the atmosphere or plant life combined, Brzostek said. Microbes recycle the majority of nutrients used for plant growth. But Brzostek said it’s harder to measure carbons in soil due to complexity. Carbon remains in the soil because it’s difficult for microbes to break down and some carbon remains stuck in minerals and other material.

As temperatures warm, carbon can be more easily released from soil into the atmosphere. Due to the number of coal-fired power plants in the region, nitrogen output was increased and absorbed by the soil, which helped prevent the breakdown of carbon dioxide in the soil.

As nitrogen pollution is reduced, the amount of carbon dioxide in the soil is reduced and released into the atmosphere. Leaves that fall from different species of trees are consumed by soil microbes differently, producing different amounts of carbon. Brzostek said as the planet warms, different species of trees benefit from the warmer, wetter weather but might not produce leaf litter that keeps more carbon in the soil.

Also in the afternoon, experts spoke about the effect of climate change on public health and how patents and intellectual property commercialization play into innovations in clean energy technology.

According to WVU, the university conducts 87 percent of all research in the state, totaling $118 million in expenditures in 2018. More than 3,500 faculty, staff and students are involved in research at WVU.

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