Humans Adding ‘Fossil’ Carbon to Rivers

Though soil has often been considered a reliable long-term carbon sink, new research suggests that the effects of human land-use choices—from urbanization to agricultural intensification and deforestation—are reducing how much carbon is actually stored in the ground, says Professor David Butman, lead author on a paper just published in Nature Geoscience, “Increased mobilization of aged carbon to rivers by human disturbance.”

Professor David Butman

Professor David Butman

Professor Butman is a new faculty member with the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) who holds a joint appointment with Civil and Environmental Engineering. He began this research in 2011 as an offshoot of his doctoral work at Yale University involving 13 major river basins in the United States. Starting from a trend he discovered in that initial data, Butman and his co-authors expanded the scope with direct sampling of aquatic carbon at a number of field sites around the world, and also combed the literature for other relevant studies, tracking down researchers whenever possible to verify data. The resulting study range covers 84 degrees of latitude from the Arctic to tropical ecosystems, providing a comprehensive, global data set of radiocarbon ages of riverine dissolved organic carbon, coupled with spatial data on land cover, population and environmental variables.

From exploring this data, Butman and his co-authors were able to determine how carbon isotopes of organic matter in rivers can show the impact of land cover disturbances—specifically, the release of ‘old’ carbon into the modern carbon cycle, analogous to the burning of fossil fuels. Most dissolved organic carbon in rivers originates from young organic carbon from soils and vegetation, but the results of this study suggest that 3.2 to 8.9 percent of that dissolved organic carbon is actually aged carbon that human disturbances have churned back into the system.

What that means, says Butman, is that the release of carbon through land use and land cover change has been undercounted in previous estimates of anthropogenic carbon emissions. The full impact of this increase on the global carbon cycle is not entirely clear yet, but it definitely means we’re reducing how much carbon is being stored in the land purely through how we manipulate and change the physical surface of the planet.

Check out the full results and conclusions in the paper, and contact Professor Butman if you have any questions about this research or his other projects!

Photo © David Butman.

Miller Seed Vault Donates Seeds to Time Capsule

For the 125th anniversary of Washington’s statehood, the UW Botanic Gardens has donated the seeds of five rare plant species—all native to Washington—from the Miller Seed Vault to be buried in the Washington Centennial Time Capsule.

The time capsule is located in the Washington State Capitol in Olympia. It’s a large green safe with 16 individual capsules, one of which will be filled every 25 years until the state’s 500th birthday in 2389. The 2014 capsule will be loaded this January and then resealed during a ceremony on February 22, 2015, George Washington’s birthday.

Time Capsule

Thompson’s clover, a unique clover found in the central part of Washington, is easy to spot in May among the perennial bunchgrasses and sagebrush.

Back in November, the Keepers of the Capsule, a volunteer group that helps steward the capsule project, had reached out to the UW Botanic Gardens to inquire about a possible donation of native seeds. Professor Sarah Reichard and Wendy Gibble, who manages the Washington Rare Plant Care and Conservation program, decided that an appropriate contribution would include bundles of seeds that represent plants from different habitats across the state. They were careful to select seeds that are rare and endemic to Washington, but that are not in short supply in the Miller Seed Vault (just in case the seeds don’t last 375 years in an airtight aluminum foil package!).

The five selections include Thompson’s clover (Trifolium thompsonii) from the shrub-steppe of central Washington; Barrett’s beardtongue (Penstemon barrettiae) from the basalt cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge (pictured below); Washington Polemonium (Polemonium pectinatum) from the channel scablands of eastern Washington; Victoria’s paintbrush (Castilleja victoriae) from a tiny island in the San Juans; and Whited’s milk-vetch (Astragalus sinuatus) from a 10-square-mile region south of Wenatchee, Wash.

Each bundle includes 20 seeds and comes with specific instructions about propagation, as well as general information about the plant’s characteristics and where the seeds were collected. Will these seeds be alive and well in 2389? Hard to say, says Gibble, but it’s a shame we won’t be there to see for ourselves!

Photos © UW Botanic Gardens.

Time Capsule

Field Work Day at Pack Forest

Two weeks ago, right after the first snow of the season, SEFS graduate students Matthew Aghai and Emilio Vilanova joined Dave Cass and Pat Larkin down at Pack Forest for a field work day at the Canyon Loop site within the “Through-fall Exclusion” project.

Pack Forest

Dave Cass climbs a tower near the Canyon Loop site to work on a frozen component.

The main goal of this research is to simulate the conditions of drought and its effects on managed forests with different stand conditions, and several members of Professor Greg Ettl’s lab—mostly led by Kiwoong Lee—have been installing panels and collecting detailed measurements of many bio-climatic variables, including soil moisture, tree growth, precipitation and temperature, among other factors.

While working at the site on December 1, Vilanova took advantage of the first snow and open skies to snap a few shots of the action, including the awesome view of Mount Rainier below, taken a few yards from the Canyon Loop site!

Photos © Emilio Vilanova.

Pack Forest

SEFS to Sponsor Orienteering Event on Campus

Think you know our campus? You can find out on Saturday, December 20, during an orienteering event right here on the UW campus!

Orienteering EventSponsored by SEFS and run by the Cascade Orienteering Club, this one-day event will help you discover more about your campus, the enjoyment of well-made maps, and your ability to make and trust your own decisions in unfamiliar situations.

Orienteering is the sport of navigating with a map and sometimes a compass. The goal is to find your way through a series of checkpoints marked on a map and flagged on the ground. No limed path to follow, no arrow signs, no GPS unit telling you what to do—just your own ability to track where you are and decide for yourself what route from checkpoint to checkpoint works best for you.

For this event, youth and adults from beginner to expert are welcome to participate recreationally or competitively. You can register online for $13 by December 18, and then check-in is from 10 a.m. to noon at Gates Hall.

Learn more about orienteering and how to get involved!

TAPPI Holiday Paper Sale!

Every fall, using the pilot paper machine in Bloedel 014, students in the Bioresource Science and Engineering program roll up their sheaves—sorry, sleeves—to produce a few rolls of handcrafted paper. Organized by the student chapter of the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry (TAPPI), the annual papermaking fundraiser helps cover student conference fees and support other events.

TAPPI Holiday Paper SaleThe paper itself is 100 percent non-wood—specifically, this year’s is 70 percent Arundo donax and 30 percent wheat straw—and has holiday flourishes in it, such as ferns added to the slurry to provide festive accents when the paper is printed.

You have three options this year:

  • $10 for (3) sheets of 8×11 Holiday Paper, (5) Holiday Cards, and (10) Gift Tags
  • $5 for (5) Holiday Cards
  • $2 for (5) Gift Tags

Members of TAPPI will be selling the paper at the SEFS Holiday Party (Wednesday, December 3, 4-6 p.m., Anderson 207) and the Dead Elk Holiday Party (Friday, December 5, 5:30 p.m., Anderson 207), so make sure to take a look at these terrific gifts!

Next Friday (12/5): Dead Elk Holiday Party!

No word on holly, but you should expect plenty of jolly at the Dead Elk Society’s annual Holiday Party next Friday, December 5!

The fun starts at 5:30 p.m. in the Forest Club Room, where you will find beer, singing, mulled wine, food and a cracklin’ fire in the fireplace. All SEFS students, staff and faculty are warmly invited, so bring your friends and family—and, if you have the time and inclination, a food item to share!

Follow the Dead Elk Society on Facebook if you’d like to stay updated on activities, and contact Melissa Pingree if you have any questions about the party.

Dead Elk Holiday Party

John Marzluff to Kick Off Winter Lecture Series at Henry Art Gallery

This winter, Seattle Arts & Lectures is hosting a five-part series at the Henry Art Gallery, “Thinking Animals: Species, Power and the Politics of Care in the World.” Held on Friday evenings from January 9 through March 6, the talks will explore the histories, politics and cultural dynamics of how humans see and do not see animals in the world. Bringing expertise from wildlife sciences, animal welfare, geography, anthropology, literature and political science, the speakers will explore human-animal connections in a range of global and historical contexts, including Renaissance France, contemporary Peru, and urban and rural spaces in the United States.

At 7 p.m. on Friday, January 9, Professor John Marzluff will be giving the first talk of the series, “Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing our neighborhoods with wrens, robins, woodpeckers, and other wildlife.” Drawing from his latest book, Professor Marzluff’s lecture will feature an “optimistic discussion of the vast diversity of birdlife that has adapted to living in populated areas, and a variety of things we can do to create more hospitable environments for our winged neighbors.”

Other speakers include Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States; Dr. Kathryn Gillespie (Geography, UW); Dr. Louisa Mackenzie (French and Italian Studies, UW); Dr. María Elena García (Comparative History of Ideas and International Studies, UW Seattle); and Dr. Tony Lucero (International Studies, UW Seattle).

This lecture series is presented in partnership with the University of Washington’s Critical Animal Studies working group, and it will be held in conjunction with an exhibition by Ann Hamilton that touches on themes of human and non-human animals. Tickets are $100 for admission to all five lectures, or $20 at the door for a single talk (box office opens at 6 p.m.). A 15 percent discount is available to SEFS attendees, as well, so contact Karl Wirsing for the discount code.

Visit Seattle Arts & Lectures for more background on each talk and ticket information.

Holiday Fundraiser: Wreaths, Swags and Garlands!

This fall, the Society of American Foresters UW Student Chapter is holding a holiday fundraiser to support the group’s activities and help you decorate your home or office for the season!

They’re selling 24-inch noble fir wreaths for $22, swags for $15, and 12-inch cedar garlands for $15 (all items made by L&O Evergreens, Inc. in Tacoma, Wash.). Forms are now available online, and you can drop off completed orders and payment in Michelle Trudeau’s office in Anderson 130A.

Forms and payment—cash or check—are due no later than Wednesday,  December 3, and you can then pick up your purchased items in the Anderson Hall courtyard on Tuesday, December 9, from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. If you have any questions, email Marisa Bass.

The SAF Student Chapter greatly appreciates your support in funding club events and activities!

Tell Us: Who Was Your Favorite Professor?

In the last issue of Roots, our new alumni e-newsletter, we asked alumni to tell us about their favorite professors. Here’s what Patrick T. Nooney (‘71, B.S.), who lives in Missoula, Mont., shared with us:

“I have to use the plural. Each one at the College [of Forest Resources] challenged me in a different way, but there are two equally in my mind who challenged me how to think for myself and not accept the status quo: Professors Barney Dowdle and David R.M. Scott.

Professor Barney Dowdle

Professor Barney Dowdle

I was literally flunking Forest Economics despite reading the literature three or four times, and studying notes until 3 or 4 in the morning. I asked Professor Dowdle to let me out and try again later: He refused, of course. Then the final: I’m done, finished, nothing to lose, gut honest with the answers, then kick the bucket. I got an A. When I asked him about the mistake, he told me ‘No mistake. You learned the lesson I intended: How to think.’ That has been the number one lesson I have applied in life.

Dave Scott was ultimately my primary advisor. He challenged me and encouraged me to always think outside of the box, including the pursuit of the wild idea of using ecological principles as a basis for logging/land management decisions. He told me that was not exactly something anyone would pay a graduate student to work on, considering the implications. Still, he told me, ‘If you believe in it, I will back you all the way to the doctorate.’ I sometimes regretfully wish I had taken him up on the deal. I honor his trust and faith in my education.”

For the next issue of Roots, we’re asking alumni to tell us: What was your first job out of college, and what do you remember most about it? We’ll feature one or more response in the next issue of Roots, and also right here on the “Offshoots” blog. Please email submissions—of no more than 250 words—to, and we’ll follow up to ask for a photo if your letter is accepted and published.

Magical Microbes: Using Natural Endophytes to Remove Environmental Pollutants

A few weeks ago, we reported about a new publication in Environmental Science and Technology that involves several authors in Professor Sharon Doty’s Plant Microbiology Lab. In the paper, “Degradation, Phytoprotection and Phytoremediation of Phenanthrene by Endophyte Pseudomonas putida, PD1,” Research Scientist Zareen Khan and her co-authors—David Roman, Trent Kintz, May delas Alas, Raymond Yap and Professor Doty—demonstrate the ability of willow trees and grasses, inoculated with a specific bacteria, to remove a serious pollutant from the environment.

It’s exciting research, and one of the most impressive angles is that four of the paper’s authors were undergraduates in Doty’s lab while contributing to the project.

Zareen Khan

Research Scientist Zareen Khan, lead author on the recent publication, joined the Doty lab in 2010.

One of those students, David Roman, graduated in 2012 and is now working at an analytical testing laboratory in Seattle. When he first came to SEFS six years ago, he was an older student and says he was eager to get involved in research as quickly as possible. Yet since he was transferring from North Seattle College, he was one of the last to pick courses during his first quarter. That delay ended up being a fortuitous break, though, as he found a late spot in one of Professor Doty’s classes, where he learned about phytoremediation—the use of plants to clean up pollutants from soil and water.

The success of phytoremediation depends on a number of factors, from the type of plant being used to the level of toxicity in the soil, which can stunt or kill a host plant before it can be effective. But one emerging strategy to enhance and accelerate the process—the subject of the paper, and a major focus of the Doty lab—involves inoculating the plants with naturally occurring microbes (endophytes) that live inside plants to create a powerful and mutually beneficial relationship.

Like microorganisms that live within humans, microbes within plants are important for plant health, providing nutrients and increasing stress tolerance, and in some cases detoxifying pollutants the plants take up. Endophytes are a subset of this microbiota that live fully within plants; they do not cause disease, but rather act as symbiotic partners. These microbes have fast generation times and can rapidly evolve abilities to detoxify or metabolize chemicals. Trees like willows and poplars have much slower generation times, but they can use partnerships with these bacteria to help them survive in harsh environments. Specifically, endophyte-assisted phytoremediation couples the better pollutant degradation abilities of microbes with the plant’s ability—via extensive root systems and uptake of air pollutants through leaves—to absorb pollutants from a wide area.

The result is a completely natural environmental scrub, and the concept immediately hooked Roman. “So many people in the environmental science fields are trying to find some way to stave off the carbon wave that is coming—that is already here,” he says. “The thing about phytoremediation is that we’re cleaning up the messes we’ve already made and taking back land we’ve lost.”

David Roman

Roman was especially drawn to the power of these microbes to help reclaim polluted landscapes. “We don’t need to point a finger at anybody,” he says. “The trees don’t care who was here beforehand; they’re just here to help.”

Halfway through his first quarter, Roman approached Doty to see she if needed any extra help in the lab. By the next quarter, she was able to bring him in to assist with a number of projects, and within a month she’d hired him as a lab assistant. Soon he was fully immersed in phytoremediation, spending about 30 hours a week on independent research (ESRM 499), while also going to school full-time and working another 30 hours a week in the Doty lab.

Roman couldn’t get enough of the research, and he especially loved the simplicity and sustainability of using poplars and willows as natural cleaning agents. “The way you plant them,” he says, “is to cut a branch off an existing tree, stick it in the ground, and in a couple months you have an actively working, phytoremediating tree. You’re talking about a very sustainable and functional natural process that doesn’t take a lot of machinery or extra fuel—and it works.”

The subject alone was enough to motivate Roman. But a big part of what makes working in the Doty lab so special, he says, is that undergraduates are given all the tools and freedom to thrive as researchers, from hands-on guidance to collaborative opportunities with fellow students. “Sharon and Zareen really mentored me and were always open for discussions and ideas. You felt supported, and that confidence in your work and really pushes you to do as much as you can.”

By the end of his time with SEFS, in fact, Roman had produced a 26-page research paper of all the experiments he had completed in two-plus years of work—and, of course, gotten his name on his first scientific publication.

“It took me six years to graduate,” he says, “which was wonderful in every way but the bill I got afterwards from Sallie Mae. Yet I wouldn’t have traded my time in the Doty lab for anything.”

Local Applications
Another exciting dimension of phytoremediation is the potential for using the technology right here in Seattle (not to mention its applicability to other polluted and brownfield sites around the world). Managed by Seattle Parks and Recreation, Gas Works Park was originally home to a coal gasification plant that operated from 1906 to 1956. The soil and groundwater at the site remain contaminated by polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), including phenanthrene, which the Environmental Protection Agency has listed as a “priority pollutant” because of its carcinogenicity and toxicity.

Gas Works Park

Seattle’s Gas Works Park, where a coal gasification plant operated for 50 years until 1956.

Carcinogenic pollutants like phenanthrene are widespread in our environment, but effective technologies to remove them are limited. Common mitigation solutions involve excavation and indefinite storage of the contaminated soil, or capping a site to cover up contaminated areas; both approaches can be expensive, and the latter often involves repeated rounds. Gas Works Park, for instance, was initially capped with 1.5 feet of clean soil, which provides a buffer and removes the threat to park visitors. But occasionally the pollutants seep up near the surface, and the park has to be closed for recapping—which is happening right now—to make it safe again.

That’s what makes Gas Works Park such an ideal test ground. Doty’s lab has isolated a natural microbial endophyte that is able to tolerate and break down phenanthrene while also preserving the host plant. So if willow shrubs are colonized with this bacterium and planted at the park—either all at once, or in sections for several-year intervals—they should be able to solve the park’s contamination problem naturally, permanently and far more cheaply than capping.

Willows are particularly well-suited for the job since they are native to Washington, highly adaptable and can grow five to six feet a year, with rapidly spreading root systems to maximize their reach in absorbing pollutants. Plus, after several years of work, they could be removed and the park restored to its former condition—minus much of the contamination. Yet even if people are adamantly opposed to planting willows, says Doty, they could still inoculate the grass with the same endophytes. The grass might not be as effective as the willows, but it would still begin removing some of the soil contaminants.

Before implementing any of these strategies, though, several big questions would need to be resolved, starting with figuring out what the public and other stakeholders would think about having phytoremediation introduced at Gas Works Park.

Ellen Weir

“The most exciting part for me, by far, is the ability of plant-microbe interactions to accomplish all these different things,” says Weir.

That’s a question one of Professor Doty’s doctoral students, Ellen Weir, is hoping to answer with her research into the social acceptability of phytoremediation. She’s currently collecting direct public input and determining whether the community would be okay with allowing phytoremediation at Gas Works Park—and, if so, under what conditions.

“If we had the same piece of land outside the city, it would be way easier to implement phytoremediation,” she says. But with an iconic park in the heart of Seattle, accounting for the social environment makes the task immensely more nuanced and delicate.

Weir set out several months ago by contacting community groups and putting out bulletins to organize focus groups of four to eight people. She sat down with these groups and had conversations about what phytoremediation is and how it might be implemented at Gas Works. She recorded their thoughts and concerns and used that feedback to develop surveys for a broader subset of the population. She then distributed those surveys by handing them out to park visitors at different times, as she wanted to make sure she was hearing responses from actual users.

So far, she’s heard back from about 140 responders, and Weir says that despite seeing some trepidation about implementing an unfamiliar solution, the reactions overall have been positive and do not preclude the use of phytoremediation. Some of the biggest concerns include whether phytoremediation is a contamination risk to park users, or whether the technology involves the use of any genetic modification (no and no, incidentally). Another worry is that the willows will obstruct the view and traditional experience of the park. More than anything, though, she has learned how invested people are in the long-term health and use of the park, and how much they want to be involved in important decisions regarding its future. “That’s why it’s so critical to take into account the views and perspectives of all stakeholders,” she says.

As she continues to collect the final surveys and analyze her data, Weir hopes to have more concrete results in the next couple months—and when she’s done, she will have filled a major hole in the decision-making process. When she started her research, after all, no one knew what the public thought about phytoremediation as an alternative to capping at Gas Works Park. Now, when Weir’s research is complete, managers will have more information to guide future management decisions at the park, and that could open the door for some magical microbes to do their work.

Photo of Zareen Khan © Sharon Doty; photo of David Roman © Sharon Doty; photo of Gas Works Park © Wikimedia Commons; photo of Ellen Weir © Ellen Weir; photo of lab experiment (below) © David Roman.