Smithsonian Facility on the Chesapeake Bay Preps for Hurricane Irene

To protect equipment and ongoing experiments, scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center have to think beyond sandbags

Chesapeake Bay research from 2006
Chesapeake Bay research from 2006 Photo courtesy of SERC

Yesterday and today, our friends at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland, 25 miles east of Washington, D.C., have been busily preparing for the wrath of Hurricane Irene. The 2,800-acre research site is on the Rhode River, a sub-estuary of the Chesapeake Bay, where a storm surge of two to three feet is predicted.

According to Liza Hamill, SERC’s safety officer, boats are either being removed from the docks and hoisted up to safe areas on land or attached to a hurricane mooring, all loose equipment on site is being secured, sandbags are being placed around doors and rotating facilities teams are gearing up to monitor the center around the clock. All, as one might expect. But what threat does the storm surge pose to ongoing experiments there?

Well, for one, research biologist Mike Goodison had an important decision to make about a seawater pump that provides a constant flow of water from an area near the site’s docks to a wet lab 75 yards away, where tanks of live oysters, crabs and clams are held.  The storm surge could destroy the seawater pump, but if he moved is somewhere safe, he would have to cut off that aspect of the experiments. Ultimately, he says, “It’s a $10,000 pump, so I can’t have it going underwater.” He will be removing the pump this afternoon and probably not reinstalling it until Monday.

So, what does that mean for the animals? “Normally, researchers keep their animals in tanks and the water constantly moves through, rather than being like a static fish tank,” says Goodison. “Basically people now, this morning, are going to have to start hoarding water and storing water to go with their animals. They are just going to have to turn their animal holding tanks into static systems until Monday.” Air pumps will continue to provide oxygenated water for the animals, as long as nothing happens to the backup power that is in place. “We have backup generators to supply power for everything at SERC. So if the power goes out, which we fully anticipate it will, then the backup generators will supply the electricity for some of the necessary infrastructure like the air pumps and keep the animals alive through the weekend,” says Goodison.

Luckily, the wet lab itself is about 20 feet above the water level, so it would have to be an incredibly high storm surge to cause damage or severe flooding to it.

About a mile across the water as the crow flies, or a 10-minute drive, from SERC’s main campus, is the Smithsonian Global Change Research Wetland, which is the site of four major experiments right now. The longest running of the experiments began nearly 25 years ago and is aimed at understanding the effects of elevated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere on plant communities. “The other three experiments all sort of build on that theme in order to make the experiments more and more realistic with respect to our forecast of the near future,” says Patrick Megonigal, an ecosystem ecologist and deputy director of SERC. One, for instance, looks at how elevated nitrogen levels in the water, in addition to raised carbon dioxide levels in the air, affects plants (essentially, simulating a polluted Chesapeake Bay). Another adds predicted sea level rise to those variables. And, another still, looks at how these global change factors will affect the ability for an invasive species called common reed to spread throughout native marshes.

For the experiments, open-top chambers, or plastic cylinders, that raise the carbon dioxide concentration around the plants to the level forecasted for 2100, are installed in the wetland. “Because the site is a tidal marsh, it is low in elevation, and it is right at the front lines for both storm surges. The stature of the plants is fairly low, which means the wind whips across it as well,” says Megonigal. “Our structures are hardy, but they are not built for hurricanes.” He and his colleagues have been dismantling parts of the chambers that might catch the wind and cause their destruction, and they are shutting down the carbon dioxide supply to the experiments. “We run it roughly from May through October,” he says. “Hopefully, it is a relatively small interruption.”

Megonical and his team are bringing in expensive instruments called infrared gas analyzers and raising other pieces of equipment above what they think might be the high water mark in the marsh.

“Prepare for the worst, and hope for the best,” says Hamill. That is the plan.

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