Research Highlights


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Scientists at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science are committed to studying the natural world, from life on the ocean and Bay floors to the quality of the air we breathe. Through experiments and studies, they can compile data and identify trends that can teach others, particularly policymakers and natural resource managers, about our environment and understand its problems so they are more prepared to face them.

Boynton wins Mathias Medal for Bay research

Growing up in Massachusetts, Walter Boynton joined his father and brother for occasional trips to the coast just to watch the ocean. The fond memories evolved over the years into a devotion and storied career in marine science. Now on the brink of his retirement, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science professor who has already earned the rank of “Admiral of the Chesapeake” is due to receive the Mathias Medal, a prestigious award presented to only six other scientists in nearly three decades.


Warming climate triggers changes in forests

A warming climate is causing earlier springs and later autumns in eastern forests of the United States, lengthening the growing season for trees and potentially changing how forests function. Scientists from the Appalachian Laboratory of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science used a combination of satellite images and field measurements to show that trees have greater demand for soil nitrogen in years with early springs. 


Multiple mates worth the risk for female prairie dogs

Mating with more than one male increases reproductive success for female prairie dogs, despite a greater risk of predation and increased exposure to diseases and parasites. So why would a female prairie dog take the risk? The answer is simple: female prairie dogs that mate with two or more males rear more offspring than those that mate with only one. This is according to a new study published in The Journal of Mammalogy by behavioral ecologist John Hoogland, professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Appalachian Laboratory.


Chesapeake Bay surface water temperature on rise

A new study shows that surface water temperature in the Chesapeake Bay is increasing more rapidly than air temperature, signaling a need to look at the impact of warming waters on one of the largest and most productive estuaries in the world. The study, completed by Haiyong Ding and Andrew Elmore of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Appalachian Laboratory, was published in the October issue of "Remote Sensing of Environment."


White-nose syndrome killing bats across Maryland

Populations of bat species are disappearing as a silent killer called white-nose syndrome emerges in caves and other winter refuges across the country. Scientists at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Appalachian Laboratory have been trekking to three Maryland caves and a limestone mine to monitor bat populations before and after the disease first arrived here in 2010. The numbers, they found, totally changed.


Air pollution control policies effective in improving air quality

Emissions controls on coal-fired power plants are making a difference in reducing exposure of mercury to people, especially in the western Maryland community. A study of air quality from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science found that levels of mercury in the air from power plant emissions dropped more than half over a 10-year period, coinciding with stricter pollution controls. 


WHALEWATCH uses satellite data to help ships avoid collisions

Scientists have long used satellite tags to track blue whales along the West Coast, learning how the largest animals on the planet find enough small krill to feed on to support their enormous size. Now researchers from NOAA Fisheries, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, and Oregon State University have combined that trove of tracking data with satellite observations of ocean conditions to develop the first system for predicting locations of blue whales off the West Coast. The system, called WhaleWatch, produces monthly maps of blue whale "hotspots" to alert ships where there may be an increased risk of encountering these endangered whales.


A grade report for turfgrasses suitable for Maryland right-of-ways

The State Highway Administration (SHA) of Maryland maintains turfgrasses along highway right-of-ways to prevent erosion, maintain a safety zone for stopped vehicles, and improve aesthetics for motorists. However, the turfgrass seed mixtures currently used in Maryland require frequent mowing in often narrow and congested areas. Thus, maintenance of roadsides can continue to be costly and can place maintenance staff in danger. These issues highlight the need to identify turfgrasses and seed mixtures that require less maintenance, but that will establish rapidly, be resilient to the harsh roadside environment, have neutral or positive effects on ecosystems and watersheds, and are available and affordable through commercial growers. For this work, we reviewed grass species to recommend for use along roadsides in Maryland, paying particular attention to commercial cost, rate of establishment, ease of maintenance, potential for erosion control, ecosystem benefits, and resilience.


Researchers work toward universal grading system for a healthier environment

Farmers who use nitrogen fertilizer to increase crop yield are helping to nourish more people while making farming economically viable, but there’s a trade-off to that growth and it’s hurting our environment. Some of the nitrogen lingers long after the crops are plucked from the land, finding new life as a pollutant that contributes to climate change and poses health risks. That problem may never go away completely, but two scientists with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science believe nitrogen can be used more efficiently and agriculture as a whole can be more sustainable while still meeting growing demand for food.


Molecular biologist Eric Schott works with watermen to help crabs stave off virus

In February—about six months after wrapping the first year of a study of this reo-like virus alongside watermen in Maryland, Virginia, and Louisiana—Eric Schott, a molecular biologist at IMET, hosted a crab industry shedding workshop in Galesville. At the workshop, Schott discussed what he learned about the disease’s prevalence, its impact on soft shell production, and what triggers it from dormancy to kill. On average, his and other studies found, 20 percent of the blue crabs pulled from the water and held for soft shell production were dying before they got to market. Almost all the Chesapeake Bay crabs that die during soft shell crab production have high levels of this virus, but having the virus isn’t a death sentence for the crabs, Schott explained. The virus only proliferates when you have animals under stress, such as shedding, injuries, being held in captivity too long, and water temperature fluctuations.


How can long-lived organisms adapt to a changing environment?

Adaptations to environmental changes typically take very long periods of time to occur following genetic variation created by random mutations in DNA. Many environments on earth today are changing so quickly, though, that these changes have the potential to outpace many organisms’ ability to naturally adapt to their new environments. This could be especially true for slow growing trees that have long life cycles and are unable to move in response to unfavorable environmental conditions, like drought, extreme temperatures, or even asynchrony between flowering and the emergence of pollinating insects.

This situation raises the question, “How do you respond to rapid change in your local environment if you are not physically able to move to more favorable conditions?” UMCES researcher, Paul Gugger, is conducting research in a novel area of science called epigenetics, which studies modifications to DNA that do not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence and may affect gene expression and adaptation.  He is using epigenetics to try to improve understanding of how a species of oak tree may be able to adapt to rapid environmental change.


Scientists partner with farmers, landowners to help reduce runoff

Professor Tom Fisher wades into the water just past his knees in a creek at South Forge. He strings a rope across the stream that hangs a few inches above the water. From there, he holds up a meter stick and takes measurements of the stream’s depth. Then he straps on a device that measures the water velocity of the stream using a long metal pole that he systematically moves across the stream.

The monitoring is part of a five-year project called People Land Water. Funded by the National Science Foundation, Fisher and his team from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point Laboratory are working directly with farmers and residents on the Eastern Shore to measure the impacts of best management practices like cover crops and stream buffers on water quality. They are looking for the best ways to combat harmful runoff from farms and lawns in the watershed.


Systea S.p.A. develops affordable, accurate nutrient sensor, wins top honor at ASLO conference

The winners of the Nutrient Sensor Challenge were announced at a special awards session at the Association for the Sciences of Limnology & Oceanography Aquatic Sciences (ASLO) meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Thursday, March 2.

An independent judging panel selected Systea S.p.A. as the winner for both Nitrate and Phosphate sensors. The Systea instruments represent a cost-effective, commercially available solution for measuring both nitrate and phosphate in an integrated package. It uses a wet chemistry approach to measure both nitrogen and phosphorus, and performed well in lab testing and across the three field deployments, including 72 days in Chesapeake Bay.


UMCES Scientists Lead Call for Moratorium on Mountaintop Mining Permits

Based on a comprehensive analysis of the latest scientific findings and new data, UMCES researchers Dr. Margaret Palmer and Dr. Keith Eshleman are leading a group of leading environmental scientists calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S Army Corps of Engineers to stay all new mountaintop mining permits. In the January 8 edition of the journal Science, they argue that peer-reviewed research unequivocally documents irreversible environmental impacts from this form of mining which also exposes local residents to a higher risk of serious health problems.

“The scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop mining is strong and irrefutable,” says Chesapeake Biological Laboratory's Dr. Palmer. “Its impacts are pervasive and long lasting and there is no evidence that any mitigation practices successfully reverse the damage it causes.”


Climate change already affecting Chesapeake Bay region

Victoria Coles and Raleigh Hood, two scientists from University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point Laboratory, have spent the past two years working with a postdoctoral scholar Kari St.Laurent, compiling data and using it to tell a story of climate change in the region that people can understand. The project is a collaborative research effort with the National Estuarine Research Reserves, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; UMCES; Chesapeake Environmental Communications; and NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, which also funded the effort. The overall goal was to help residents of the Bay region understand what’s happening in their backyard, as well as governing officials to help drive policy and action.


Scientists investigate climate changes in forests

Andrew Elmore spent nearly three years surveying tree cores and satellite images of forests. The cores offered a historical record of a single tree, while the satellite images from NASA gave him an idea of how a forest changes over time.

In the end, the Appalachian Laboratory associate professor and his team found that in years when spring comes early, forests demand more soil nitrogen than is available. That conclusion pointed to potentially drastic consequences as climate changes, and left Elmore asking more questions: How fast are forests changing, how do changes differ regionally, and what are the consequences of those changes?

University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science researchers, including Elmore, have been able to expand on that study with support from the National Science Foundation.


2016 Chesapeake Bay Report Card shows steady recovery

The overall health of Chesapeake Bay improved in 2016, a positive sign that recovery efforts are working. The largest estuary in the nation scored a C grade (54%) in the 2016 report card, one of the highest scores calculated by scientists at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). While only a slight improvement, it’s encouraging that the overall health remained steady despite many pressures on the Chesapeake Bay and across its watershed. In addition, fish populations greatly improved to an A (90%).


Chasing the mystery behind bioluminescence in Puerto Rico

It can be a paddle from a kayak, or a swift-swimming fish, but a light disturbance in the waves will trigger a faint bluish glow from below the waves in three bays in Puerto Rico. This bioluminescence can be seen under the right conditions in various animals and places worldwide, but never as consistently as in these three bays, and it’s raising questions that likely only science can answer.

A group of 16 undergraduates from two Puerto Rican universities, with help from two University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science researchers, spent a week in May investigating the plankton behind the glow in hopes of answering the so-far unanswerable. The field study is part of a new research and education center that Maryland Sea Grant College established with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Its name is Centro TORTUGA—which is Spanish for turtle, but stands for Tropical Oceanography Research Training for Undergraduate Academics.


Guanabara Bay watershed, under stress, earns D grade

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), along with local partners including the Environmental Sanitation Program for the Municipalities Surrounding Guanabara Bay (PSAM) and the State Environmental Institute (INEA), released the Guanabara Bay Environmental Health Report Card—the first of its kind in Brazil—to track progress of global water management goals.

With a grade of D for the Guanabara Bay and its watershed, the report card serves as a model for building comprehensive, community-driven, scientifically credible basin assessments that will help accelerate restoration efforts.


Scientists examine black sea bass ahead of offshore turbine project

David Secor, a fisheries expert and professor with University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, is studying the movements of black sea bass, a relatively sedentary fish, to understand how they respond to disturbances ahead of the state's plan to build a series of wind turbines off its shore. The project would help Maryland in meeting its commitment to get 20 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2022. Construction, however, may potentially be disruptive for the fish and marine life that visit that 94 square nautical mile stretch (79,706 acres) about 10 to 30 miles off Ocean City.

With no construction yet, Secor's first hint of an impact actually came from a tropical storm that hit the region last summer.


Tracking dolphins in Chesapeake Bay

Dolphins are more frequently spending their summers in Chesapeake Bay. At least that’s the story Dr. Helen Bailey kept hearing, but the ecologist with a long history in studying these aquatic animals wanted more than anecdotal evidence.

“We really don’t have much information at all about where they are going and when,” said Bailey, an associate research professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.

She set out to change that, with the public’s help. With funding support from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, Bailey created Chesapeake DolphinWatch, a research project aimed at answering some of her lingering questions about dolphins in the Bay. At the heart of the project is a web-based application that allows members of the public to report dolphin sightings in the Bay with the touch of a finger.


Raising the grade for sustainable agriculture

A small group is brainstorming the impact of agricultural production on the environment and society. This conversation—part of a week-long workshop at National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, a National Science Foundation-funded think tank, in Annapolis—is just the beginning of a grander plan to build a sustainable agriculture matrix.

If their effort works, this matrix would serve as a universal grading system that could help countries measure how well they can meet food production targets with minimal impact on the environment, and then, with that insight, set policies or incentives to improve their grade. To work, however, it requires a lot of consideration from multiple perspectives, careful planning to ensure the indicators that help a country measure itself are fair and consistent, and cooperation from individuals worldwide to do the necessary homework.

If it sounds grand in scale, that’s because it is, but that hasn’t deterred Xin Zhang and Eric Davidson, two scientists from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Appalachian Laboratory, who are leading the project.