NASA grants MSU $1.5 million to study how humans hurt the environment

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By Chloe Kiple

This story was originally published for Focal Point, a broadcast news program at the Michigan State University School of Journalism, and is republished here with permission.

What’s tall and puffy but invasive all over? Phragmites, large-stature cattail plants which are taking over Michigan wetlands.

The tall reeds steal food, water and sunlight from native species. The phragmites grow in dense clusters making them hard to eradicate and manage.

“It’s a matter of these species being pushed out of their native habitat and large format plants aren’t actually growing,” said Michigan State hydrogeologist Dr. David Hyndman.

Wetlands provide essential services for an ecosystem, like water filtration, sheltering animals, protection from floods and more. Corrupting such an integral part of the environment can have widespread consequences.

The problem is only worsening in part because of Michigan farmers with excessive fertilizer usage. Fertilizers are cheap so farmers can use lots of it to increase crop yields — but all the extra chemicals run-off and affect environments miles away. Thus, exacerbating the phragmite problem.

“A lot of invasive species do exceptionally well when there is nitrogen and phosphorous in the water,” said hydrology student Bailey Hannah.

It’s a problem so monumental that NASA has granted Michigan State scientists $1.5 million to investigate how pollutants move through the environment.

“[Fertilizers] are flowing to the groundwater and Great Lakes. How much goes into the groundwater, gets back to surface water, gets there directly?” said Dr. Hyndman. “We can still have thriving agriculture, but we don’t have all the nutrients that are causing it harm.”

Dr. Hyndman is collaborating with scientists from the University of Michigan and Michigan Tech, among other universities. Michigan State is investigating the hydrologic piece of the puzzle — they’re monitoring wetlands by collecting hourly data from electronic stakes. They’re also using satellites to do remote sensing.

“We have satellites out in space that can image details on the land surface,” said Hyndman. “We look at things like color imagery, thermal bands … all of that detailed info about what’s happening on the landscape.”

When the three-year project wraps up, Dr. Hyndman hopes that the project will help inform and empower communities and lawmakers about how to handle pollutants, invasive species and environments.

“Our goal is to find out how we as humans can live more effectively on the planet without negative consequences to the environment,” said Dr. Hyndman. “We’re trying to do research that informs science-based policy decisions”

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