Prof. Meredith Holgerson, ecology and evolutionary biology, will receive a fund granted by the Department of Environmental Conservation to study ponds and wetlands in Ithaca and the surrounding areas to understand how these small bodies of water contribute to carbon capture and storage.
As part of New York State’s pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, inventory of all carbon sources — including working and natural lands — is required. Therefore, the Office of Climate Change at the DEC is funding grants for studies focusing on farmlands, forests and wetlands.
Holgerson — who has been working at Cornell for the past two years — has devoted her career conducting research focusing on carbon-oxygen dynamics, elemental cycling and greenhouse gas emissions in ponds and wetlands.
Ponds are very small and numerous globally, said Holgerson. Her research on ponds has demonstrated that they can emit a lot of greenhouse gasses like methane due to rich carbon sediments in the bottom of the ponds.
Methane rises from the carbon sediments and is released into the atmosphere, being one of the primary contributors to the formation of greenhouse gasses. However, ponds can also store such carbon, which is helpful because it would account for less methane in the atmosphere.
She explained that the sludge at the bottom of a pond is very rich in carbon and can be kept there permanently if those water bodies are left alone or are artificially created to be carbon-friendly.
“But, we don’t have a great understanding of how much [carbon] a water body stores in its sediment, and how much is coming out to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane,” Holgerson said.
The DEC grant aims to determine such numbers to find sustainable ways to implement carbon friendly ponds, naturally or artificially. This could mean adding organisms, plants and aquatic animals that impact the carbon storage and methane emissions of a pond.
“Collectively our work is going to show what are the drivers of emissions, what are the drivers of burreal, and we will be able to inform the state what are the types of things we should be telling landowners,” Holgerson said. She explains that they could provide better management practices indicating how large ponds should be and in what area they should be located.
Holgerson also mentions that, in a decade from now, there is a potential for landowners with ponds to get carbon credits for managing or building a pond in a certain way that stores carbon and doesn’t emit methane.
The project will be completed across the next two years. The first component of the grant will focus on gathering information on different kinds of wetlands and the amount of carbon that is either stored or depleted into the environment to ensure that accurate numbers are provided for the creation of state carbon budgets.
The second component includes working with farm and residential ponds to determine a way to build more carbon-friendly ponds that emit less greenhouse gasses and are possible carbon storage units.
The third part of the project will include working with the Cornell Experimental Ponds Facility in order to determine variables that affect the carbon friendliness of the ponds. For example, adding nutrients, fish populations and more sets of manipulations.
Once the project is carried out in the Ithaca area, the plan is to take findings and numbers to other parts of New York State and continue research in other test sites. State-wide efforts will be carried out with the help of the New York Natural Heritage Program.
“We need all hands-on deck,” Holgerson said. “Our climate emergency is requiring us to find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reach carbon neutrality as soon as possible, and our own planet can help get us there. It will be crucial to understand how ponds and small wetlands emit and store carbon.”