A photo of two people on a tower in the middle of the woods.
A VCU-led research team is publicly releasing data from a meteorological tower at the Rice Rivers Center, making it the only open dataset for a tidal freshwater wetland on North America’s East Coast. (Photo by Megan May)

Data gathered at Rice Rivers Center provides new insight into how ecosystems respond to climate change

Carbon, methane and other data collected by a “flux tower” is being made publicly available to researchers, teachers and policymakers.

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For more than a year, a meteorological tower at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rice Rivers Center has been collecting data roughly 10 times a second on methane and carbon concentrations from a tidal freshwater wetland, as well as other variables such as air and soil temperatures, humidity and incoming solar radiation.

A VCU-led research team is now releasing that data publicly, making it the only open dataset for a tidal freshwater wetland on North America’s East Coast. Open datasets can be freely used, shared and redistributed without any restrictions, license or fee.  

“These data will be used by researchers all over the world to understand how ecosystems respond to climate change and, conversely, could be used as natural climate solutions to mitigate rapidly advancing climate change,” said Christopher Gough, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences who is leading the project.

The “flux tower” at the Rice Rivers Center is installed within the site’s restored wetland. Carbon and methane fluxes originate from a multi-hectare area of the marsh, with the size and location of the flux footprint varying depending on weather conditions.

The tower, designated US-RRC: Rice Rivers Center Marsh, is part of AmeriFlux, a network of sites measuring ecosystem carbon dioxide, water and energy fluxes in North, Central and South America. It was established to connect research on field sites representing major climate and ecological biomes, including tundra, grasslands, savanna, crops, and conifer, deciduous and tropical forests.

The data gathered at the Rice Rivers Center flux tower could help address climate change by contributing to global datasets that reveal how changing climate affects different ecosystems, and the data could improve the performance of models that predict climate change.

Lisa Haber, a VCU doctoral candidate, maintained the tower instrumentation and generated the datasets.

“Though it took us several years to secure stable funding for the tower project and bring all our sensors up to good working order, we are now approaching one and a half years of continuous, high-quality data collection at our site,” Haber said. “I am super excited about laying the groundwork for long-term data collection at US-RRC, situated as it is in a geographically confined and understudied, yet critically important ecosystem type facing multiple pressures under global change. These data will enable researchers, teachers and students alike to examine how ecosystems like ours, right here on the James River, play an important role in the regional carbon cycle and help mitigate negative impacts of atmospheric carbon enrichment and water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.”

In making the dataset publicly available before the researchers publish their own research using the data, the project highlights how the Rice Rivers Center, which is part of VCU Life Sciences, is an institutional leader in providing publicly available ecosystem and earth science data to researchers, teachers and policymakers, Gough said.

Among the research findings, he said, are that the site is a high methane emitter relative to tidal salt marshes, and the emissions vary as a function of water levels. Gough and Haber also expect that the dataset will be useful to teachers and students, providing real-world environmental and greenhouse gas data with which to explore relationships between climate change and ecosystems. Policymakers and land managers increasingly consult flux tower data when crafting plans to maximize carbon sequestration and promote climate resilience.

In addition to the VCU researchers, the project involves collaborators at Rutgers University, California State University, the University of Delaware and McGill University.

The data gathered are also being used by a team at NASA Goddard that is working to improved climate models that incorporate the effects of methane.