Study focused on the climate impact of NYS ponds and wetlands

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A College of Agriculture and Life Sciences researcher has received a new grant to help New York State learn more about how ponds and wetlands store and release greenhouse gases, as part of state efforts to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Meredith Holgerson, an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, has worked with New York City’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) staff for two years as they attempt to inventory all sources and potential greenhouse gas sinks, a requirement of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act 2019. The DEC has now awarded Holgerson $745,289 over three years to examine greenhouse gas dynamics related to ponds and wetlands.

“If we’re going to keep creating agricultural and residential ponds, we should try not to create a new climate problem,” Holgerson said. “Many ponds emit a lot of methane – some of the highest fluxes of any body of water on Earth – while others emit very little. Our goal should be to design ponds that emit little methane and store a lot carbon in their sediments.

Most research on carbon storage and greenhouse gas emissions in water bodies has focused on lakes. Much less is known about the climate impact of ponds and wetlands. Understanding this part of the carbon budget is key, Holgerson said, because while these water bodies are small, there are hundreds of millions of them around the world.

“There are about 40,000 ponds in New York State alone, and that’s definitely an underestimate because there aren’t good records,” she said. “Although our work focuses on New York, the data and analysis we compile will be useful for other states, regions and countries.”

Holgerson’s work will include:

  • Turn to private owners to request access to their ponds. One of the reasons there is little research on ponds is that they often exist on private land and are therefore more difficult for researchers to access. Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Soil and Water Conservation Districts are helping with this effort, which includes using satellite imagery to locate ponds.
  • Collect sediment cores and measure greenhouse gas fluxes to determine how much carbon the basins store or emit per year.
  • Produce a statewide wetland survey, in collaboration with the New York Natural Heritage Program, and sample greenhouse gas and carbon storage data for 64 wetlands across the State.
  • Developed guidance for DEC and the State Department of Agriculture and Markets on how to design climate-friendly ponds. Ag and Markets provides cost-sharing to help farmers create new ponds for drought resistance, and Holgerson’s work could inform advice or requirements for pond design to access public funds.
  • Conduct experiments at the Cornell Experimental Ponds to test variables that can impact the greenhouse gas cycle, such as the influence of various plant or fish communities, nutrient levels in the ponds, and the role of bacteria in the production of greenhouse gases at various oxygen levels.

“The DEC is pleased to support Professor Holgerson’s study,” said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos. “New York State’s freshwater wetland habitats are vast and diverse, and Professor Holgerson’s research will provide unprecedented insight into the role northeast wetlands play in storing carbon and a better understanding of the greenhouse gas benefits of healthy wetland ecosystems.”

Krisy Gashler is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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