Chris Schulz Published

Middle School Students Join WVU Researchers To Study Acid Rain In Tucker County

A green forest is shown along with a dirt road. Sunlight peeks through the trees.
West Virginia University researchers have received National Science Foundation funding to study the effects of acid rain, with the help of area eighth graders, in the Fernow Experimental Forest in Tucker County.
Edward Brzostek/WVU

Since 1989, West Virginia University (WVU) scientists have been studying the environmental effects of acid rain in the Fernow Experimental Forest in Tucker County. COVID-19 pandemic restrictions forced the long-term experiment to change in recent years, and researchers are now inviting local students to take part in the project’s next phase.

Chris Schulz sat down with WVU biology professor Edward Brzostek to discuss the changes.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Schulz: If you could start us off by telling me in your own words about this project. 

Brzostek: We’d been working at a long-term research site in Tucker County, West Virginia called the Fernow Experimental Forest starting in 1989. They did an experiment where they were artificially acidifying a whole forest watershed to mimic what was coming out of coal fired power plants and leading to acid rain across the region.

We learned a lot of different things about how the forest responded to that acidification. One of the things we learned is that the nitrogen actually led to the trees growing faster.

There were some bad things though. These forests also leaked more nitrogen because they were getting more nitrogen inputs, and they just couldn’t hold on to it.

So a lot of it leached into waterways, which can impact water quality. In 2020, we couldn’t get the helicopter or the airplane to fly. Then there was also a lapse in funding. And so the experiment, we stopped adding nitrogen and sulfur to the watershed, and we thought this actually is a great opportunity. And one of the things that this mimics is actually the success of the Clean Air Act.

A man in a white button up shirt smiles for a photo.
Edward Brzostek, associate professor, biology, WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. Courtesy WVU

So the Clean Air Act reduced nitrogen and sulfur emissions. And they’re almost negligible to these forest ecosystems now. And so what we’re really interested in is, okay, if we stop having this pollution coming into the forest to the good effects, which is the enhanced carbon storage in the trees in the soils, are they maintained? Or do we lose them? And then are the bad effects to those also, do we keep having those bad effects? They go away quickly.

Schulz: So do you have any hypotheses that you’re working on at the moment?

Brzostek: We have a hypothesis for how the forests responded, when it really relies on is that forests are somewhat like people and trees are somewhat like people, they’re gonna spend their cash, or in this case, carbon, on what they need the most. And so when you have nitrogen going into a forest, the trees aren’t going to spend as much carbon in the soil. So they’re going to make less roots, they’re going to send less carbon to their root friends, to symbiotic fungi. They’re also bacteria that live right around the roots. And so basically, they’re investing less carbon to get nitrogen. And so by doing that, what that means is the tree can grow more above ground. And because you don’t have that carbon going into the soil, it’s not fueling the microbes as much.

And so what our main hypothesis is moving forward, as the nitrogen stuffs being dumped on the forest, what we’re going to have is the trees, they’re going to be sending more carbon below ground, to their roots and their microbial friends, that’s going to restart decomposition, and it’s gonna lead to potential soil carbon losses, while at the same time, as we might see reductions in tree growth above ground, because the trees are now limited by the amount of nitrogen that’s in the soil.

Schulz: You mentioned that this long-term study has helped you understand the impacts of the Clean Air Act. Why was it necessary to set this up as a more controlled study, when you could just go out and do field research in any of the other forests of the state?

Brzostek: We can go out and we can do observational studies, and folks have done these across the entire eastern seaboard. But one thing, when you’re looking at those observational data, it’s hard to think about other factors that could lead to differences in growth, or in soil, carbon or other things that could impact your data. So by having a controlled experiment, you can isolate other confounding factors like climate, or tree species or where you are, or the soils are the bedrock. And you can actually delve into what the actual mechanisms are. So that’s why having the controled experiment really lets you kind of get rid of all the noise and be able to look at, okay, what is actually driving this? Is it the microbes? Is it this symbiotic fungi? Is it the trees?

Schulz: One of the things that jumped out to me was the inclusion of K-12 students and specifically middle school students. In this project, can you tell me a little bit about why you chose to target that specific group?

Brzostek: The Fernow is located in Tucker County, and many of those students, they live right in the backdrop of that, the Fernow Experimental Forest, and they don’t have any real knowledge of the science that goes on there, about the important findings that we have found at that site. And so one of the things we did in this project is designed a number of activities to bring the students out into the field, have them collect real data, have them analyze that data and actually learn about all this science that’s going right on in their backyard that they just aren’t aware of.

Two females - one a graduate student and another a middle school student - use a tool to collect soil samples in a green forest.
WVU graduate student Zoe Pagliaro guides Vivienne Brzostek, a K-12 student, as she samples soils for analysis in the Fernow Experimental Forest in Tucker County.

Credit: Hannah DeHetre/WVU

Schulz: So can you tell me a little bit more about and what you’ve designed for these students?

Brzostek: You know, we’re gonna start off going into the classroom, doing a couple of different classroom activities where we give them some of the data on tree growth. We can walk them through graphing and just looking at that data and see, okay, yes, nitrogen lead to these trees growing faster. Moving forward, what we’d like to do is we’re going to bring the students out into the Fernow and lead them on a field trip where they’re going to collect actual data.

But the other thing that we can do are some simple litter decomposition experiments. So it’s both collecting observational data and then having the students do some simple experiments in the field where all you need to do is put a leaf in some window screening and then have its initial way at the beginning and then weigh it out, you know, weigh it six months later to see how fast microbial decomposition occurred.