What: This Keck project will investigate the role of beaver in the sediment and carbon budgets of small catchments (<10 km2) in the central Adirondack Mountains of New York State. Working within Huntingon Wildlife Forest (managed by SUNY-ESF), our geomorphic perspective will supplement past and ongoing ecological research, and it will provide insight into natural upland erosion rates within the upper Hudson River watershed, an important resource for all of eastern New York.
When: Mid-July to Mid-August
Where: The Newcomb Campus of SUNY-ESF and Huntington Wildlife Forest are located just west of Newcomb, NY, in the central Adirondacks. SUNY-ESF has managed this field station since 1932, and some of their Adirondack Long-term Ecological Monitoring Program (ALTEMP) projects have been active since the 1930s. The topography surrounding HWF is somewhat subdued in comparison to the adjacent High Peaks; maximum elevations are closer to 800 m near Newcomb. HWF contains five lakes, ranging in size from 38 to 217 hectares, and they are all within the upper Hudson River Watershed. Mean annual temperature is 4.4° C, and mean annual precipitation is 1010 mm (please visit http://www.esf.edu/aec/facilities/hwf.htm for further information about HWF and the Adirondack Ecological Center at SUNY-ESF’s Newcomb campus).
Who: Three students and one mentor, Matt Jungers (Washington & Lee University)
Project Overview and Goals: The return of beaver (Castor canadensis) to ecosystems throughout North America is profoundly affecting regional hydrology, ecology, and geomorphology. Beaver are cited as ‘ecosystem engineers’ and ‘geomorphic agents’ for their ability to enter a landscape and quickly adjust how water and sediment are routed through fluvial systems (Naiman, 1995). Several recent studies have investigated the impact of beaver on the geomorphology and hydrology of landscapes of the western United States (e.g., Persico and Meyer, 2009; Wohl, 2013; Levine and Meyer, 2014), but few have focused on the abundant beaver of eastern North America. This Keck project will investigate the role of beaver in the sediment and carbon budgets of small catchments (<10 km2) in the central Adirondack Mountains of New York State. We will leverage several decades of ecological monitoring of beaver colonies within Huntington Wildlife Forest (HWF), a 60 km2 parcel managed by the State University of New York – College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), to provide immediate interdisciplinary relevance for this work. Our geomorphic perspective will supplement past and ongoing ecological research at HWF, and it will provide insight into natural upland erosion rates within the upper Hudson River watershed, an important resource for all of eastern New York. Students will survey and map reach-scale fluvial geomorphology and sediment distribution. We will synthesize these reach-scale data into catchment-scale sediment and carbon budgets that include material trapped in active and abandoned beaver ponds. Multiple, short (~1 m) sediment cores in beaver ponds and small lakes downstream from our study catchments will allow analysis of how sedimentation rates change down system both in the presence and absence of active beaver colonies. Once back from the field, processing our data and freely available time series of remotely sensed data (e.g., Landsat) within Geographic Information Systems (GIS) will yield a preliminary datset of source-to-sink sediment dynamics for small, upland catchments in Huntington Forest.
Geologic Background: Our study area is located along the southern edge of the High Peaks region of the Adirondack Mountains, an area with maximum elevations greater than 1500 meters, and local relief exceeding 600 meters (Figure 1). Much of the region is underlain by high-grade Precambrian metamorphic rocks with pockets of less metamorphosed sedimentary rocks outside the High Peaks. During the last glacial period, the Adirondacks were overidden by the Laurentide ice sheet, stripping hillslope soils and locally depositing glacial till. As a result, upland soils can be quite thin, having developed from underlying bedrock over just the past few tens of thousands of years. The Adirondacks are undeniably an ancient mountain range, but there is some debate regarding how they have maintained their rugged relief in spite of their antiquity. In addition to localized uplift from isostatic rebound following the retreat of the Laurentide ice sheet, there is geodetic evidence for recent, ongoing uplift of the eastern Adirondacks (Isachsen, 1975), although the driving force behind this uplift is uncertain.
Prior to European contact, the beaver population in North America is estimated at between 60-400 million (Naiman et al., 1988; Butler 1995). Current estimates of beaver population put their number at 6-12 million, spread throughout most of their original geographic range (Naiman et al., 1988). Early studies of beaver’s impact on landscapes’ hydrology and geomorphology suggested that every water body in New York State must have been affected by beaver at some point prior to beaver extirpation by European settlers (Ruedemann and Schoonmaker, 1938). Ruedemann and Schoonmaker take their inference to the extreme in suggesting that nearly all valley fill in the Adirondacks is the result of intermittent beaver damming over the past 25,000 years. An analysis of sedimentation rates in beaver ponds within Glacier National Park in Montana found beaver pond infilling rates of 1 m/yr following dam construction, which is far faster than other published rates for that region (Butler and Malanson, 1995). However, in Yellowstone National Park, total aggradation along streams that is attributable to beaver activity is commonly <2 m (Persico and Meyer, 2009), quite a different story than the thick beaver dam deposits proposed by Ruedemann and Schoonmaker for New York. Regardless of total sediment accumulation behind beaver dams, the long-term legacy of beaver ponds as sediment and carbon sinks is intimately tied to how frequently beaver dams fail and how pond sediments are eroded following dam failure (Levine and Meyer, 2014). In landscapes of the American West where over half of postglacial sediment in river valleys is associated with beaver activity, beaver meadows disproportianately serve as carbon sinks within those drainage networks (Polvi and Wohl, 2012; Wohl, 2013). Much of the recent work investigating the role of beaver in landscapes’ sediment and carbon budgets has focused on beaver in the American West. This Keck project provides a new focus and perspective on similar processes in the Adirondack Mountains of the eastern United States.
Potential Student Projects: The four person research team for this Keck project will work together to collect data throughout our four week field expedition. Each task outlined below will require teamwork, so each day we will prioritize some subset of our broader goals to move the project forward. Some data that we collect will be relevant to more than one student’s project (and more than one working hypothesis), but, for clarity, our approach is divided into three projects below. Inevitably, these ideas/goals will evolve in the field.
1. Reach-scale fluvial geomorphology – Assess the impact of beaver on longitudinal profiles of upland streams, channel bed cover, and source-to-sink grain size distribution. How lasting is the impact of beaver on upland fluvial geomorphology?
2. Catchment-scale sediment budgets – Infer upland sediment production rates, map points of sediment storage throughout fluvial systems, quantify the volume of sediment stored in beaver ponds/meadows, and infer how quickly sediment is remobilized following the abandonment of beaver ponds. How significantly do beaver attenuate the transport of sediment in the headwaters of the Hudson River?
3. Catchment-scale carbon budgets – Quantify how much organic matter is trapped in beaver deposits within upland catchments in the Adirondacks and develop a carbon budget for catchments of interest using remote sensing and GIS. How significant a carbon sink are beaver ponds and meadows in the Adirondacks?
Logistics/Field Conditions: We will conduct this project entirely within the facilities of SUNY-ESF’s Newcomb campus. Our group will rendezvous at Syracuse Hancock International Airport (SYR), pick up our rental van, and drive ~150 miles to Newcomb, NY. Meal preparation is handled entirely by SUNY-ESF staff, which simplifies daily logistics. Each day will require some combination of driving, canoeing, and hiking to field sites within HWF. Post-processing of each day’s data will take place back at our bunkhouses. After the four weeks of field work, we will mail sample sets necessary for each student’s continuing research to their home institution. Jungers will continue to advise the students throughout the following academic year with the aid of a mentor at their school.
We will be outside regardless of the weather, so be prepared for the potential of soggy field work. Much of our time will be spent hiking along streams and plodding through beaver ponds/meadows – your feet will get wet! On some days, we’ll need to access sites via canoe, so count on at least a bit of time in small boats. Swimming is not required, but comfort around water is important. The Adirondacks are not considered a hotspot for Lyme Disease, but we will all need to take necessary precautions with insect repellent to stay safe and comfortable.
Recommended Courses: Some mix of the following subjects would enhance your engagement with this project. A bit of background in geomorphology and GIS would be the most useful.
Applied Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
Contact Info: Questions? Get in touch with Matt Jungers, firstname.lastname@example.org
Butler, D. R. (1995). Zoogeomorphology: animals as geomorphic agents. Cambridge University Press.
Butler, D. R., & Malanson, G. P. (1995). Sedimentation rates and patterns in beaver ponds in a mountain environment. Geomorphology, 13(1), 255-269.
Isachsen, Y. W. (1975). Possible evidence for contemporary doming of the Adirondack Mountains, New York, and suggested implications for regional tectonics and seismicity. Tectonophysics, 29(1), 169-181.
Levine, R., & Meyer, G. A. (2014). Beaver dams and channel sediment dynamics on Odell Creek, Centennial Valley, Montana, USA. Geomorphology, 205, 51-64.
Naiman, R. J., Johnston, C. A., & Kelley, J. C. (1988). Alteration of North American streams by beaver. BioScience, 753-762.
Polvi, L. E., & Wohl, E. (2012). The beaver meadow complex revisited–the role of beavers in post‐glacial floodplain development. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 37(3), 332-346.
Ruedemann, R., & Schoonmaker, W. J. (1938). Beaver-dams as geologic agents. Science, 88(2292), 523-525.
Wohl, E. (2013). Landscape‐scale carbon storage associated with beaver dams. Geophysical research letters, 40(14), 3631-3636.