Mason Faculty Members Explore the World in Efforts to Study Environmental Issues

Posted: August 4, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Divers collecting coral samples
Researchers collect coral samples in the Gulf of Mexico.
Photo courtesy of Diana Schmitt

By Tara Laskowski

From the wetlands of Belize to the mountains of India, Mason faculty members are traveling the globe in their efforts to ensure a more sustainable and diverse planet Earth.

Following are highlights of a few of the many environmental research projects that faculty members from across the university are conducting internationally.

The Mystery of Botanical Diversity

Andrea Weeks
Andrea Weeks on a trip to Namibia to collect specimens.
Photo courtesy Andrea Weeks

Andrea Weeks wants to know how flowering plants got so diverse. Contrary to her students’ beliefs, which she takes pains to dispel in her courses, new plant and animal species are routinely discovered in the United States and around the world.

“Since plants do not respect political boundaries, my work occasionally requires me to travel abroad in order to collect plant samples for ongoing projects,” says Weeks. “In the process, I help document and describe plant biodiversity in other countries.”

The need for this type of work can’t be stressed enough, says Weeks. Given the increasingly profound human impact on natural ecosystems, many species face extinction in the not-too-distant future if current trends aren’t reversed.

Weeks is currently working on understanding the evolution of the frankincense and myrrh family, Burseraceae. For the past year and a half, and with funds from a Jeffress Memorial Trust grant, her laboratory has collected DNA sequence data from more than 100 Burseraceae species. Because these plants are distributed across all three major tropical regions — the Americas, Africa and Southeast Asia — yet are too frost-sensitive to have dispersed through colder, higher latitudes in recent geological history, Weeks is trying to understand how the plants became so widely dispersed.

Saving the Coral Reefs

George Mason University is not located on the coast of Bermuda or the Florida Keys, but the fact that the university is nowhere near the tropics doesn’t stop Bob Jonas or his students from doing the work they are most passionate about: saving coral reefs.

Jonas, chair of the Environmental Science and Policy Department, visits the tropics of the Bahamas, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico several times a year with a team of students to study and do research on coral reefs.

“The coral reefs are dying,” says Jonas. “Being eaten alive, and we don’t know why.”

Being animals, corals, like people, have specific diseases associated with them. There are approximately 20 known coral diseases that have been identified since the 1970s, but the one that Jonas is most concerned about is the “white plague.” This disease eats away at the top tissue of the coral, leaving only a limestone skeleton behind.

His team is researching and mapping the disease. Along with faculty members Esther Peters, one of the world’s premiere coral histopathologists, and Patrick Gillevet, who uses state-of-the-art techniques to study molecular evolution and gene sequencing, Jonas is working to identify the agent or agents causing the disease and the overreaching environmental changes that may have developed the disease in the first place.

Bob Jonas and Geoff Cook processing coral disks
Professor Bob Jonas, left, and student Geoff Cook process coral disks after collecting samples.
Photo courtesy Emma Hickerson

Advocating for Whale and Dolphin Conservation

Chris Parsons is on the frontlines of whale and dolphin conservation. He has taken on the Japanese whaling industry. He has spoken out against the use of Navy sonar when it harms whales and dolphins. He has traveled around the world doing research on humpback whales and other species. And he has made it his mission to preserve the habitats and life of these aquatic animals.

Chris Parsons
Chris Parsons

Since 1999, Parsons has been lobbying for whales and dolphins as a British member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission. He has conducted projects in South Africa, India, China and the Caribbean as well as the United Kingdom.

Currently, Parsons is tracking the Supreme Court case scheduled to be heard this fall that concerns the environmental regulations imposed on U.S. Navy experiments. Despite international awareness by major environmental organizations of the harmful effects of sonar on whale populations, Parsons says little action has been taken by any nation. In 2004, the Spanish government banned military exercises in the coastal waters of the Canary Islands because of the large number of animals being stranded in that area, but no other country has taken such drastic steps.

He has recently published a paper that discusses the different species of whales that have been affected worldwide and strongly argues for stricter environmental policies related to this issue.

“Eventually the Navy may have to reconsider the use of certain types of sonar altogether. They could be wiping out entire populations of whales and making other types extinct,” he says.

Weather Stations around the World

Jagadish Shukla
Jagadish Shukla

Though Jagadish Shukla devotes much of his time to improving the predictability of short-term weather, he also thinks globally. Shukla, director of Mason’s Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Earth Sciences, wishes to improve weather and climate information and instrumentation around the world.

“We need to invest in people, high-resolution models and computing capacity if we are to reap the benefits of scientific and technological advances,” he told the World Meteorological Organization recently.

To help improve forecasts of monsoons, Shukla, a native of India, helped to establish the country’s first modern weather and data analysis system. He received the International Meteorological Organization Prize from the World Meteorological Organization earlier this year for his work enhancing this field of study around the world. Shukla was also a lead author and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the organization that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

Shukla is also interested in the ways that climate change and natural disasters will affect the poverty-stricken and other disadvantaged populations in countries everywhere.

The Past Provides Clues for Adapting to Environmental Change

Though many scientists are concerned with looking thousands of years into the future to forecast changes in the climate, there are researchers like Sheryl Beach who see the importance of also looking to the past to illuminate global change.

Sheryl Beach at Calakmul
Sheryl Beach at the Mayan archaeological site of Calakmul in Mexico.
Photo courtesy of Sheryl Beach

Beach, associate professor in geography and geoinformation science (GGS), is a physical geographer who uses cultural and scientific evidence to reconstruct past environments. She is working in Belize and the Yucatan region of Mexico to study the agricultural practices of the ancient Maya. Her research seeks to understand not only how the environment changed over time, but also how that change affected people and how they adapted to the change.

“We’re trying to learn lessons from the past,” she says. “We want to know how they lived and what they did to improve their environment.”

Beach specializes in analyzing the groundwater chemistry of these regions to determine mineral content, combining this with other “proxies,” or indirect indicators of the past environment, such as pollen, carbon dating, soil chemistry and artifacts. Combining water chemistry analysis with soil chemistry, her research team has been able to determine significant geomorphic changes in the land that forced the ancient Maya to adapt their agricultural techniques.

The position of the soil layers and the present groundwater table, along with their chemical compositions, led her team to conclude that sea level rise drove the groundwater table upward into the agricultural lands of the Maya. They discovered that the Maya were adept at soil conservation and water management in both upland and low-lying areas and developed terraces or built canals to adjust to their changing environment.

Beach’s research was a driving force in developing the curriculum for the new undergraduate BS degree program in Global and Environmental Change, housed jointly in GGS and Environmental Science and Policy.

“It is important when studying global environmental change to not only look at the patterns and scales of change, but also to seek the causes and the consequences,” she says.

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