CLN > Climate Change Education Projects > Integrating the Carbon and Water Cycles within an Ecosystem Esthetic Approach to Landscapes

Integrating the Carbon and Water Cycles within an Ecosystem Esthetic Approach to Landscapes

Principal Investigators: Louis A. Kaplan, Susan E. Gill, Anthony K. Aufdenkampe, J. Denis Newbold
Grant Foundation NSF Grant #0917930 (DRL)

Project Description

With the debate about anthropogenic contributions to atmospheric CO2 entering the public discourse, scientists and educators are challenged to discuss the extent of and means to reduce human impacts. To date, most public discourse regarding human impact on the global carbon cycle has concentrated on the contribution of fossil-fuel combustion to atmospheric CO2 and terrestrial biosphere emissions associated with land-use change and vegetation burning. The significant role of inland waterways in organic matter transport, mineralization, and burial has been largely ignored but is a necessary component of strategies for CO2 management and climate change mitigation

The goal of this project is to communicate links between the water and carbon cycles and the impact that landscape decisions can have on the fate and transport of carbon when stormwater runoff increases. The conceptual framework for our communication with public audiences is a broadening of Aldo Leopold's Conservation Esthetic to an Ecosystem Esthetic that includes energy flow and hydrology as fundamental components of land use decisions. The Ecosystem Esthetic concept that we propose links changes in land-use and land-management practices at the local and regional scales to the increased contribution of terrestrial organic carbon to stream and river ecosystems. Further, it challenges how esthetic preferences form and affect landscape decisions.

Humans have always had a deep emotional attachment to land that often drives behavior. Our intimate relationship with the landscapes we occupy, however, can produce quite varied results. Do we live lightly on the land as stewards of the environment, or alter it to suit our needs and desires? The concept of humans as masters of their domain is the foundation of much environmental degradation. Yet such powerful links between human values and environmental quality may also be enlisted to serve the cause of environmental stewardship. As landscapes change, the quantity and quality of water that flows over and through them also changes, often for the worse. This project presents the results of research indicating that human alterations to the landscape affect the water cycle in ways that result in the mobilization and mineralization of carbon that has been stored in forest soils and wetlands for hundreds to thousands of years. Much of this carbon, that would otherwise remain sequestered, is released to the atmosphere as CO2. This project further discusses how culturally-driven, esthetic preferences promote practices that favor manicured landscapes over the natural ones, thus accelerating the release of carbon. For example, in many areas we have grown more attached to our altered landscapes than to natural ones. We now prefer the look of turf grass lawns over untended woodlots; favor the view of "amber waves of grain" to that of native, tall-grass prairie; and find bucolic scenes of livestock standing in the stream as quaint reminders of our agrarian past.

In this project, we are developing educational materials that will be displayed at Longwood Gardens, a 1000-acre facility that attracts over 800,000 visitors annually from the US and abroad. In additional to its ornamental exhibits, Longwood Gardens has installations that fit within the ecosystem esthetic concept, such as a wildflower and warm-season grass meadow, constructed wetlands and unmanaged, native forest. In response to this project, they plan to expand their installations on a scale that will resonate with visitors and encourage them to apply ecosystem esthetic practices on their own properties. Longwood Gardens also plans to integrate these educational materials into their Master Gardner program, graduate horticulture program and school programs. The combination of activities associated with this project should help audiences become proponents and practitioners of an Ecosystem Esthetic.

Contact Information:
Susan Gill,