Framed by enormous, towering silver maples, Christian Marks walks waist-deep in ostrich ferns, spreading out a foot of yellow measuring tape with each step.
He's in a wide, open forest in Swanzey, New Hampshire, near the muddy banks of the meandering Ashuelot River, a key tributary of the Connecticut River. Christian is here to take detailed measurements of the trees and vegetation along the tape.
This floodplain forest is strikingly beautiful, with massive trees, a wide open understory and huge ferns. Rare or uncommon wildlife species like leopard frogs, bald eagles and red-shouldered hawks are drawn to forests like this one. But floodplain forests are rare and getting rarer — a problem both for wildlife that make their homes here and the human communities that rely on these forests to soak up floodwaters.
Floodplain forests help ease the impact of floods on communities by holding high water. As the name implies, these forests need periodic flooding. Without these high-water events, floodplain plant species that have evolved here over time are gradually replaced by upland species.
“With climate change likely to bring more intense rain to our waterways, we have to be forward thinking,” says Marks. “We know that restoring floodplain forests can help prepare for climate change impacts, but we know little about their dynamics — like the volume, duration and timing of high-water events that enables them to survive.”
That's where the Conservancy's study comes in. Over the next two years Marks and his crew will lead an ambitious field study of floodplain forests throughout the entire Connecticut River watershed, looking at the effects of flow and elevation on trees and other flora.
The team has already visited more than 35 floodplain forests and has found evidence that the difference of even a couple of inches in elevation can have a dramatic impact on what tree species are found there. Their research will continue to fill in missing pieces, painting a clear picture of where these rich floodplains were historically, and providing a better understanding of the conditions they need to thrive.
This field work will help the Conservancy figure out the best places to restore these unique ecosystems. And restoring these systems will expand their capacity to provide water filtration, flood control and migration corridors for animals — services that are important now, but will only grow more critical as the climate changes.
You help make important community partnerships like restoring floodplain forests possible when you continue to support our work.October 14, 2011