Wetland projects test waters to restart research at WMU

Contact: Erin Flynn

Dr. Tiffany Schriever is researching interdunal wetlands along Lake Michigan.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—While she spends quite a bit of time traversing dunes along Lake Michigan's shoreline, Dr. Tiffany Schriever's work is no day at the beach. Her research involves measuring water quality and water levels and categorizing species living in the wetlands between dunes—interdunal wetlands—to determine whether the water in the area is coming from the big lake or another inland body of water.

The study could have wide-ranging impacts on lakeshore towns where the rise and fall of Lake Michigan has a direct impact on tourism, but it will have a more immediate impact at WMU: It's the first field research project given the green light since COVID-19 forced college campuses across the state and nation to deliver their educational programming through remote platforms.

Schriever uses equipment to analyze water in an interdunal wetland.

"I'm happy to get it approved and happy to go through the process because that's what we live for, to go out into the field, and that's really the only way we have data," says Schriever, a professor of biological sciences. In determining the source of the water in the wetlands between dunes, her data will help determine potential land loss in the area due to rising lake levels. "For example, Ludington State Park can't use a back country campground, and some trails are underwater because there's so much wetland that has formed back there in the dunes." That has appreciable economic impact, but that affect is not always recognized.

Schriever's research was among a handful of field projects acting as pilots for the WMU Office of Research and Innovation's new health and safety protocols related to the pandemic. 

Schriever examines species present in a wetland habitat.

“Dr. Schriever was instrumental in helping us think through the needs of the faculty and students to do their work in a safe way for themselves and others. She piloted a state-of-the-art electronic system to allow us to have an iterative process to develop comprehensive plans, and her proposal serves as a role model,” says Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy, vice president for research and innovation. “Starting her work has allowed us to systematically start all forms of research and creative scholarship that need to occur in person at WMU.”

"It's just really keeping your distance, keeping a log of who you came in contact with, keeping up to date with your symptoms and how you're feeling, and wearing masks," Schriever says. Researchers on her team also sanitize and sterilize shared equipment, something that was already part of the pre-pandemic process to prevent spreading invasive species between wetlands.

Adam Austin, a graduate student working with Schriever, also received approval to begin a related research project, determining the efficacy of human-made inland wetlands meant to offset those destroyed by development.

Adam Austin carries equipment in a wetland area in southwestern Michigan. Read more about his WMU journey here.

"It's great because we can bridge together what we think natural wetlands are doing, which is all the wetlands that I've ever studied, and compare them to these wetlands that we're creating all over the place," Schriever says, adding that the research results could have future policy implications for regulatory bodies and consulting firms that create the new habitats. "There isn't a playbook for how to build a wetland. This is a fairly new thing."

No net loss of wetlands is the idea behind creating mitigation wetlands, a practice around since the 1980s. "So, if you impact a certain number of acres of wetland, you replace it with even more than you impacted," Austin explains. "But we really don't know whether or not these mitigation wetlands are effective replacements."

Regularly trudging hundreds of yards through brush and waist-deep water under the hot summer sun, Austin admits the prospect of being among the first at the University cleared to get back to work in the field turns up the heat a bit.

"It's incredibly nerve-wracking. There's a lot of pressure to get it right," he says. "We know all the other labs are looking at us to see whether or not they're going to be able to reopen."

The Office of Research and Innovation is currently accepting submissions of research plans and creative scholarship in the fine arts. More detailed descriptions of the new protocols, which are still being developed, are available on its webpage.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.

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