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Sampling at the waterfall in Panama

Update from Panama

MBL Ecosystems Center scientists studying Panama’s tropical ecosystems have returned to their field site at the Liquid Jungle Laboratory (LJL) on the island of Canales de Tierra, Veraguas Province. Ivan Valiela and colleagues are seeing dramatic changes to the terrestrial and coastal ecosystems of this region. Increased erosion of coastal beaches and barrier beaches has occurred recently, apparently associated with sea level rise and wave action. Intense rains in October of this year -- 15 days of steady rain day and night -- created flash floods that eroded stream and estuary banks and led to marked reduction of salinity in coastal waters as far as hundreds of meters from shore and three to four meters deep. Warming also appears to have forced a degree of bleaching on most coral heads seen by the group, although the bleaching has affected only growing tips of corals.

“Land and sea in this relatively under-populated part of Panama nonetheless remain extraordinarily beautiful,” noted Valiela, “with photogenic sights at most every turn, and friendly people in the widely scattered villages.” The steep terrain is covered in dense wet tropical vegetation, Valiela said, and falls rapidly toward the sea. “Birds abound, as do a remarkable diversity of insects, mammals, plants, and other living things.”

The team has identified a series of watersheds that have suffered different degrees of deforestation, which are also connected to the sea via mangrove forests. The scientists are assessing the degree to which deforestation on land increases flow of freshwater, sediments and nutrients to the mangrove forests, which may alter the functioning of mangrove ecosystems, change the many ecological services provided by mangroves, and affect the interception and export of water, sediment, and nutrients to the coastal waters. Corals and other organisms may in turn be influenced by the alteration of the land, mangrove and reef ecosystems.

Anne Giblin of the Ecosystems Center is co-principal investigator with Ivan Valiela. The research group includes John Crusius from U. S. Geological Service (USGS), Tom Stone from Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), Luis Camilli from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Paulina Martinetto from Universidad Nacional de Mar de Plata, and students from Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata and Universidad de Panama. It is supported by the Woods Hole Consortium, an alliance of MBL, WHOI and WHRC. The LJL is operated by Fundación Isla Canales de Tierra, in collaboration with WHOI and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The project, funded by the US National Science Foundation, is in its first year of operation, and the research plan will take three years to accomplish.