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New tech widens study of Prairie Pothole Region

New tech widens study of Prairie Pothole Region

Improvements in examining greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration will help maximize land use while protecting soil and habitat, according to a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown.

Sheel Bansal, a research ecologist, is developing models for predicting carbon levels as changes in climate and land use occur. He said the focus is on understanding the biogeochemical processes that drive greenhouse gas emissions and carbon storage.

"I have to say it is a dream job," Bansal said about his new research and with organizing the center's data inventories of the Prairie Pothole Region.

Understanding the nuances of the data will better illustrate what needs to be learned about soil processes associated with carbon and nitrogen cycling, he said. This will lead to wetland management practices that retain more organic compounds in the soil so less water is required for maximum plant production with side benefits for addressing invasive species, climate and animal habitat, he said.

"Basically, if we could manage carbon and nitrogen processes we could get increased soil formation and fertility with less loss of soil and greenhouse gasses," Bansal said.

The 600-acre Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center opened in 1965 to study the plant and animal species and ecosystems of the Prairie Pothole Region and has some of the largest centralized data collections in the world for this kind of research, he said.

The greenhouse gas work at the center evolved into a research program that has been handed over to new scientists, he said. There is a holistic approach to using the database information with a wide range of new information on interacting processes as it comes to light, he said.

The studies are also a component of integrated research on a larger scale to serve agency and university partners, he said. The ground data can serve a single research project or the entire integrated science branch with combined data from multiple sources and aspects to make informed conservation policy, he said.

"One of the things that sets our center apart from the academic realm of research is that we tend to be very applied and work very closely with partners to address the questions they need for management and conservation," Bansal said. "Oftentimes these results do lead to more questions and other research avenues, so they are very well interconnected and we often have lines of research that tend to evolve based on results."

Measuring water chemistry in remote areas is a very labor intensive process to capture dissolved gases and other water chemistry, he said. New technologies and approaches to studying greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration are being developed with the input of scientists at the center, he said.

Sensors that were once limited to 30 minutes or even a day or longer and needed to be retrieved are being switched out with portable high-frequency gas analyzers that detect and analyze up to 25 gases simultaneously every 30 seconds, he said. The increased frequency captures the spatial and temporal variability in the soil that might be missed and reveals a bigger picture, he said.

"Our research can span borders and can give data that is needed to create reliable models that can predict out into the future the changes in temperature and land use," Bansal said.

A biologist with engineering skills is very valuable today in working with manufacturers to further streamline sensory equipment, Bansal said. Robotic arms and drone technology are improving access into the most remote areas or the most sensitive ecosystems, he said.

A current project at the center has implications to long-term fertilizer and crop management, he said. The experiment, together with North Dakota State University's Carrington Research Extension Center, will help growers determine appropriate fertilizer application amounts, he said.

Using excess fertilizer can result in releasing nitrous oxide at levels 300 times more than carbon dioxide does as a greenhouse gas. Not using enough fertilizer can result in decreasing the yield, he said.

"That is an example of best management practice for both a local and regional scale with the underlying theory that it can be developed for use by farmers everywhere," he said.