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Plum Island Ecosystems Long-Term Ecological Research Site

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Plum Island Ecosystems LTER  (Marine Biological Laboratory)

Research Focus

The Plum Island Ecosystems (PIE) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site, located in northeastern Massachusetts, is an integrated research, education and outreach program. It studies how changes in land use, climate and sea level affect estuary and watershed ecosystems. 

While the studies at Plum Island are geographically focused, they can be considered a model for what is happening in estuaries worldwide. Plum Island researchers seek to apply their knowledge to help in the management and development of policy that protects the natural resources of this and other estuaries in the U.S coastal zone.

The Plum Island project is one of only four LTER sites that study the effects of human activities in watersheds on estuaries. The LTER maintains two research facilities adjacent to the estuary. Primary institutions participating in the PIE LTER include the Marine Biological Laboratory, Clark University, Massachusetts Audubon Society, University of Georgia, University of Massachusetts, University of New Hampshire and the University of South Carolina.

Research Outcomes

Nutrient Overload: One Plum Island LTER study showed that sewage and agricultural runoff causes significant changes in the structure and shape of coastal wetlands, which can lead to catastrophic, rapid loss of salt marshes during sea level rise associated with climate change. The study helps us understand how human-induced nutrient loading of coastal wetlands is harming, rather than helping to retain marsh plants. The result is that coastal wetlands are destroyed and replaced by tidal flats. This can lead to greater coastal erosion, threaten ecosystem viability and also has implications for land management.

Public database: The PIE LTER has developed an extensive online database open to the public that includes results from long-term field observations and experiments in the Ipswich and Parker River watersheds and the Plum Island Sound estuary.

Watershed restoration: Scientists have been leaders in using anadromous fish movements to inform watershed restoration efforts. Their research on river herring, a declining fish in Massachusetts, is providing new insights into fish ecology as indicators of watershed status, in linking freshwater dynamics to estuarine ecosystem function and informing watershed restoration.

Education & Outreach

The PIE LTER is collaborating with the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the Governor Dummer Academy to provide local middle and high school students with opportunities to perform hands-on scientific research throughout the various ecosystems in the Plum Island Sound area. Activities include: monitoring the growth of Phragmites in salt marshes, studying the affect of salinity on the growth of salt marsh vegetation, assessing tidal restrictions and sampling fish above and below tidal restrictions to determine the impact of these restrictions on fish.

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  • Plum Island LTER scenic view
  • Image from a National Science Foundation-funded Long-Term Ecological Research site.
Study at Plum Island reveals that human-induced nutrient loading of coastal wetlands is harming, rather than helping to retain marsh plants.
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Award Highlights Related to This Asset

Plum Island, MA

Human-Generated Nutrient Overloads Can Destroy Coastal Wetlands

Nutrient increase can indirectly lead to catastrophic loss of salt marshes...

Research Areas: Earth & Environment, Biology

Plum Island, MA

Human-Generated Nutrient Overloads Can Destroy Coastal Wetlands

Nutrient increase can indirectly lead to catastrophic loss of salt marshes...

Research Areas: Earth & Environment, Biology, People & Society

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