NW CASC Researchers Talk Tidal Forests, Field Work and Navigating COVID-19

Monica Moritsch, postdoctoral researcher, surveying Sitka spruce tidal forest on Otter Island in the Snohomish River estuary.
Source: Kristin Byrd

While visiting the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on the southern tip of Washington’s Puget Sound, you’ll find a mosaic of coastal wetland habitats on the Nisqually River Delta. Freshwater tidal forests, hosting deciduous trees like black cottonwood, red alder, willow, Oregon ash and bigleaf maple, rise above the tidal marshes along the delta.

Native salmon find critical habitat refuges in this woody freshwater area as they move between the river, where they spawn, and the ocean, where they live most of their lives as adults. And this is just one of many benefits plants, wildlife and humans gain from this ecosystem. This ecosystem stores carbon; plays an important role in the marine food web; provides habitat structure from large woody debris; and is a beautiful natural area. However, these vegetated lands next to streams, rivers and marine shorelines — known as marine riparian areas — have not been well studied in Puget Sound. 

To address this research gap, postdoctoral researcher Dr. Monica Moritch and NW CASC project lead Dr. Kristin Byrd recently conducted field work in Puget Sound tidal forests, including the Nisqually River Delta, to enable improved modeling of how sea level rise and management decisions affect this important habitat. This research also seeks to better understand the ecosystem services, or the benefits to people and society, that these tidal forests provide. 

Despite new challenges to conducting research in our current socially-distant COVID reality, Monica and Kristin are embracing adaptation and finding creative ways to continue the critical work of helping our region’s natural and cultural resources adapt to climate change.

What would your workdays look like right now if it wasn’t for COVID? How have you adapted your research practices to accommodate for social distancing restrictions?

Monica: We probably would have conducted field work in Puget Sound last spring instead of waiting until this fall, but there has been plenty of work to do at home to get the sea level rise modeling ready for incorporating tidal forest data once we have it. As we scoped out field locations where we could expand our adaptation research, we wanted to do an in-person stakeholder engagement workshop to understand the climate-related concerns of the nearby communities, management groups and tribes. We have shifted to video calls and small masked meetups at potential field sites where it’s easier to maintain distance. We don’t get to talk to as many people, but these small tours are great for better understanding the site and the management needs compared to hearing about it in a conference room.

What advice do you have for other researchers navigating research challenges right now?

Monica: I had been at the U.S. Geological Survey for six months before we switched to all-remote work, so I hadn’t fully established what “normal” looked like before needing to switch gears. I would say stay flexible and do what you can within your situational constraints. Identify a backup plan for how you could move forward if you can’t do things the way that you originally planned. 

Kristin: Flexibility is key, and also being prepared to take advantage of opportunities when they arise, which may take additional planning and lead-time to make happen. Continue to connect with and build your team, either through video calls or in the field. With schedules upended from school and work closures, being able to rely on and support team members really helps to move projects forward. 

What’s been most surprising to you about working during the pandemic?

Monica: I’ve been surprised at how we transitioned to all-remote work relatively smoothly, and I know that other people at our center put in a lot of work behind the scenes to make that happen. We continue to get great support as we adjust our project timelines and field travel plans in response to the pandemic. 

Kristin: At the U.S. Geological Survey, we work on team projects with multiple scientists located across the state and the country. The economists on our project, Dr. Emily Pindilli and Dr. Tony Good, are based at USGS headquarters in Reston, VA. I was surprised at how well we could continue to work together, despite office shutdowns, since we had already established a remote collaboration. 

Stay tuned to hear more about this NW CASC-funded research as it progresses!

Deciduous tidal forest in the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Olympia, WA.
Source: Kristin Byrd