Research profile: Dr. Art Bettis


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Dr. Art Bettis presents during a Clear Creek Watershed bus tour in June of last year. Dr. Bettis serves as site coordinator for the Clear Creek critical zone observatory project. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)

Dr. Art Bettis acts as program director for the UI Environmental Sciences program and is a professor in the Earth and Environmental Science department. He also holds a joint appointment with the Institute of Hydraulic Research. Dr. Bettis has been at the university since 2000.

We sat down with Dr. Bettis to discuss his work within the Critical Zones Observatory program. The Critical Zones Observatory is an interdisciplinary research initiative examining the processes that take place at specific research sites across the U.S. and how those processes are altered by human action. Dr. Bettis’ work centers around the impacts of industrial agricultural on sites in the Midwest.

Jenna Ladd: What is your research focus?

Dr. Art Bettis: I am really interested in lots of things, but my main focus lately has been on soils and how they’re connected to the deeper geology. It’s how water moves through them, how water interacts with the solid materials and with the organic materials and how that impacts both the soils and the water that ends up in river and streams.

Jenna Ladd: Tell me about the Critical Zones Observatory and how it came to be.

Dr. Art Bettis: The Critical Zones Observatory (CZO) is a National Science Foundation Project that was conceived about almost ten years ago. The idea with the CZO was to sort of try to document and understand the processes that were taking place from the top of the canopy of the vegetation to the bedrock surface or to some sort of deep aquifer. It’s an integrative science program so it involves geology and hydrology and biology and land-use studies, all sorts of things. Originally, there were five observatories across the country that were funded for five years. After the first five years, there was another call for proposals and they funded four of the original observatories again and brought in another seven new observatories and the Clear Creek observatory or the Intensively Managed Landscapes (IML) critical zone observatory was one of the new ones. This is our fourth year that we’re in with this project. It’s primarily National Science Foundation (NSF) funded, but it’s also, part of the whole idea of the CZO program is to engage other agencies and groups in research. It’s supposed to be sort of a research tank where people start doing things and it attracts other people to come and start doing more things.

JL: So, there are three research sites in Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota. Why were these locations selected?

AB: Well, the whole idea of the Intensively Managed Landscape CZO was to look at this critical zone in an area that really is an very important regional area that hasn’t been looked at. The other CZOs were all in mountainous areas or in forested regions and none of them were agricultural landscapes at all. So, that was the general impetus for setting up the Intensively Managed Landscape program. The idea was to try to capture some of the range of settings that are present to see how they may have similar issues or similar mechanisms or if they differ significantly. So, we chose Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota because they’re three really different landscapes. There’s a different lay of the land, different water issues, but they all share a common intensive row crop agricultural land use.

JL: You mentioned that these Midwestern states were brought in to see if there were similarities in the natural processes that are happening. Have you found similarities?

AB: Oh yeah, there are a lot of general things. Row crop agriculture dominates all three areas. Agricultural tile drainage is a really common thing in all three areas. Degradation of surface waters is a really common thing. The impacts on streams and lakes is a really common element. Also, sort of a non-scientific thing, the economy of all those areas is really heavily dependent upon this kind of land use. There’s a lot of commonalities. Even though it may be a really different kind of landscape, just the intensity of agricultural land use makes it similar to the Central Valley in California or places in Europe or places in China or something like that that are under those same kinds of pressures from intensive agricultural use.

JL: So humans have almost forced them into uniformity?

AB: Yeah, exactly. It’s mostly intentionally engineered for crop production. That engineering of the landscape has really made it behave in ways that are more similar among those drastically different places than they would normally be.

JL: Within Iowa, why was the Clear Creek watershed selected specifically?

AB: It’s sort of a historical thing. There was a guy, Thanos Papanicolaou, who used to be a researcher in engineering at IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering, who had already started doing quite a few projects out there, maybe five or six years previous to the first call for the CZOs. So, he had already had a watershed experiment station kind of set up there and had already been doing some things. Then also, Clear Creek is really typical of a large part of the landscape in the Midwest that wasn’t glaciated during the last glaciation so it’s an area that has the same kinds of issues and same kinds of landscapes and soils and stuff that a lot of the other areas in the region do too, plus it’s close [laughs]. But that wasn’t the reason why. Mostly it was the previous investigations and then this similarity to a lot of other areas.

JL: So what are some of the CZOs major findings so far?

AB: What we’ve found, you know, no surprise, the workings of the landscapes have been altered a whole lot. Basically, the main finding that is sort of driving things along is that prior to intensive agricultural land use, the landscape and the processes on the landscape acted to transform materials on the landscape: To turn dead vegetation into organic matter, to turn decaying organic matter into nutrients for plants and animals without having them end up in a stream to degrade the stream. Basically, processes were around where there was a lot of contact time and things were moving sort of slowly through the system, and with agricultural land use, in an effort to increase crop production, they’ve sped everything up and the landscape has really changed from a transformer of materials into a transporter of materials. So, there’s really short residence time on the landscape: sentiment gets moved to the stream quickly, nutrients go through the system really quickly, that’s why we have to add so much now and a lot of what we add goes through the system. That’s had huge impacts, both locally and off site. That presents us with lots of problems and lots of opportunities to try to figure out how to change the system so that it transforms more things. We’re not going to go back to the way it was, we’ve changed it to where it can’t go back to the way it was, but there might be some things that can be done to alter the way things work on a landscape now in its new mode of operation.

JL: I’ve never heard it describe that way, in terms of transformation versus transportation. That’s a really nice way to conceptualize it.

AB: It’s sort of the essence of what it’s about.

JL: Can you expand a little bit about the impacts of a transportive system?

AB: A transportive system does a lot of things. Number one, it’s very efficient. Water doesn’t stay on the landscape a long time so you don’t have areas that are too wet to plant in the spring, thanks to agricultural drainage. You don’t have places that are too wet year round for agriculture. You are able to control moisture conditions in seedbeds to where your seeds are more likely germinate or find favorable conditions.

With sediment, you know, there are not a lot of positives with transportation because we removed soils and remove solid materials from the landscape and we clog streams and lakes with sediment. The downside of the water moving fast is that the water doesn’t move all by itself. It moves with either sediment or with nutrients. Really what it’s about is that the system now is better for growing crops without considering the costs. So, whether the system is better in the long run, I think, is fairly debatable.

JL: What steps has the CZO taken to engage the general public?

AB:  We have an education and outreach component. We have led several field trips for both agencies and local people. Then we also engage K-12 teachers every summer. We had a workshop last summer for twelve K-12 teachers, and this year we’ve got eleven or twelve K-12 teachers that Ted Neal, over in the education  department is working with. So, they’re working in the CZO. They get to choose what kind of things they’re interested in and how they want to develop some curriculum.

That’s the other thing about the CZO, the data is publicly available really fast. Of course, it’s data that might be hard for the public to digest, but the whole idea is to have it available for people that want to use it and then to make it available as things are going along. So, it’s not like data that gets stored away for years and years and nobody has access to it. That’s part of the NSF program, is to make the data very readily available to anybody who wants to use it. So there’s a really short period where the data is not available and then it’s out there for everybody.

JL: It seems like farmers get much of blame when it comes to erosion and water quality issues in Iowa. What are your thoughts on that?

AB: We work on farms so we work with farmers and we have some really great cooperators. On one side, as an environmental scientist, row crop agricultural and industrial farming is really not very good for our landscape or for our environment. On the other hand, I know these people that are totally engaged in it and sort of see that they are indeed concerned about the environment, but they’re kind of between a rock and a hard place because it’s how they make a living. It’s been really interesting to sort of see both sides of this story and come to the realization that, you know, most farmers, just like most people, are good people and want to do right, but they also have to make a living, just like we all have cars. [laughs]

JL: How does climate change affect these intensively managed landscapes?

AB: That’s a huge thing. Obviously, climate change will have an impact and is having an impact on our crops on many fronts. I think we’re going to see more of these large storms and seasonal pattern issues and then along with that is just a change in weather. Like this last winter, you know, case in point. It was very weird, it froze but not for very long and so that really changes the whole subsurface hydrology and all of the relationships of what goes on geochemically and biologically in the ground.

But yeah, climate change is going to be huge. Floods are the things we think about when we’re in towns, but out in the country, whenever there’s that much water, that water is full of sediment so it’s also erosion that’s going right along with that flood—both in the channels and off the fields. That’s a real tough aspect of how we deal with our soils that intensively. Soil is like a bank account and before people started using it heavily for agriculture, there were a lot of deposits, lots of organic matter and lots of nutrients. We’ve been withdrawing for a long time [laughs], and we’re at the point now where they don’t have much in reserve so if you don’t put on chemicals, you can’t grow a crop very well after a few years. That’s also going to be really impacted by climate change because, once again, this stuff doesn’t do any good if it’s not there when the plant needs it.

JL: Are you concerned that CZO funding will be affected by the new administration?

AB: We don’t know. There was just a national meeting in Virgina earlier this month for the CZOs with NSF, and NSF is very pleased with how the CZOs have gone and there’s no talk of not having another five year funding round, which will be next year. So, you know, between you and me, it’s easy not to say climate in the CZO [laughs] and I think that’s kind of a good thing right now. There are one or two or three principle investigators for each CZO, but each one of them has probably at least 15 different investigators from different institutions. So, that’s kind of what NSF likes to see and it’s really worked well in this program. There’s a large network of international sites that are starting to come up. They’re not funded by NSF, they’re funded by their own countries. China has five now and they’re building four more real soon, Germany has three. I think there are forty of them internationally or something like that so the concept has caught on.

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A Critical Zones Observatory researcher collects soil samples at the Clear Creek watershed intensively managed landscape research site. (Critical Zones Observatory)