The plants that cover our earth are vital to our national defense. We see their beauty and shade. But they also pump and filter water, clean the air, create soil and regulate flooding when hurricanes hit.
To protect people, we scientists keep our eyes on plants, thanks to the support from the non-defense portion of the annual federal budget. Yet, Congress is currently trying to finalize a budget that would make significant cuts to non-defense programs. Funding these programs with the same priority as defense programs is essential to keep track of all that plants do for us, from the mountains to the poles and everywhere in between.
In 2003, I spent a summer at a United States Air Force base in Thule, Greenland. As a scientist on a U.S. federally funded grant, my job there was to investigate how much more the willows, grasses and roses in the surrounding polar desert would grow if it wasn’t quite so bitterly cold and dry.
On the surface, my job appeared unlike what the U.S. military did there on the base. The military used radar to monitor if nuclear weapons were being launched over the North Pole from Russia. They protected people. I watched plants grow.
While stationed there, the U.S. military personnel asked me questions. They were unsure why the government would fund scientific research on plant growth where few will ever go or live. We were at 76°N latitude, near the end of Earth! No future for farming there.
So, why watch plants grow in a really cold, dry place? To figure out how much carbon dioxide they can tuck away. Plants are the pump that pulls carbon dioxide out of our atmosphere and into the land and sea. They offset carbon emissions.
As we varied the climate in which the plants grew, we learned that just the willows could really grow more. They had more leaves, and each leaf could suck in carbon dioxide faster than the other plants, creating sugars, wood, roots and, in time, soil. Through their growth, willows are one of the many plants around the world lined up to defend us by combating climate change and cleaning our air.
By watching plants grow, I and the other scientists with whom I work are protecting people.
Years later, I’m still getting paid through U.S. federally funded grants to watch plants grow. Now, it’s here in the Colorado mountains, where annual snowmelt provides water needed across the Southwest. Plants move water from the soil to the atmosphere, and they change the soil in ways that can alter water flow. They can alter water flow to rivers, reservoirs and groundwater.
In Colorado, and across the country, the availability of water is vital to how we live, grow our food, get our energy and stay healthy. The government has invested in our research so it can understand how mountain watersheds work and thus provide the water on which millions of Americans depend. Once again, my research on plants is protecting people.
Watching mountain and polar plants grow is fascinating. Within days of snowmelt, the lime-green or brilliant red hues of miniature leaves poke up from the brown earth. Then, the flowers jump out, sometimes covering enough ground to cool the soil. But in time, the seasons shift, flowers fade and bees buzz away. The plants lose all their investments. What happens to these dead parts?
We scientists keep our eyes on the decaying processes, too. I’ve long known these were essential to hold onto the nutrient resources needed for another season of alpine growth. Recently near Silverton, on a tour of orange-hued ponds, gray mine tailings and an operation at Gladstone designed to filter red sludge out of contaminated water, I learned that one of the most needed resources for managing mine waste is plants.
Win Wright, a geology expert, shared with us that for metals in mine waste to be less toxic, it’s better if they have a few more electrons. Grow more plants, produce more earth and a few more electrons can jump over to the dark side, de-toxifying the oxidized metals.
While on the Citizen Superfund Workgroup Tour earlier this month, we could see hints of gold aspen leaves and feel the nip in the air. Win and other scientists know those yellowing leaves may be the secret ingredient in remediation for the Bonita Peak Mining District. Decomposing leaves are protecting people from our past choices.
The insights gained through science are vital. Unfortunately, my research and that of many other U.S. scientists is in jeopardy. Although through our research, scientists are protecting people, much of our funding is through non-defense programs and could be cut if next year’s proposed federal budget is approved.
Soldiers watch for threats, and their role is vital for our security. Scientists need to watch plants grow and decompose, and in that way also contribute to our health and security. Balance in our federal budget, for defense and non-defense programs, is critical and should be prioritized by all.
Heidi Steltzer, Ph.D., is a mountain and arctic expert, explorer and an associate professor of biology at Fort Lewis College. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @heidimountains.