Returning to Iceland

Science professor Helen Mango and Christine Palmer plant trees in Iceland during a trip last year to determine whether they could grow in a harsh environment. They will be returning with students this spring to continue their research.

A trip abroad has sparked research interest in not one, but two Castleton University professors in two different science fields.

A course offered by professor Helen Mango brought her, two other faculty members, 15 students, and nine other non-students to Iceland in Spring of 2018.

The 15 students represented a variety of majors, from natural science and muti-disciplinary studies to nursing and business, Mango said.

“We had quite a mix. It was fantastic,” said Mango, who is also the geology program coordinator.

Professor Christine Palmer was also on the trip and she described it as having “Planted a seed for us.”

While there, the group met up with a local forester, Adalsteinn Sigurgeirsson, and had the opportunity to work on reforestation efforts in a volcanic ash field using both vegetative propagations, meaning essentially the plant is just a stick with no roots, and transplanting a young tree with roots.

Palmer said she had expected the trees not to do very well where planted fearing they would be phosphorus limited, meaning they are missing an essential nutrient needed for growth and survival.

“My curiosity about the geology was peaked when we were there last May… when I was led to believe the limiting nutrient was not phosphorus,” Mango said.

Mango was also skeptical on whether their reforestation efforts would be successful with the geology of Iceland made up mostly of Basalt. Apatite, a mineral that contains phosphorus is not common in Iceland and found more commonly in granite, but not basalt rock.

After reaching out to the forester they had been in contact with, they found out the trees they had planted in a volcanic ash field were not only surviving but growing. This came as a shock as Iceland has very little forest with only about one percent cover of forest because of the clearing by the Vikings and sheep farming that subsequently inhibited the growth of trees.

“If you find yourself lost in a forest in Iceland, just standup,” Palmer said with a giggle.

When Mango found out they were doing well, she was curious where the phosphorus was coming from. The reforestation efforts they have started working on were in a volcanic ash field with no organic material for the plants to grow in, no soil.

Over April break, Mango and Palmer will be returning with two students who were not on the previous trip; Devin Perry, an Ecological Studies major with a geology minor, and Gus Semanchik, a geology major. While there, they will be taking samples of the ash to measure the amount of phosphorus as well as extracting DNA in hopes of detecting either Mycorrhizae fungus or microbes. Mycorrhizae and microbes are organisms that help take up nutrients from the soil that is ordinarily difficult to get, but necessary and in exchange the plant gives them food.

When asked what he expects to find Perry said, “I expect to find a fungus or another microorganism that aids in extracting phosphorus due to the lack of organic matter.”

This project is likely to extend for several semesters after this spring requiring traveling to Iceland to gather samples of the ash and rock that will then be brought back to Castleton University for analysis. Samples taken back from this and future trips to Iceland will be studied by students.

The rock samples will also be sent out to another university for analysis on minerals present, including phosphorus.

“That’s kinda my part of this, figuring out geologically or chemically where the phosphorus is,” Mango said.

The ash samples will be analyzed at Castleton to look for organisms that aid plants in the fixing of phosphorus.

“It’s a really nice integrative project where you can look at the geology and the biology at one site. That’s a pretty extreme site,” Palmer said.


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