Big reservoir, big research

CSB and SJU connection conduct research around Three Gorges Reservoir in China

August 2, 2012

By Hannah Hylla ’13 and Megan Voss ’14

Bridget Gohmann '13, Xai Vang '12 and Aaron Stolte '12 are conducting research focused on three separate conservation and re-vegetation projects around the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in a summer research initiative with Southwest University in Beibei.

Imagine standing next to a dam that is five times wider than the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, and is as tall as a 60-story building. Talk about intimidating! Now, imagine working in the shadows of that dam for eight weeks, on the banks of the Three Gorges Reservoir.

Two May graduates and a student from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University find themselves doing just that halfway across the world in Beibei, Chongqing, China.

Bridget Gohmann, Xai Vang and Aaron Stolte are conducting research focused on three separate conservation and re-vegetation projects around the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in a summer research initiative with Southwest University in Beibei. The students are working in conjunction with graduate ecology and botany students of Li Changxiao, professor at Southwest University.

"Dr. Li has a long history with CSB and SJU, and had expressed a willingness to have our students work with him on one of his many projects," said Bill Lamberts, associate professor and chair of the biology department at CSB and SJU.

The three students received Summer Global Fellowships from the Center for Global Education, among 22 CSB and SJU students who received fellowships this summer. The fellowships provided funding and logistical support for their programs.

The Three Gorges Dam is the world's largest hydro-powered project. It is 610 feet high and spans 1.3 miles across the Yangtze River. The reservoir behind it is 400 miles long.

The students' research focuses on three main environmental effects including biodiversity, climate change and land degradation in relation to fluctuation. Southwest University has been researching ways to limit erosion by testing varying kinds of vegetation that can withstand the fluctuation of water levels continuously.

The dam was constructed to provide water and control flooding in the summer, when water levels remain low to allow for floodwaters to be maintained. In the winter, water levels become high. The fluctuation of water levels between the summer and winter is about 33 yards, which has resulted in a greater risk for erosion.  Large amounts of sediment from the river banks have leaked into the river and caused erosion further downstream.

"Improving the water fluctuation zone will not only prevent erosion and water eutrophication, but it will also lead to increased biodiversity of the area, as well as restoring the zone to a more natural climate while creating more visually stunning locations," said Gohmann, a senior biology major at CSB from Clearwater, Minn.

In a conservation effort, Gohmann's research is focused on analyzing the relationship between varying water levels and how it affects the plants and soils of the Three Gorges Reservoir. The ultimate goal is to determine what nutrients are available in the soil, what plants can grow with those nutrient levels and which plants can grow in either fully submerged or periodic flooding-drought conditions.

Vang, a May CSB graduate with a degree in biology from St. Paul, Minn., is conducting an experiment focusing on using hybrid models of native plant species to see if they can tolerate the fluctuating levels of the dam as a way to re-vegetate the reservoir.

"We are also working on another experiment focusing on re-vegetation various native species near the reservoir and how age can affect nutrient concentrations in the soil," Vang said.

Stolte, a May SJU graduate with degrees in biology and environmental studies from St. Paul, is conducting research examining the urban forestry benefits from ecological, economic and social perspectives using several urban forest assessment models. Due to the rapid development over the Chinese landscape, there is massive deforestation that has occurred.

"The Chinese government has been making a push for more environmental cooperation and one of those pushes has been to bring 'green space,' or urban forest, back to urbanized sectors," Stolte said.

For the three students, it is more than just a research opportunity. Prior to beginning their research, the students attended classes in Chinese language, culture, history, paper-cutting and calligraphy. The program also arranged travel opportunities that allowed for the students to visit sites such as the Dazu Stone Carvings, the Three Gorges Museum and the Chongqing Zoo to see the giant pandas.

"China has been amazing so far, because of the sense of community, local traditional food and people. Many students, staff members, graduate students and professors welcomed us. The sense of hospitality reminds me of the surroundings on (the CSB and SJU) campuses," Vang said.

The students are working on co-authoring reviewed research papers with their Chinese graduate student peers, with the possibility of even seeing their work published in the future. They are unsure if they will be involved in any continuing research efforts by the Chinese once they return to the United States on Aug. 6.