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UC Undergraduate Researcher Studies the Urbanization of Southwest Ohio

Environmental studies undergrad Sage Roth works with PhD candidate Sarah Kolbe to examine the effects of urbanizing southwest Ohio as part of Kolbe’s experiment, “Urban Gradient.”

Date: 12/6/2011
By: Sage Roth
Other Contact: Ryan Varney
Other Contact Phone: (513) 556-4190
Photos By: Sarah Kolbe
Sage Roth analyzes soil samples as part of her research on urbanization.
Sage Roth analyzes soil samples as part of her research on urbanization.

As a resident of Cincinnati, it is exciting to know that my temporary “home” is recognized as one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in Ohio and the United States.  However, the “urbanization” of Ohio is coming at a cost to Ohio’s natural ecosystem. Ohio is part of the Corn Belt—a region of the United States that is ideal for farming due to deep-fertile soils with high organic matter and relatively level land.  Understanding the ecosystem impacts of urbanization, such as pollution, soil degradation, and habitat fragmentation, is crucial to developing environmentally sustainable strategies for management and development to help preserve this precious Ohio ecosystem. As a junior majoring in environmental studies, I was given the opportunity to do exactly that.

Sarah Kolbe, a PhD student in the Department of Geology at the University of Cincinnati, created the experiment “Urban Gradient,” to understand the effects urbanization has on forest communities along an urban-wildland gradient in Ohio. The goals of Kolbe’s project include furthering her understanding of the community structure of the ecosystem to better understand the effects urbanization has on Southwestern Ohio and the resiliency the ecosystem has to such changes. Kolbe found five sites in southwestern Ohio spanning the urban-wildland gradient. These areas, ranging 100 kilometers, stretch from western Hamilton County (Miami Whitewater Forest, managed by Hamilton County Park, District) to the suburbs north of Cincinnati (Harris Benedict Nature Preserve, University of Cincinnati), moving south into Cincinnati (Mt. Airy Forest, City of Cincinnati), through Clermont County, east of Cincinnati (East Fork Wildlife Area, Ohio Department of Natural Resources), and finally ending in Adams County (Edge of Appalachia, The Nature Conservancy).  

My involvement with this experiment includes learning the necessary skills to appropriately analyze the wide variety of soil samples. This includes grinding soils and removing organic matter (such as roots, twigs, and rocks), wrapping and weighing samples with a microbalance in order to run them through an organic elemental analyzer. Then, through a series of combustion reactions, the analyzer produces statistical information that allows us to understand the carbon and nitrogen levels of the soil.

To understand the results of Kolbe’s experiment, it is important to understand what exactly “urbanization” is. One of the greatest causes of Global Warming is land-use change. Urbanization is land-use change and is a buzz word in the political and scientific community because as many third-world countries are industrializing they are going from rural countries to urban countries. This is similar to southwestern Ohio because the region is going from rural to urban, meaning that farms are shrinking and cities are growing.
Ecosystems are valued beyond their aesthetic value; they provide services that man cannot. Land-use changes can alter ecosystems, along with the services they provide. Urbanizing land brings an influx of people which causes great population growth. The influx of people can completely change the ecosystem services provided. For example, cities have greater carbon dioxide content because there are not as many plants to absorb CO2 through photosynthesis. This can have dramatic effects on the soil of the city. As mentioned before, one of the main ecosystem services of the Southwestern Ohio area was the fertile soil that allowed for great growth and a strong agricultural market. However, urbanizing a given area decreases the plant content, which can ultimately increase the CO2 content and cause soils to increase their acidity, making it harder and harder for agricultural yields to flourish.

This change can also have great aesthetic effects. For example, if Cincinnati soils have greater acidity it will be harder for citizens to maintain their gardens. Along those lines, this change puts great importance on the parks of Cincinnati because without them more carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere, increasing the effects of urbanization.

It is very exciting to have the opportunity to be a part of such a valuable research project. I hope that my research will help inspire my fellow students and citizens of Cincinnati to remember that our flourishing city is on valuable land and that it is important to make sure we live our lives with environmental consciousness.

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