Today we visited the Agua Salud Project near the Panama Canal basin. The Agua Salud project is spearheaded by Dr. Jeff Hall who gave us a daylong tour of the site. One of the goals of this project is to study the ecosystem services provided by various types of land use strategies. Within this theme one central question is whether tropical soils act as sponges, storing water during the wet season and releasing it during the dry season. Although this idea has long been accepted almost to the point of dogma, Dr. Hall has decided to take a closer look. He has hypothesized that forested land may be a more effective sponge than deforested land. To test this hypothesis his group has been studying the hydrology of plots with different land use characteristics, including secondary forest, teak monocultures, and selvo-pastoral sites.
The gang at the Agua Salud site
One key application of this research is determining how land use affects water supply to the Panama Canal basin. Although one may think that folks at the Panama Canal are concerned about the prospect of having too little water, in reality a greater concern is having too much water. In 2010, for example, unprecedented rains caused the Panama Canal to close because water overflow from the Gatun Dam generated currents that posed a threat to ship traffic. Therefore, understanding how land use affects water runoff into the Canal basin is critical for the functioning of this waterway.
A great view of the Panama Canal from the Agua Salud site
Although I found that aspect of this project to be most interesting, the Agua Salud site is also used for a range of other projects including research on forest succession and studies focusing on reforestation using native tree species. The really cool thing about the site is that Dr. Hall encourages other people to come and do research there (as long as it doesn't mess up any long term goals of the project).
We also saw this cool mantis... according to one of our bug experts this one is a female, so guys, watch out for your heads!