On January 11th, I will be hosting a Reddit Science AMA (Ask Me Anything) where I will talk and answer any and all questions related to the Glacier Bay/National Geographic expedition and subsequent research. It's been incredibly fruitful, spawning several side projects already, a cover story for Ecology, and press. I'm looking forward to sharing the adventure with any and all comers.
The Summary Paragraph(s):
I am an ecologist that studies big questions about how landscapes change and what direction they will go in the future. Are our landscapes, forests, and fields resilient to climate? Will they adapt, fail, or be replaced? Fundamentally, how and why do ecosystems grow, change, and end up looking and functioning like they do? Most of the time, that involves fires, hurricanes, landslides, and other catastrophes, or more sedate change as glaciers retreat and life invades.
But there’s one fundamental difficulty all of us scientists grapple with – change takes time. Hundreds of years in many cases. We’ve come up with a variety of ways to work around that problem – looking at young and old landscapes and comparing them, for example (called a chronosequence). But nothing substitutes for seeing things with your own eyes, for actual, observational, ground-level data on how a region actually changes and evolves. It requires just sitting still and watching a system grow, change, and emerge all on its own – long-term research, research which spans multiple generations and lifetimes.
It turns out that the longest running study along those lines – watching an ecosystem grow and emerge from scratch (so to speak) is located in Glacier Bay National Park, in Alaska, USA.
Via funding from the National Geographic Society, I led a group of researchers to rediscover these plots – which turned out to be a bit of an Indiana Jones endeavor. The study was initiated in 1916 by William S. Cooper, one of the founding fathers of the science of ecology in the United States. He went to Glacier Bay and saw a landscape where he could just sit and watch an ecosystem assemble in the wake of warming-induced glacier loss (the warming was from the end of the Little Ice Age). He visited several times until the 1930’s, then his graduate student took over and visited until the 1980’s. Cooper even left detailed directions in 1916!
It seems simple, but reality is of course much more difficult. Cooper’s directions from 1916 involved orienting by large glacier erratics, visible from shoreline, compass bearings, distances measured in paces or strides, and crosses painted on rocks. It was a literal treasure map. But shoreline has changed – isostatic rebound from the retreating glaciers has altered sea level and shoreline dramatically. Vegetation has obscured sightlines. Cooper utilized compass bearings – but magnetic north isn’t what it used to be (if you weren’t aware, true north is not magnetic north, and magnetic north changes over time!). Paint has worn off. Soil has built up and buried Cooper’s metal pins. And all of this occurred in the back of Glacier Bay, Alaska, populated by far more bears, wolves, and whales than visitors and where the silence is punctuated by calving glaciers crashing ice in the fjords.
Through a combination of archival data, old field notebooks, hand-drawn sketch maps from the 1916 trip, photographs from the 20’s and 30’s, modern satellite imagery, and a sturdy but temperamental metal detector, four of us set out to re-find the missing plots via kayaks and foot. After over a week of rain, bear encounters, long kayak traverses, and wandering we were successful. The plots were found, re-igniting what is now a 101-year observational study, the longest of its kind in the world. We now have a precise, high resolution record of vegetation change at multiple locations. These data are being used to test assumptions about our “shortcuts” for monitoring change – like chronosequences. In 2017 we revisited and expanded the plots, bringing them into the 21st century with ongoing work on things like community change, spatial patterning, bacterial and fungal genetics (led by Dr. Sarah Bisbing), and dendrochronology (led by Dr. Greg Wiles).
This work was featured on National Geographic online (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/05/glacier-bay-plant-succession-study-william-skinner-cooper-buma/), Atlas Obscura (https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/glacier-bay-william-cooper-100-year-old-plant-succession-study), a variety of newspapers, and featured as the cover story in Ecology (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ecy.1848/abstract) and available here.