Wendy Wischer: Connecting People with the Environment through Art

partial image of Wischer photo titled escaping gravity
Wendy Wischer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art & Art History. In affiliating with the GCSC, Wischer said, "Through my research I am seeking a wide range of data that I can use to creatively link nature with technology, science with mythology and personal identity with universal connections while addressing our current environmental crisis in hopes of finding impactful ways to connect people more deeply with the environments they live in."

Affiliation with the GCSC has connected Wischer with researchers across campus, leading to rich and inventive new collaborations of art and science. Read about her art and research here.

Award to Anderegg for studying the future of forests

Bill Anderegg, GCSC affiliate and Assistant Professor in the U’s School of Biological Sciences, has been awarded a Packard Fellowship to support his research to understand the future of forests in a changing climate. He aims to use this flexible funding to conduct long-term climate change research that’s hard or nearly impossible to fund with traditional grants. Read more in U News.

Up in the air with Gannet Hallar, Atmospheric Scientist

When Gannet Hallar recently gave a talk on her career path to students at Truman State, she included a slide titled, “Where in the world will science take you?” The answer: pretty much everywhere.

Today, we are fortunate to have Gannet as a GCSC faculty affiliate in the department of Atmospheric Sciences, studying the meteorology of air quality.

The Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement website recently profiled Dr. Hallar, from her high school introduction to science to her role as director of the Storm Peak Laboratory research facility. Click here to read the profile.

Bill Anderegg – Researching Forest Ecosystems

Bill Anderegg, assistant professor in Biology and director of the Anderegg Lab, is a GCSC faculty affiliate conducting research related to ecological and environmental change.
Read on to learn about his work researching drought recovery and forest die-off, his role in a recently awarded NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems grant, and how he connects people to his research.

Welcome to campus! What brought you to the U?

I was hired as an eco-hydrologist in the interdisciplinary Society, Water, and Climate faculty group. I’m from Colorado and I really wanted to end up in the West, and I had established prior collaborations with people in the Biology department. When I came for a visit and got the job offer, I was thrilled to join the faculty here. I started in 2016, so I have been here for a little over a year.

Bill Anderegg

What drew you to become a GCSC faculty affiliate?

I was really drawn to the GCSC when I interviewed here because I loved the idea of an interdisciplinary umbrella where everyone interested in the environment, sustainability and global change can connect and interact. Brian Codding [associate professor in Anthropology] and I recently co-led a successful grant proposal for NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems. The GCSC is the sort of thing that makes the collaboration with Brian possible. Getting to meet and sit down with anthropologists, political scientists or geographers, climate scientists, and humanities folks is not very common in other colleges and universities. I found having the GCSC as a meeting point super exciting, so I applied to join basically right when I got here.

Your research relates to global patterns in drought recovery and forest die-off. How did you become interested in these areas?

I knew I wanted to study climate change coming out of my undergraduate work, but I didn’t know where, what species or what aspects. It was really coming back to a lot of areas where I had grown up camping in Colorado that started my path towards forests and drought in the West.

A ton of these forests I had grown up camping in had died off between when I was a kid and when I came back as a PhD student. This was a very visible and visceral change in my lifetime that started the ball rolling. I wondered, ‘What’s going on here? Is climate change part of the story? How is this occurring, and can we predict it in the future?’

It sounds as though your research interest is driven by your own experience – perhaps even your grief – at losing something that had been really important to you.

Yes. Growing up in Colorado I felt like I got to spend a ton of time outside in the forests of the West, especially in the mountain forests. Seeing them change in front of my eyes was both an emotional and intellectual trigger to focus on climate change. So, my PhD work ended up being about what was killing the aspen trees, and trying to predict that into the future.

How do you think that line of research is going to evolve now that you’re here in this ecosystem?

Bill Anderegg samples an aspenWe’re [Anderegg Lab Group] continuing to work on a number of different western U.S. forests. Some of those will be the mountain forests, like the aspen forests in Colorado. But we’ve also got a lot of new projects starting up and one of those will be the juniper woodlands in southern Utah. This is part of the new NSF grant mentioned earlier. I will investigate similar questions to my prior research, but fundamentally tied in with the human systems that depend on the forests as well.

Can you say more about what you mean by “the human systems that depend on the forests”?

The best estimate is that eighty percent of homes on the Navajo Nation are heated exclusively on firewood from pinyon and juniper trees throughout the winter. There’s a large traditional livelihood in collecting firewood in the fall before the winter. The fundamental question is how sustainable this will be in a changing climate. We know that in some areas juniper might expand. But the projected hotter and drier summers, along with less snow in the southwest are probably going to be hard on trees – we’ve already seen a large pinyon die-off happen. In this grant, we want to know if the supply of firewood will increase or decline in the future. Will harvesting demand increase or decline? (We will also largely have warmer winters, so maybe people will need slightly less firewood). What’s the potential for alternative fuel sources and heating homes through other fuels and technologies? These questions are all within the scope of the grant.

What role will you and your lab play in answering these questions?

Our goal is to use the physiology of how trees respond to different environments to predict the health of these forests thirty, fifty, and one hundred years in the future. We’ll do that by measuring trees throughout Utah and also looking at the rings the trees build to go back in time to see how they’ve responded to climate in the past, then building mathematical tools to predict what different regions and different species should be doing in the future. In different climates and scenarios, one of the key uncertainties is what society decides to do about climate change – that’s kind of the fundamental unknown.

When you say “the physiology of trees,” you’re talking about their water uptake, right?dead trees

Drought is one of the biggest things we’re worried about in the West and we know from all sorts of paleoclimate research that there have been mega droughts in the past –two to three decade droughts that we could also conceivably see in the future. So, we focus a lot on the water relations of trees and how they take up water when they’re stressed, and how vulnerable or resilient they are to droughts.

It seems that a critical topic in doing research alongside indigenous communities relates to who tells stories and the impacts of publicizing this research on people. For example, Brian Codding discusses the ethics of publicizing Native firewood collecting patterns, because mapping these collection locations could put communities at risk if their wood is taken from contested land. How are you and the other researchers navigating this terrain?

It’s a good question and I think we’ve got a lot to learn and discuss about that. My take on it is that this is only a success if this is a partnership with these native communities and a dialogue, and it’s not the researchers coming in and saying ‘we’re going to tell this story and study these things and publish them to the world.’ It will be a larger success if this is a team effort where we learn a ton from the folks doing the harvesting, and they can learn from what we find as well. We are working closely with the Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit group that supports indigenous communities in protecting their culturally significant, ancestral lands. We’re planning to have frequent meetings where the dialogues and conversations related to our research questions are happening, and listen to what they know already.

On the note of stories, what are some of the tools that you find important for communicating your research?

I think it’s compelling to tell stories, especially to make the stories relatable, concrete and local. Climate change impacts on forests in the West really tells a story. You can drive up the highway here and see dead spruces where the spruce beetles are moving through, and you can drive down to southern Utah and see where all the dead pinyons are. In Colorado for the last decade or two, you basically could not drive on any mountain pass and not see dead hillsides and dead pine trees from the mountain pine beetle. Everyone knows it’s happening because it’s hard to miss on the landscape. There’s a lot of science behind linking climate change to these changes. So that’s some of what I try to do when talking to audiences.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you think the readers should know?

One thing that we’re starting to work on is the effects of climate change on hunting and angling in the U.S. We are connecting with sportsmen and women on how climate change is likely to affect them, and reaching out beyond traditional audiences that we speak to as scientists. It’s somewhat of a side project at the moment, but thinking about how to be creative and build a broader environmental tent of more folks who care about climate change is something that I’m quite excited about.

Affiliates receive award for interdisciplinary research on sustainability of woodland health and human livelihoods

GCSC faculty affiliates from three colleges were successful in competing for an NSF award to research coupled natural-human systems. Researchers Brian Codding (PI), Phil Dennison (Co-PI, Geography), Shane Macfarlan (Anthropology), Simon Brewer (Geography) are from the College of Social and Behavioral Science. Bill Anderegg (Co-PI, Biology) is in the College of Science, and Court Strong (Co-PI, Atmospheric Science) is in the College of Mines and Earth Sciences.

In this interdisciplinary project, researchers will focus on the piñon-juniper woodlands of southern Utah where Navajo and Ute people rely on wood fuel, examining the combined effects of environmental variation and firewood harvesting on woodland ecosystems to determine the conditions that promote healthy forests capable of sustaining wood fuel use into the future.

While growing evidence suggests that forests are threatened by droughts, extreme temperatures, and overharvesting, scientists currently have difficulty predicting future forest conditions, and that restricts capabilities to anticipate the energy security of one-third of the Earth’s people who rely on wood as a primary fuel source. To overcome these limitations, this project will gather data about forest health, human harvesting practices, and climate and other environmental conditions. The investigators will use these data to examine the dynamics between people and their local environment and to develop a model that can forecast future variation in this coupled natural-human system. Project findings will provide more generalizable insights for assessing the sensitivity of small-scale socioecological systems to environmental transitions. This project will inform land management decisions aimed at improving the sustainability of woodland health and human livelihoods under variable environmental conditions. The project also will provide education and training opportunities in the conduct of interdisciplinary research for graduate and undergraduate students.

Forest fuels comprise about nine percent of the global primary energy budget, but data are limited regarding the coupled forest-fuelwood-climate nexus, particularly the sustainability of forests to provide firewood for subsistence populations in a changing environment. This project will be conducted by an interdisciplinary team of anthropologists, biologists, geographers, atmospheric scientists, and engineers who will gather empirical data about woodland biomass and harvesting demand across a variety of climatic conditions and land-management regimes. Data generated from quantitative ethnography, field ecology, remote sensing, and climatology will be used to create and validate a dynamic model capable of predicting future conditions of this system under altered climate and harvesting scenarios. Results will provide a general framework capable of predicting diverse coupled natural-human systems under varied environmental scenarios. This project is supported by the NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program.