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A lecture on climate change and forest resilience is being hosted at Sheridan College

Sheridan College

Sheridan College is hosting a lecture on Nov. 9 titled “Fire, Climate Change & Forest Resilience in Sub-boreal Forests,” which highlights new research that examines fire ecology in northern sub-boreal forests and makes comparisons to the West, boreal, and other forests regarding global climate change regulation.

The lecture is part of the 2022 Museum of Discovery Science Lecture series presented by Jed Meunier, a research scientist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“What I'm really interested in doing is sharing really a global view in some ways of disturbance ecology through the lens of a disturbance ecologist, but using global climate as sort of what brings relevance of what I'm doing in the Great Lakes region, and what we call the sub boreal forest to Wyoming [as] there's many parallels,” Meunier said. “What I hope to do is to sort of illustrate those parallels using concepts like resistance and resilience and these things that we're trying to build into our forests to adapt to a changing world, and to better withstand disturbances like fire.”

Meunier’s research examines disturbance ecology, which is when a temporary change in environmental conditions causes a significant change in an ecosystem. These include phenomena such as floods, storms, in addition to wild and forest fires, among others. Other research interests include individual species attributes to landscape ecology and how different forms of climate disturbance result in ecological changes and how society can implement and manage resilient systems.

Part of Meunier’s research focuses on understanding the dynamics of forests, fire, and dry pine systems in addition to fire regimes and bogs and peatlands, which contain more than twice as much carbon as all of the world’s forests combined or all plant matter on Earth.

“They sequester massive amounts of carbon and that's a real risk when you're talking about fire in these systems and changing climate, so there's some really fun stuff that I want to talk about there,” he said. “And it's not while much of that work is focused in the sub-boreal system of the northeastern United States and Great Lakes states region, there are mountain fen communities at higher elevations in the Bighorn Mountains for example. So, I want to sort of make some of those parallels as well.”

Mountain fens are “vital ecosystems for habitat, biodiversity, water and carbon cycling.”

Meunier is also researching the connection between carbon stored in peat below ground and the severity of wildfires when they burn in these areas, including in the West. Peat, which was once used regularly for a fuel source, is organic material formed primarily by the partial decomposition of plant matter, which shares similarities to coal. It’s primarily used as a soil additive and substrate to grow plants in today.

“In many systems in fact, most carbon is stored below the surface, so boreal systems, boreal forests are circumpolar, they go around the globe, and so they're huge in terms of their extent, but they have massive stores of carbon below ground and many boreal fire regimes are high severity,” he said. “But what really delineates a catastrophic fire from quote unquote, more natural or within the historical range of variability fire is what happens below ground, and so climate change and changing climate is a big player on that.”

Meunier said these fires are increasingly more difficult to fight and require significantly more water. He cited the Yellowstone fires of 1988 as an example of those driven by the effects of climate change.

The lecture will include how disturbance ultimately influences climate change and how forests can act as a catalyst for climate change impacts, such as emissions from forest fires or that reduce emissions as carbon sinks from reforestation efforts. Meunier added that the types of forests in the Western U.S. and their associated fire regimes, which is the frequency, pattern, and intensity of fires that prevail in an area or region over long periods of time, are predictable based on temperature and precipitation. Understanding these factors can aid in forest management decisions.

“There's been some new interest both with the Forest Service, but also here on campus [about this topic and] we've been trying to collect tree ring data to try to tell stories about local climate, fire history, etc.,” said Scott Newbold, a faculty member and researcher in the Department of Life Sciences at Sheridan College. “I've had some of my students collecting some of this data just this fall and so Jed is going to help actually maybe finish out setting up our lab to analyze some of the wood core samples we have.”

The lecture is being held at the Mars Ag Center at 7 p.m.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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