Montana State University

NSF releases videos highlighting MSU research on wildfire effects

July 11, 2013 -- By Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

A World on Fire: Wildfire and Climate Change in the Past, Present and FutureMSU research scientist Dave McWethy examines a core of lake sediment taken from Wairu Bar on New Zealand's South Island. (Photo by Danny Schmidt, WildFIRE PIRE).University of Tasmania fire ecologist David Bowman gives an interview for the WildFIRE PIRE film project in Hobart, Tasmania.  (Photo by Danny Schmidt, WildFIRE PIRE).

A World on Fire: Wildfire and Climate Change in the Past, Present and Future

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BOZEMAN – The National Science Foundation is giving national exposure to a series of video podcasts that spotlight how international teams of scientists are studying the impact of fire on ecosystems around the world.

Through its online education site, Science360/The Knowledge Network, and other means, NSF is highlighting the efforts of scientists supported by an NSF Partnership for International Research and Education grant (WildFIRE PIRE) led by Montana State University.

WildFIRE PIRE is focused on understanding fire’s role on the planet by studying the causes and consequences of fire in the past, present and future in different locations.

The project involves scientists, graduate students and undergraduates from MSU, Salish Kootenai College, the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Center, the University of Colorado, the University of Idaho, the University of Tasmania and Australian National University in Australia and Landcare Research and the University of Auckland in New Zealand.  The team is studying the temperate forests of the northern and southern hemispheres to try to understand the effects of humans and climate change on fire activity.

“The purpose behind these films is to show how researchers study fire in the field and laboratory,” said Cathy Whitlock, MSU professor of earth sciences and project director of WildFIRE PIRE. “Most importantly, we want viewers to gain an understanding of fire and an appreciation of its importance in a global context.

“Fire is basically the same everywhere, but the size and severity of fires has increased around the world. If we can help people understand that wildfires are not just a local concern but rather a global issue, we’ll be better prepared to deal with its consequences as the climate changes in the future.”

In 2010, WildFIRE PIRE researchers from the U.S. first traveled to Tasmania and New Zealand to collect data on the impacts of wildfire. Using cores collected from trees and columns of mud drawn from lakes, the researchers have been examining tree-ring, pollen and charcoal data to piece together a history of fire that spans many centuries and a range of different climate conditions and human influences.

New Zealand was chosen as a study area because it was one of the last areas on Earth to be colonized by humans, and researchers can examine the changes in fire activity associated with the 700 years of human settlement. In contrast, the western United States has had 10,000 to 13,000 years of human use of fire, so the record looks quite different. The information gained from the project allows the team to study whether past changes in fire patterns are related to humans and their use of the land or whether they were driven by climate change, or both.

Whitlock, who is also MSU director for the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, said understanding the linkages between fire, people and climate change in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere helps researchers make better predictions about the impacts of future fires in the Northern Rocky Mountains.

A fundamental component of the project’s educational outreach mission, the short films were produced by Danny Schmidt. Schmidt is a recent graduate of MSU's science and natural history filmmaking master’s degree program. He was assisted in the field by two undergraduates from the MSU School of Film and Photography, Savannah Lozier and Simone Cordery-Cotter.

Whitlock added that involving undergraduate students, including a group from Salish Kootenai College, in the research and educational outreach components of the project has been especially gratifying.

“These students are very well prepared and eager for international research experiences,” Whitlock said.

In coordination with the NSF, Montana Institute on Ecosystems and MSU’s graduate film program head Dennis Aig, Schmidt, Lozier and Cordery-Cotter will produce a total of 10 films that will be collected online on WildFIRE PIRE’s website and on its Vimeo page,

“We are just really excited that the films are going to reach a larger public audience through Science360 and NSF’s outreach,” Schmidt said.

The films are suitable for all ages and also give young people a glimpse into the scientific process and how researchers and university students do their work. Classroom teachers who are unable to access the films online can request a DVD by contacting Todd Kipfer with the Montana Institute on Ecosystems (IOE) at or (406) 994-7977.

Contact: Todd Kipfer, (406) 994-7977 or