Montana State University

Cathy Whitlock will highlight Yellowstone ecosystem in provost’s lecture

October 6, 2014 -- MSU News Service

In the first presentation of this academic year’s Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series, Cathy Whitlock will emphasize the importance of the Yellowstone ecosystem. Whitlock, a professor of earth sciences and MSU director of the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, has spent more than three decades researching the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. MSU Photo by Kelly Gorham

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BOZEMAN – Cathy Whitlock has a thing for history. Hers is a quest to understand the distant past – what plants grew on a landscape and how did climate, fire and human activity affect it – in an effort to decipher important clues about what the future may hold. 

Whitlock, professor of earth sciences and MSU director of the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, will be the speaker as the Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series resumes on Monday, Oct. 27, at 7 p.m. in the Hager Auditorium at the Museum of the Rockies (a reception will follow). Lectures from the series are free and open to the public. Whitlock’s talk, “Yellowstone Through Time: Change, Stability and the Future,” will draw on lessons learned during decades of studying the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. 

Whitlock has spent much of her career reconstructing vegetation, fire and climate histories. Her research, which is articulated in more than 150 scientific papers, examines how changes in climate have altered past environments and shaped those we see today. Her investigations have also pushed her to ask if the paleo-data might tell us something about what comes next.

“Climate changes projected for the future will have significant consequences for our ecosystems and our ability to manage them,” Whitlock said. “It’s reasonable to ask: Are there historical precedents that help us understand what might happen in the future or is history becoming increasingly irrelevant?”

From Yellowstone and other areas of the western U.S., to New Zealand, Tasmania and Patagonia, the pursuit of such questions has driven Whitlock’s research, and they lay at the heart of an Institute on Ecosystems project called WildFIRE PIRE. Funded by a five-year, $3.85 million Partnership in International Research and Education (PIRE) grant from the National Science Foundation, the project is studying the influence of wildfire on the three continents and building computer models that project how those dynamics might play out in the future. The group is using thousands of years worth of data on vegetation, fire, human activities and climate to explore how climate and human factors might affect future patterns in Earth’s forests.

Whatever continent she’s working on, Whitlock and her collaborators build historical pictures of landscapes by applying techniques honed in Yellowstone. Whitlock said the discipline of “paleofire ecology,” which really began to flourish after the catastrophic fires of 1988, was pioneered by her and her students’ studies of the Greater Yellowstone.

“Yellowstone’s history provides a rare opportunity to understand the sensitivity of ecosystems to a broader range of climate changes than we can observe today,” Whitlock said. “For me, big discoveries come from in small packages.  From the sediments of lakes, we study pollen grains, tiny pieces of charcoal, and remains of macroscopic organisms and use these fossils to reconstruct past vegetation, find evidence of ancient forest fires, and trace the movement of species across the landscape.  These are the tools for studying past climate change.” 

The lakes preserve the evolving story of the surrounding landscape. Pollen grains provide clues as to when and what plants first arrived after glaciers receded and how the vegetation responded to postglacial climate change and human activities. The charcoal particles identify past fires and changes in fire frequency. Radiocarbon dating of organic material provides the chronology for developing the prehistoric timeline. Assembling paleo-data from multiple locations allows Whitlock and her team to understand the ecological responses over thousands of years and across the region.

It is possible to take that knowledge and use it to infer what may lie ahead in Yellowstone or elsewhere, Whitlock said. And, this type of information is critical for guiding resource management, conservation planning and broad understanding.

“Current climate trends will likely bring more severe droughts, warmer winters and more fires to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the coming century, and these will lead to significant biotic reorganizations in some areas, while other locations will be surprising stable,” Whitlock said. “Although the past does not offer an exact analogue for Yellowstone’s future, essential lessons can be learned about the sensitivity of ecosystems to extreme climate events, potential rates of forest change, the role of fire as a catalyst, and the lasting legacy of human activities.”  

Whitlock’s groundbreaking work in the Greater Yellowstone has not gone unnoticed.  

In a ceremony at MSU on Wednesday, Whitlock was the recipient of an Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Technology Pioneer Award. And in 2012, Whitlock was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a leading scientific organization, which advances science around the world and across all disciplines. 

Whitlock is a past president of the American Quaternary Association, the national scientific organization that focuses on past environmental change; she chaired the U.S. National Committee for the International Quaternary Association at the National Academy of Sciences; and she serves on executive committees focused on past climatic change and recently helped craft the climate change position for the Geological Society of America. Locally, she serves on the planning team for the Greater Yellowstone Science Agenda, which is helping define future research and management directions in climate change science.

As MSU director of the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, Whitlock helps lead a statewide effort to advance an integrated approach to environmental science. Montana IoE, which includes MSU and the University of Montana, is funded through an NSF EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) grant. 

Whitlock said her explorations of Yellowstone’s paleoecology offer a textbook example of what Montana IoE is all about. 

“Montana’s landscapes can teach us about complex ecosystems undergoing change and the interconnectedness of people and nature,” Whitlock said. 

Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 994-7371, seppjannotta@montana.edu.