Montana State University

MSU doctoral student awarded NSF fellowship to research impact of interactions between plants, fire and climate

July 14, 2016 -- Denise Hoepfner, MSU News Service

Kristen Emmett, a doctoral student in MSU's Department of Ecology in the College of Letters and Science, recently was awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship. MSU photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez.

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BOZEMAN -- Kristen Emmett, a doctoral student in MSU’s Department of Ecology in the College of Letters and Science, was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Program Fellowship, which gives her an annual stipend of $34,000 for three years to conduct her research.

“The brilliant thing about it, is that the NSF grant provides salary and education support, so it will allow me to focus entirely on my research,” Emmett said. “It frees me up to excel in science.”

Emmett, of Oregon, earned undergraduate degrees in environmental science and art at the University of Oregon. Before enrolling at MSU in 2014, she spent seven years working for government agencies and nonprofits in roles including field educator, project manager and biological technician.

At MSU, Emmett researches in Assistant Professor Ben Poulter’s Ecosystem Dynamics Lab. Poulter has a dual appointment in the Department of Ecology and the Montana Institute on Ecosystems.

For her research, Emmett uses a computer model based on how plants grow, compete and respond to disturbances to build “virtual” forests. She then subjects her forests to different climate and greenhouse gas conditions to see how the vegetation and fire regimes respond.

“One challenge in ecosystem science, especially for my study of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, is understanding the role of fire,” Emmett said. “The landscape we see around us is largely dominated by fire and the vegetation patterns emerge from complex interactions between soil, climate and fire. So, we have to represent fire interactions in our model to properly understand how climate change will impact the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.”

Emmett said previous research in the Western U.S. has considered the effects of climate and fire on forests, but leaves out the feedback effects of forests on both climate and fire. One aspect she is interested in is how vegetation might influence fuel conditions and end up limiting fire in the future.

“An increase in weather conditions ripe for fire could lead to more frequent fires than in the past for an area, which wouldn’t allow time for the forest to regrow,” she said. “As a result, are we going to see a shrinking of the forested areas and an expansion of grass and shrub lands?”

Using past climate data, Emmett is currently running computer simulations from the 1980s to the present day and comparing her simulated forest and fire activity to satellite data sets of vegetation cover and fire.

“To be able to look into the future or the past, you have to be able to get the present day right,” Emmett said. “I build my virtual forest and I see how well I am representing modern day because, if you get that right, hopefully this means your models and its equations are accurately representing the processes – the growth of the vegetation, the ignition and spread of fires, etc.”

Next, she will run her model with climate change scenarios to predict future vegetation patterns and fire activity. Her hope is to predict the area of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that could transition from forest to grassland or shrub land and the frequency and severity of fires at the end of the century.

Emmett’s research is important, she said, because society depends on Earth’s natural “ecosystem services,” a term used in ecology for the direct and indirect benefits that ecosystems provide.

“Examples of ecosystem services are stable soils, flood control, and regulation of climate provided by forests.” she said. “Dramatic changes in vegetation patterns and increases in fire activity could impact these ecosystem services.”

Emmett says she hopes her research data will provide insight for public land managers who, with limited information, are tasked with developing climate change adaptation plans for the federal and state lands they oversee. And, it could benefit private landowners, who are also trying to manage their land.

Among contributors to her success, Emmett said, are MSU’s faculty, coursework and computing infrastructure.

“The courses I’ve taken have directly informed my research; they’ve provided me with the background knowledge I need to understand the ecological processes I’m trying to represent,” she said. “Predominantly, my coursework has been in ecology, but I also took a statistics course through the math department and it was excellent. I use these and other quantitative methods I learned every day.”

Emmett said she feels supported by Poulter, as well as by Andrew Hansen, professor of ecology and David Roberts, head of the Department of Ecology.

“We are thrilled that the NSF is supporting Kristen’s research on climate change impacts in the GYE,” Poulter said. “Kristen has worked hard to learn numerical modeling techniques and we are excited to see how her hypotheses relating how climate change will affect future fire behavior and vegetation patterns will help us better understand this iconic landscape.”

Poulter added that Emmett’s previous work experience will be an asset for sharing her research with stakeholders.

“Kristen’s extensive background in working with federal agencies and non-governmental organizations will also help in communicating her results to practitioners who are keen to learn more about how to manage ecosystems under a changing climate,” he said.

Emmett said the Montana Institute on Ecosystems has also played a big role in her success by supporting her research, both financially and by providing her with opportunities for professional development.

“Through the Institute on Ecosystems’ Rough Cut Series, I’ve met and have had discussions with world-class ecologists, which is a really unique opportunity,” she said.

Also important to her research, Emmett said, is the Hyalite Cluster, an interconnected bank of high-speed, high-power research computers launched by MSU in 2015.

“I would not be able to do my research without a computer cluster and having it here at MSU is very valuable,” Emmett said. “A lot of people do their research on a remote cluster, whereas here I deal directly with a system administrator on a first-name basis and that’s great.”

After earning her doctorate, Emmett says she hopes to work as a research ecologist.

“Ultimately I’d like to be a research ecologist for a federal or state agency like the United States Geological Survey or the National Park Service, or at some other research institute,” she said. “I’d also be open to working for a nonprofit organization, such as I have in the past.”

Denise Hoepfner, or (406) 994-4542

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