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Discovery Newsletter

Volume 13Discovery NewsletterIssue 5Discovery NewsletterMarch 2002

Main Page On the Web Patents Corner Featured Stories In Focus


MSU Student Named Canon Scholar for Research in National Parks


Andy Bunn by Annette Trinity-Stevens

A Montana State University student studying trees at high elevations has received a $75,000 scholarship to continue his research in Yellowstone, Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.

Graduate student Andy Bunn was one of eight new Canon National Parks Science Scholars recognized last month in a Washington, D.C. ceremony with Interior Secretary Gale Norton and National Park Service Director Fran Mainella.

The scholars program is designed to create leaders in the fields of conservation, environmental science and park management, according to a Canon news release.

A Boston native, the 29-year-old Bunn is working on a Ph.D. in land resources and environmental sciences at MSU.

Describing the attention as "sort of embarrassing," Bunn said the scholarship is perfectly suited to what he came to MSU two years ago to do: understand how climate has changed over the last thousand years.

He's using "tree time" --tree rings that record growth patterns throughout a tree's life -- to interpret what the climate was like at high elevations over the past millennium.

"Understanding climate change is one of the most important scientific questions out there," Bunn said.

"When the media report that 1999 was the warmest year on record, that came largely from tree-ring data," he continued. "We can go back 1,000 years in only a handful of places in the world."

Those places include the national parks in his study, whose tree lines occur in high, dry environments where dead wood doesn't decay. To help pinpoint sampling sites, Bunn is using high-resolution satellite imagery purchased through NASA with a grant from the Montana Space Grant Consortium.

The resolution is good enough that Bunn can pick out individual trees for coring to get a picture of how tree lines shifted over hundreds of years in response to temperature and moisture patterns.

Other high-elevation climate studies have used either tree rings or satellite imagery, but few, if any, have combined the two, Bunn said.

He expects to find different climate patterns among the three sites. Precipitation and weather in Yosemite and Sequoia are controlled by the phenomenon known as El Nino.

On the other hand, weather in the Northern Rockies -- Bunn's third study site -- is dominated by El Nino's "bigger, badder brother." Called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, this pattern occurs over much longer time scales than El Nino. Changes in precipitation may happen over decades -- 50 years of relative wet may be followed by 50 dry years, for example.

Bunn's research into past climates is critical to assessing what park resources may be undergoing in terms of climate stress, said Dan Fagre, a USGS research scientist stationed in Glacier National Park.

"It informs the way we project how ecosystems will respond in the future -- because the past is a key to the future -- in these areas that have already undergone past stresses," he said.

While the park service doesn't choose the Canon scholars -- a group of independent scientists does -- it does identify broad areas where research can help with management issues, said Lisa Graumlich, head of the Big Sky Institute at MSU and one of Bunn's advisors.

"On some level, this [award] is about creating a new generation of scientists who can communicate with the public about issues that the public cares about," Graumlich said. "I'm just delighted, because we as scientists are getting so much more sophisticated... at explaining science so it can be heard and acted on."

The Canon Scholars program is a collaboration between Canon USA, Inc., the National Park Service, the National Park Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Annette Trinity-Stevens is the director of research communications at MSU.

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