Geography professor Grant Elliott’s research uncovers the stories of forests and their response to a changing climate. His study of the movement of treelines in Alpine forests paints a sobering picture of the stunningly rapid rate of global warming. “The rate of forest change that we’ve been seeing in the last ten years has been pretty—I don’t know if ‘apocalyptic’ is the word, but it certainly deviates quite a bit from what we would consider the natural range of variability,” Elliott discloses. A global change ecologist, Elliott does not employ grandiose rhetoric—there is no need. Instead, the data gathered from his work as a dendroecologist clearly and irrefutably attests to the current unprecedented rate of climate change. Moreover, his research focuses on the effects of such change, not the causes, taking into account a local ecology’s past, present, and future.
Going far beyond maps, as one might presume, “Geography is the study of human-environment interactions,” explains Soren Larsen, Assistant Professor of Geography at MU. The discipline as a whole covers activity ranging from physical geography (e.g., wind erosion and weather patterns), techniques (e.g., modeling air pollution with GIS, or Geographic Information Systems, to understand the interactions between humans and the environment), and something called human geography, a subfield that focuses on the political, economic, cultural, urban, and regional elements of human-environment interactions. Human geographers cast their eyes on “the impact of the environment on human behavior,” as well as “the impact of human activity on the environment.” Within human geography Larsen specializes in cultural geography. While traditionally that may have entailed mapping the distribution of various cultural traits to track changes over space and time, cultural geography today is much more process-focused, drawing heavily upon the methodologies and theories of anthropology, psychology, sociology, and philosophy.
Elliott discusses how plants adapt to changing natural conditions, and describes how his research uncovers the interaction between how climate influences and local scale influences combine to create the current landscape mosaic.
Elliott describes how noticing the difference in physical geographic features led to his interest in how landscapes change over space and time, and how this interest took him from suburban St. Louis to the Rocky Mountains. (Historical photos courtesy of the United States Geological Survey online media archives.)
Broadly speaking, Andrew Cox’s research interests within biology include ecology, evolution, and the conservation of birds. “Many people don’t realize,” says Cox, “that even in the best of circumstances a bird in the most pristine forest probably loses half of its young to predators.” Cox’s work, with his mentor John Faaborg of the Division of Biological Sciences, focuses on forest birds, particularly migrant birds, which winter in the south and come north to breed. “We know that the way people have used land has changed the breeding habitat of birds,” explains Cox. In Missouri, for example, much of the state was once comprised of forests. “As forests become more fragmented, it affects the lives of birds. We know that the more fragmented the forest becomes the lower the chances a particular bird has of producing young successfully.” Cox’s research seeks to understand why this is the case.
Focusing on two birds in particular, Acadian Flycatchers and Indigo Buntings—both of which reside in Missouri and surrounding areas—Cox uses constant surveillance cameras to monitor nests around the clock in order to identify the types of animals responsible for nest failure. He shows an example of a black rat snake attacking a young nestling. “Historically, we thought snakes and hawks were important predators, but we never had video evidence like this to prove it. You rarely witness the predation of an animal in the wild….We didn’t really know which animals were primarily responsible for overall predation pressures on these birds.”
Cox is also examining how predation impacts bird behavior. “There are a lot of predators out there who are visually oriented—for example, blue jays and hawks—so that the more frequently a bird goes to the nest to feed its young, the more likely it will draw attention to the nest.” Some research has shown that birds who visit the nest more often, in particular cases, are more likely to lose their nests to predators than those who visit less frequently. Cox seeks to understand the relationship between the types of predators and when they are most active, which can help to explain variation in the way birds behave. “As a small bird, you can only do so much to protect the nest,” Cox reflects. “A famous poet once said, ‘bread, tooth, and claw.’ It breaks your heart sometimes…but it’s the rule of the land, really, it’s just how things go.”
Larsen’s newest project is located just north of Canyon City, Colorado, where the ranches that dominated the area since the late 1800s have been subdivided into parcels of 35 acres or more, creating a residential rural sprawl. Working at a field school facility that overlooks the valleys, Larsen and his research team have been interviewing the residents of this area “on the fringe, where residential development interfaces with wildlife.” The interviews reveal that “these ex-urban residents actually knew very little about the dangers, the environmental limitations, and issues that they were going to face”—from wildfire, bears, and rattlesnakes to how to deal with erosion and localized rain events that turn suddenly into flooding. As such, the residents were engaged in a process of knowledge transmission in order to learn about the environment. Larsen seeks to understand how this informal transmission of environmental knowledge might impact the future landscape.
Larsen, who started out as an undergraduate English major, found himself writing about place, a sense of place, and the identities associated with it. Seeking to understand cross-cultural variations in terms of a sense of place led him to the discipline of anthropology, and it was through ethnographic research that Larsen finally reached geography. His past research projects have involved sharecroppers in the Tennessee River Valley, who were relocated by the TVA dams, as well as with the Cheslatta, “a small Indian band in British Columbia, Canada, that had been relocated from its traditional lands in 1952 in order to make way for a hydroelectric project that was being constructed by the aluminum company of Canada.” In each case, Larsen sought to understand traditional land use practices, naming practices, and what places mean to people of different cultures.
Larsen gathers his data through a variety of different methods ranging from ethnographic field research to content analysis and GIS. But the method he prefers is called “participant observation,” an approach in which “you go and live with the people for an extended period of time, so you can start to learn how they think and feel and act.” In fact, Larsen considers participant observation to be a base line for all the research he does because “you gain an insight by participating in the culture.”