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.
Becoming a geologist was not the original aspiration for Mian Liu, Professor of Geological Sciences. The Chinese government assigned him to the discipline when he was 17 years old, a course of study he later followed at Nanjing University. His initial lack of interest in geology had much to do with the way the subject was taught. “The focus was not on understanding the processes; we were forced to memorize lots of facts,” he explains. Instead, Liu’s earliest interest was in physics, which “just seemed more intuitive.” He began sitting in on a variety of lectures and found that he preferred learning about geophysics, the physics of the Earth, eventually earning a Ph.D. in that area from the University of Arizona.
Elliott’s current projects include a collaboration on the impact of wind on tree regeneration at mountain peaks. He explains how warmer winters and decreased snowfall limit tree regeneration in the growing season.
Elliott explains how the current rate of climate change—unprecedented in the last 12,000 years—is altering forest ecosystems. New plant and animal interactions threaten trees at higher and higher elevations, and diminishing areas for snowpack affect water supply in semi-arid climates.
Liu’s dissertation research focused on Hawaiian “hotspots” and volcanic eruptions. In his postdoctoral position, Liu studied “mantle convection,” trying to understand how the earth’s mantle flows, a force that is the “primary driving mechanism of everything we see on earth today.” When he came to MU in 1992, Liu shifted his interest once again, this time to continental dynamics.