Alumni update from Oregon.

Hi there! For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Chelsea Little and I was an athlete with the Green Racing Project from its inception in 2009 through the end of the 2011 season. In March, I left Craftsbury for good and the world of ski racing, too. Judy and I thought it would be cool to do a little alumni update since my current work is related to the Center’s mission – and I miss everyone in Craftsbury, so I wanted to say hi, too!

I’m now living about as far away from Vermont as I could be without leaving the contiguous U.S. – Eugene, Oregon. I have a job working for two professors at the University of Oregon on a Department of Energy-funded research project. We are looking at the effects of future climate change on the northwestern prairie. Our lab is the two professors, two postdoctoral researchers, four graduate students, and me, the research assistant. With so many people doing all sort of different research, there’s always a lot going on!

So on to the nitty gritty of the project. We have three study sites in Oregon and Washington, each about three hours north of the previous one (sometimes our workdays are very long and include six hours of driving, and sometimes we even do overnight trips and camp at the study sites). At each site we have twenty of the circular plots in the picture above. The radius is about 2 meters and half of them are surrounded by infrared heaters, which warm the air inside the plots to 3 degrees Celsius hotter than the air in the non-heated plots. Similarly, we also add 25% more water than the baseline precipitation to half of the twenty plots. So, at each site, we have four treatments: control, heat, water, and heat + water.

What’s really cool about the study and part of the reason that I was so excited to take the job is that it’s saying, well, we changed the climate, and this is what happened. Of course we don’t know exactly how the climate will change in any particular place over the next few decades, but this takes a lot of the guesswork out of predicting the effects of climate change. It’s not some abstract model – it’s actually making the change, and then looking at the effects.

Luckily for me, all the infrastructure for the project was set up before I got there! I was talking to one of the postdocs, who has a background in community ecology, and when he arrived on the project was asked to figure out a lot of the electrical setup with the heaters. I have absolutely no electrical experience so when something isn’t working in one of the plots I have to go, “Timmmmm? Ummm…..” Although maybe this could be a good opportunity for me to learn about wiring, probably a handy skill to have!

The work we do varies, but the basic question is how a temperature and/or precipitation increase would affect the plant communities in the prairie. Right now we are looking at a suite of range-limited species which we have planted among the natural “matrix” in each plot. We see how well the plants germinate at the different sites and in the different treatments within a site. We measure them as they grow and finally collect their seeds to see if they can reproduce successfully.

Some things are easy to find in the plots, but if you are looking for the first two stalks of a tiny grass pushing up through all the other vegetation, it can be pretty challenging. I’m relearning some of my plant identification skills and am already more familiar with grasses than I’ve ever been in my life. I’m not a pro yet, but I can identify most of our focal species even when they are young. The first few days were pretty intimidating and confusing but I’m doing better now!

Other aspects of the study are things like measuring species diversity within the different plots, clipping portions of the plots to compare biomass production, or looking at how the treatments affect the presence of microrhizal fungi (which have symbiotic relationships with plant roots) or endophytes (bacteria or fungi which live inside a plant, often in the leaves, but don’t cause disease or stress).

Some of the grad students are doing fancy stuff like measuring soil respiration or photosynthesis. My job is mostly just to either count plants or get out a ruler and measure them.

There was recently an NPR piece on our study – the reporter came out in the field! So if you want a brief listen to what it’s like to work on a big science project, have a listen here.

What’s the takeaway message so far? We haven’t done much data analysis so I can’t give you anything for sure. But we have noticed anecdotally that some species don’t do well in some treatments. It’s also very apparent that the heating significantly changes the phenology (timing) of the plants’ life cycle. Things will bloom earlier and die earlier in the heated plots, which get crispy and brown long before the unheated plots.

In terms of ecological effects, that’s really important, even if it doesn’t seem that exciting. If two species are interdependent and all of a sudden one of them shifts its life cycle forward by a week or two, the second species could be left in the lurch. One of the most interesting examples of this phenomenon is with migratory birds, which fly north on a certain schedule but these days sometimes arrive to find the plants and trees they rely on in a different life stage than expected. This happens on all different levels, so phenological timing is a big deal.

So…. enough with the science, right? If you want more details, head to our website.

Other than that, I guess all that there is left to say is that I love Eugene. In some ways the community is a lot like Vermont, actually! I live in a house with a clay oven in the backyard and right now we have strawberries, loganberries, raspberries, and strawberries ripe – more than I can pick – and the figs on the tree out back are almost ready too. I’ve done some cool runs and hikes in the Cascades and have started coaching the South Eugene nordic ski club. They don’t really get snow here but it’s a great group of kids and a fun way to stay at least a little bit involved with skiing. I do get a hankering for snow sometimes, and I miss training, but this is a good life for me and it’s refreshing to be doing something different. I miss you all in Craftsbury – if you’re ever out on the West coast, give me a shout!

Here’s a nice sunset photo from our Washington site to say goodbye.


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