From 2012 to 2013, I was fortunate enough to spend the academic year in Sweden, as the King's Professor of Environmental Science at Umea University. This year will give me the opportunity to compare changes in boreal watersheds. My current research explores the aftermath of sudden environmental change in boreal watersheds, when deforestation led to rapid ecological and social changes.
Archeologists, anthropologists, historians, and biologists have long debated the causes of ecological and social collapse--a discussion popularized by Jared Diamond's lively (albeit often inaccurate) Collapse. But what happens after sudden environmental change? Who (if anybody) learns anything from the experience? How do ecological transformations change not just landscapes and livelihoods, but policies and perceptions?
The core of my project focuses on connections between forests and water in North America's Lake Superior watershed, where 50 years of intensive logging on the American shore between 1870 and 1920 led to disaster. Rapid deforestation was followed by massive fires, erosion, and sedimentation that helped lead to the collapse of fisheries, and eventually human depopulation in the region. But this experience also stimulated the birth of the American conservation movement, the growth of scientific forestry and watershed science in America, and a national discourse about wise use of resources. A century later, the forests, terrestrial wildlife, many fish, and a fair number of people have returned to the region, with a set of perspectives on the past that continue to shape current policies. The Canadian side of the watershed, however, experienced a very different history of deforestation--different in its timing, intensity, societal responses, and lessons learned. I explore these differences, with the goal of helping us understand what happens after the environment changes. I ask: what relevance do these historical experiences have for current issues of resilience and sustainability, particularly in the context of climate change?
What about Sweden? The ecological context was, in many ways, comparable, with boreal forests that present similar ecological constraints and opportunities for human groups. But the social and political contexts of environmental changes were quite different. I hope to collaborate with researchers in Sweden to understand varied responses to the effects of deforestation on water: in particular, the river modification, hydropower development, pulp and paper industry pollution, and loss of fish habitat and populations associated with forest changes.
PhD Course Spring 2013
Sustaining Lake Superior