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’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.
Daily life in the field is always exciting, Elliott reports. Whether a narrow escape from being struck by lightening or evading attack from local wildlife, each day brings a new adventure.
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.)
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.
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.
At first, when asked about collaborative research, Larsen joked that cultural geographers “usually fly solo,” because the projects are so time- and field-intensive. Yet Larsen has been involved in a number of collaborations. He worked closely with the Cheslatta people in British Columbia on various projects. At the Colorado field school he shares ideas with a cultural geographer, a GIS specialist, and a physical geographer. And he also collaborates with Matt Foulkes, a population geographer from MU’s Geography department, and Ann Bettencourt, a social psychologist from the Psychology department. Larsen has recently begun collaborating with Jason Dittmer, a geography colleague at Georgia Southern University, to compare the U.S.-based Captain America books with those of Captain Canuck, its Canadian parallel. Using content analysis, they have found these comics shed light on matters of nationalism, national identity, and cultural values, as well as responses to cultural change.
“Geography is the study of human-environment interactions,” Larsen says of his discipline. It covers activity ranging from physical geography (e.g., wind erosion, weather patterns), techniques (e.g., modeling air pollution with GIS to understand the interactions between human and environment), and human geography. Human geographers focus on the political, economic, cultural, urban, and regional elements of human-environment interactions, looking at “the impact of the environment on human behavior,” as well as the “impact of human activity on the environment.” Within this subfield Larsen specializes in cultural geography, seeking to understand traditional land-use practices, naming practices, and sense of place.