Land use, environmental history, Bascom Hall, tumblr and novel ecosystems all in one post!

You probably don’t know that we’ve been using tumblr as part of the PalEON Project.  That’s okay, a few PalEONistas are also unaware, but it’s been interesting playing around with the micro-blogging platform as a tool for academic outreach.  We’re not the first by any stretch of the imagination.  Dave Moore at the University of Arizona was the one who suggested it, and he’s got a good handle on what tumblr could turn into, and it’s been discussed on the Chronicle of Higher Education and in this SpotOn post for, among other places.

Figure 1.  Martin Stein's house was the only Euro-American home in the Milwaukee area until at least the 1840s (image from the Wisconsin Historical Archives).
Figure 1. Martin Stein’s house was the only Euro-American home in the Milwaukee area until at least the 1840s (image from the Wisconsin Historical Archives).

I’ve been using tumblr to try to document a really exciting component of our research, but I think that it also deserves a blog post to do it more justice. As I’ve said before, a key component of PalEON is using the Public Land Survey records from the Upper Midwestern United States to estimate pre-settlement vegetation composition and structure.  As a paleoecologist, firmly embedded in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, I’ve been fascinated by the concept of “place” in these records.  Each point in the Public Land Survey is firmly rooted in space, we know exactly where these point are, and surveyors still use them (hence the PLSS Finder by the Wisconsin State Cartographer’s Office), but these points also have a place-based context. When these points were originally surveyed, very little of our modern anthropogenic landscape existed:  Milwaukee had only a single Euro-American home until at least the 1840s; the Madison area wasn’t surveyed until 1834s, and now Metro Transit’s Number 4 bus runs up and down Mill Street (one of the original survey lines) every day bringing students to the University of Wisconsin. For me, this context adds a tremendous sense of place to my daily bus ride (caveat, I bike most days, but it’s been <-10oC lately). I’ve been using the PalEON tumblr account to post these juxtapositions and to show how much the landscape in many of our lived environments has changed over a relatively short period of time (here, here and here).

The changes in the Midwestern landscape have been tremendous (as we showed at AGU) and these PLSS records are invaluable in tracing the history of the landscape back to a historical baseline, however, that’s only half of the story. The forests that occupied the landscape at the time of the PLSS were themselves in flux. Regionally we were coming out of droughts during the Medieval Warm Period (e.g., Grimm et al., 2011) and the Little Ice Age (e.g., Trouet et al., 2013), and at a broader time scale, less than 20 thousand years before the whole region was covered in ice. The rapid changes in the landscape over the past 200 years should give us pause, and help put future change into perspective. We are interested in novel ecosystems, in part because we think they inform our knowledge of ecosystem generally, but what if everything is novel? Caroline Tucker had an interesting article on The EEB and Flow back in September discussing the importance of studying novel ecosystems, but this framing implies that we generally study ecosystems that are not novel. The PLSS records, and paleoecological analysis in general, are beginning to show that, at least in large parts of North America, most ecosystems are novel. So now what?


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Assistant scientist in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Studying paleoecology and the challenges of large data synthesis.

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