WildFIRE PIRE scientists awarded grant to study impact of humans on NZ forests

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MSU scientists receive grant to study impact of humans on NZ forests

December 10, 2010 -- MSU News Service

Scientists at Montana State University recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the impact of early humans on forests in New Zealand.

The $320,000 NSF Geography and Spatial Sciences grant is for the project titled "Ecosystem resilience to human impacts: ecological consequences of early human-set fires in New Zealand."

Dave McWethy, assistant research professor in earth sciences and Cathy Whitlock, professor of earth sciences, chose New Zealand because humans arrived there just 700 years ago, and changes to the environment after people arrived were dramatic.

"Our goal is to better understand how the first peoples of New Zealand influenced the environment and how resilient landscapes were to human activity," McWethy said. "New Zealand provides a unique setting for examining human impacts because the country was settled fairly recently during a time of relatively stable climate. In addition, the wet forests of New Zealand were highly sensitive to disturbances, such as fire."

The first peoples in New Zealand initiated a sequence of events that caused the loss of more than 40 percent of the forests, and this deforestation occurred within decades of human arrival. It was accomplished by the introduction of a new disturbance--fire.

According to McWethy, New Zealand provides a dramatic case of how rapidly forests can be transformed by introducing a new disturbance. "Information from this research may also help us better understand how climate change and land-use change will influence fire and other disturbances in the western U.S."

The research team will study the pollen, diatoms, chironomids (non-biting midges), charcoal and chemistry of the sediments from small lakes to reconstruct the events associated with human arrival.

Results from the first phase of research by McWethy and Whitlock are reported in an article in press with the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and show that the activities of even small prehistoric populations can permanently alter large landscapes. 

The GSS program of the NSF seeks to advance discovery, basic understanding and education in geography and the spatial sciences.

Contact:  Dave McWethy at 406.579.9995 or dmcwethy@montana.edu