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Graduate Research at UNC-Chapel Hill

Species Redistribution Due to Climate Change

It’s hard to see the environmental impact of our activities from the ground. Only from a satellite image can we really see human civilization, appearing as a bad case of smallpox across the verdant skin of the earth. As global warming proceeds and precipitation patterns change, plants and animals will have to move to more hospitable areas. However, human alterations to the landscape such as homes, buildings, and open fields will make dispersal more difficult in some places than others.

I’ve been interested in studying this upheaval of species distribution due to climate change. To do this, I wanted to use existing landscape and species distribution data to try to forecast areas where species might migrate most easily, taking into account their means of dispersal. Those areas could then be targeted for future protection.

I wanted to get started performing GIS queries and developing models as soon as I started in the fall of 2005. However, there was a lot of coursework to be done before I had the opportunity to do any GIS or model development for coursework. So I began to teach myself, doing a lot more reading than I've already done.

The Viscosity of Progress

It turned out to be harder than I thought to do the research I wanted to do. Before I started my graduate program, I thought I could study changes in future vegetation distribution due to climate change with my advisor. However, going into it, it became apparent that it would be more difficult getting him to sign on to the idea. I ended up participating in our lab's NASA research project for a while, determining what environmental factors might influence plant species richness across a three-state area. There, I was able to work with satellite imagery and population data in a GIS environment, and do some modeling in R. However, eventually my advisor agreed to support my research idea, and I began working to complete my thesis.

Done At Last

My thesis is entitled "Arctic Plant Migration by 2100: Comparing Predictions with Observations," and is available both from the Ecology program's website as well as from my own website. It took all of four years to complete. I faced the prospect of being there for another three (or who knows, more?) years, vs. getting out into the field and making an impact in environmental science or management with a degree I could get more immediately. Though I was accepted into a Ph.D program, I decided to leave with a master's degree instead because of this.

The Future

Someday I may return to get my Ph.D, but it may entail doing it at a different school. I know NC State has a GIS program, though I would have a long commute there each day I had to come in, and right now I need a job moreso than anything else. A Ph.D would qualify me to teach at a university, but such jobs are even scarcer.


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