UW-Platteville’s Larson returns from Fulbright experience in Sweden

June 29, 2012

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. - Dr. Evan Larson, University of Wisconsin-Platteville assistant professor of geography, has returned to campus following a 10-month-long stay in Sweden as a teacher and researcher with the J. William Fulbright Scholar Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs.

"I learned so much about myself, my family and the United States," Larson said of his time in Sweden. "I view the world differently. My perspective has changed."

Larson's experience began last August with a 10-hour flight to Stockholm and a 250-mile train ride north to Sundsvall, where he and his family resided just blocks from his host school, Mid Sweden University, which featured an architecturally striking campus with natural woods, indoor gardens and interiors constructed to be inviting to sunlight.

Sweden's late summer sun, Larson said, made an immediate impression with its ability to enhance the already visually pleasing colors found in Sundsvall and the rest of the country.

"The whole landscape was golden like the most beautiful summer late afternoon, but it lasted all day," said Larson.

Just as engaging was the remarkable focus on and investment in children, evident in Sweden's parks and imaginatively detailed indoor and outdoor play structures.

Noting positive differences in the workplace as well, Larson said the culture at Mid Sweden University embraced a practice common throughout Sweden of "stopping everything at 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. in order for co-workers to gather together for coffee and tea." Referred to as "fika" (fee-kah) in Swedish, Larson said the opportunity facilitated informal discussion with colleagues and contributed countless tangible benefits to the workplace environment.

"I have never been in a department before where there was better communication and fewer misunderstandings," said Larson.

A biogeographer who specializes in dating past events and variations in the environment by examining the growth rings of trees, Larson traveled to Sweden to research and compare the fire histories of two of the country's old-growth forests, the non-fragmented Jamtgaveln Reserve in central Sweden and the naturally fragmented Granlandet Reserve north of the Arctic Circle.

Larson's ultimate goal was to improve our understanding of the long-term effects of fragmentation in order to determine how modern forests will function in the future as they are increasingly fragmented by roads, houses and timber harvesting.

"Forests operate slowly," Larson said, "well beyond the direct observations of people, so the effects of changing forest structure are hard to see in areas that have only been fragmented for 50 or 70 years. Impacts from these changes may, however, be identified by studying naturally fragmented landscapes over long time periods."

Larson's work, which builds on research he began as an undergraduate student looking at patterns of fire in a naturally fragmented old-growth pine forest in central Oregon and continued in the Great Lakes Region of the United States, has applications worldwide.

Just days after arriving in Sweden, Larson got a quick look at fire history samples already collected from Jamtgaveln that told a story of several large natural fires between the 1500s and 1700s but almost none since the 1900s. He then set off for Granlandet, translated as "the land of spruces," with colleagues. The experience, he said, was unforgettable.

"It was awe-inspiring to see and walk into," Larson said of Granlandet, which is almost totally devoid of human influence, aside from the light impact made by the Saami, a traditionally nomadic people whose way of life centers on herding reindeer. "Mires had filled in over glacial deposits, separating ancient islands of Norway spruce and birch trees that had never been cut."

In total, Larson's group collected more than 1,500 tree-ring samples and 128 charcoal samples from 16 sites in Granlandet. With lots of evidence of fire almost everywhere else in Sweden, Larson said there was almost none in Granlandet's naturally fragmented landscape and that the presence of the mires must have acted as natural firebreaks.

"The landscape in Granlandet, fragmented as it is, provides an analog for how fire and forest may behave in the future as people continue to encroach on and alter forest ecosystems," Larson said. "Our early results show that simply changing the area of a patch of forest has significant influences on the long-term composition, height and productivity of that patch. It's so important to be aware not only of the intended consequences of what we do, but also the unintended consequences that, in the end, may have enormous impacts on our surrounding environment."

In addition to his research, Larson co-taught a senior seminar course in biology at Mid Sweden University and led a one-week-long international field course in Skuleskogen National Park, where students from 14 different countries developed tree-ring chronologies from the naturally fire-resistant Scots Pine.

"The oldest tree we sampled was more than 450 years old," Larson said. "By matching patterns of wide and narrow rings in living trees to those of long-dead trees that had been preserved because of the high resin content of Scots Pine, we developed a continuous tree-ring chronology that was over 1,000 years in length."

Larson, whose work as a Fulbrighter extended over the dark winter months of Sweden, has received approval to offer a short-term study abroad course in 2013 that will offer students hands-on research experiences among some of the spectacular landscapes and trees of Sweden. The course will be offered over the summer term.

For more information about his trip or the field course to Sweden, contact Larson at (608) 342-6139 or larsonev@uwplatt.edu.

Contact: Dr. Evan Larson, assistant professor, UW-Platteville Geography Program, (608) 342-6139, larsonev@uwplatt.edu Written by: Barbara Weinbrenner, communications specialist, UW-Platteville College of Liberal Arts and Education, (608) 342-6191, weinbreb@uwplatt.edu

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