Students explore fire history of Midwest landscapes

April 5, 2017
Research in the Rotunda

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. –University of Wisconsin-Platteville geography students are using science to delve into the environmental history of two specific sites in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The students collected samples of lake sediments and tree rings, which are environmental proxies that record what is happening around them. After analyzing the samples, the students were able to reconstruct the fire history of the landscapes. This data could ultimately help develop the guidelines that lead land management into the future.

According to Dr. Evan Larson, associate professor of geography at UW-Platteville and one of the advisors of the project, fire is an ecological process that has been an important factor in the dynamics of the forests and prairies in Wisconsin and the Midwest for thousands of years. By creating a more complete understanding of past fires, land managers and conservationists can use the information to better manage the current environment and plan for the future.  “The challenge is that we don’t have direct records of where, how often, and why fires burned in the past,” said Larson.

That’s the challenge that UW-Platteville students have set out to solve. One group of students is working with Dr. Chris Underwood, assistant professor of geography at UW-Platteville, to establish new records of fire history for the Driftless Area of Wisconsin. Using a hydraulic drill, the team collected sediment charcoal samples out of the Kickapoo River Valley and analyzed the contents trapped in the layers of sediment. “We’re collecting potentially up to 10,000 years of fire history,” said Ciara Miller, senior geography major from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. “We are still waiting to get our radio carbon dates back, but we can see that there have definitely been some high peaks in fire activity in the Kickapoo watershed area.”

“This research is unique in that it is pushing the boundaries of where past research has been conducted, and in ways that have never been done before. This work is starting down a path of inquiry that will lead to enormous advances in understanding how the prairie-forest border of Southwest Wisconsin has shifted over time and how that relates to changes in climate,” said Larson.

The other part of the project is exploring the role of people in the fire regimes of the Great Lakes prior to the widespread influences of European land use. Last semester, a group of geography students traveled with Larson to Cloquet, Minnesota, where they collected tree-ring samples in the Cloquet Forestry Center. Their work resulted in a 276-year fire history that included 11 fire events between 1740-1905.

Adam Donaldson, junior geography major from Kronenwetter, Wisconsin, said this research is helping to define the idea of what is natural. “We’re looking for the driving factors of the fire regime in the past; was it a result of people or climate?” he said. “It was really interesting to be a part of this project, I was exposed to the idea that people have been a part of the landscape for a long time.”

Other geography students involved in the research include Rebecca Hempe from Platteville; Caleb Cizauskas from Sheboygan, Wisconsin; and Micah Darling from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

Because of the implications of this project, the students have been invited to present their research at the Research in the Rotunda event at the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin on April 12. “Students from UW-Platteville are playing integral roles in conducting science that has direct benefits for the people and land of Southwest Wisconsin and the region as a whole,” said Larson.

Miller has particularly enjoyed this research because of her connections to the Driftless area. “UW-Platteville and my hometown are both in the Driftless area, and the Kickapoo site that we were taking the sediment cores from is also in the Driftless area,” she said. “My education at UW-Platteville has given me so many opportunities and it’s really helped me find what I’m passionate about. I didn’t come in as a geography major, but I ended up transferring to the geography department once I took the introduction class for geography, Planet Earth. Learning about how everything on this planet is connected and all the relationships there are really got me interested. But once I got to know Dr. Larson and Dr. Underwood more personally and learn about the research they were doing on campus, that’s what really inspired me to begin working in the TREES Lab and taking classes that incorporate hands-on research into the course curriculum.”

Donaldson also enjoyed his undergraduate research experience. “The research that I’ve been involved in at UW-Platteville has allowed me to investigate the questions that are important to me,” he said. “The faculty in the geography department are really motivated to be involved and make undergraduate research a possibility. I don’t think a lot of other undergraduates get the chance to do what the faculty has made possible here.”

Written by: Laura Janisch, UW-Platteville Communications, 608-342-1194,


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