Students research Driftless Area

October 26, 2015

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Beginning this fall, five University of Wisconsin-Platteville undergraduate students majoring in geography, biology and environmental horticulture will embark upon a multi-year paleoecological study of the Driftless Area – a unique landscape, mainly located in Southwest Wisconsin, that escaped glaciation during the last glacial period. Dr. Chris Underwood, assistant professor of geography and research associate in the university’s Tree-Ring, Earth, and Environmental Sciences Laboratory, will lead the students in the research study.

The study will use charcoal, defined as incompletely combusted plant tissue that was burned during past wildfires and then preserved in soils and sediments, to determine the forest and grassland vegetation and wildfire histories of the Driftless Area. The goal is to reconstruct such histories for much of the Holocene, the geologic epoch that began roughly 11,700 years ago.

“Radiocarbon dating will allow us to build a coarse-resolution multi-millennial fire history from the charcoal we find, while the vegetation history will be based on the anatomy we can see in the individual pieces of charcoal,” said Underwood. “Remarkably, much of a plant’s anatomy is preserved during a low-intensity wildfire. We’ll use the preserved anatomy to taxonomically identify the radiocarbon-dated charcoal fragments, thus creating a companion vegetation history. It is important to study and determine such records because the more we know and understand about past ecosystems and environmental change, the better equipped we are to make informed decisions about our environment during the present and future.”

In preparation for this long-term research project, Underwood and his students traveled to UW-Madison in September to take part in a Wisconsin Historic Landscape Project forum. The TREES Lab team was able to communicate its research plans with other scientists from the upper Midwest and discuss potential areas of collaboration.

“Undergraduate scientific research is a highly effective educational tool, and we have a long and growing history of success with this approach in the department of geography and the TREES Lab,” said Underwood. “It is important for my students to understand that there are other researchers, sometimes close by, who are interested in topics similar to theirs. Meeting, brainstorming and networking with these other researchers oftentimes leads to collaborative and strengthened research efforts.”

On Oct. 8, the TREES Lab team returned to Madison to hear a Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters-sponsored talk, “The State of Wisconsin’s Forests,” by Dr. David Mladenoff, director of the Forest Ecosystem and Landscape Ecology Laboratory at UW-Madison. Prior to the talk, the TREES Lab team viewed the LOGJAM art exhibit at the James Watrous Gallery in Madison. The exhibit features artwork that inspires reflection on environmental restoration and overall forest health.

“These opportunities have allowed us good insight into the future of what our project for the Driftless Area may turn into,” said Philip Schulz, a senior geography major from Milwaukee, Wis. “It has also provided several resources and contacts for us to use to help interpret and understand the data we’ll be gathering.”

“Going to Madison gave our group the chance to see real-world application of Earth science research,” said Giselle Varientos, a senior geography major from Kenosha, Wis. “At the forum, we participated as scientists, figuring out the best and most effective use for historical land cover data. Our input was valued and our questions were heard. Our second visit helped us understand the delicate balance that must exist between humans and forests. The LOGJAM art exhibit captured the beauty of the trees our state has depended so greatly on. Dr. Mladenoff spoke on the history and the current condition of our state’s forests, but more importantly, he gave us the knowledge to make sure the future of our forests is a positive one.”

Beginning this month, Underwood and the students will collect their first soil cores in the Driftless Area. “It will feel a bit like a groundbreaking ceremony for what promises to be a multi-year research project of our region’s ancient environmental history,” said Underwood. “The greatest challenge of such research is the sheer amount of time involved in collecting, processing and analyzing hundreds of soil samples; yet, this is also the great strength of such a study, because it affords multiple opportunities for many students to experientially learn about the dynamic world in which we live. So many of us are hands-on learners, and I find this to be a highly effective approach to Earth science education.”

In addition to Schulz and Varrientos, UW-Platteville students currently involved in the research project include Cody Carmody, a senior geography major from Barneveld, Wis.; Amanda Carpenter, a senior biology major from New Berlin, Wis.; and Kendell Welch, a senior environmental horticulture major from Oak Park, Ill. Those interested in learning more about this or other ongoing projects in the TREES Lab, especially students interested in working on such a project, can contact Underwood at or 608-342-7124.

As UW-Platteville pursues its vision of being recognized as the leading student-focused university for its success in achieving excellence, creating opportunities and empowering each individual, it is guided by four strategic planning priorities. The Driftless Area research aligns with two of the priorities, including providing an outstanding education and enriching the tri-state area.

Written by: Laurie Hamer, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191,


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