The Paleoclimatologist


In a mountain meadow at Big Bear, Hillary Jenkins and her students are working to predict the long term effects of California’s drought.

While California officials and agencies discuss how to tackle the drought,Hillary Jenkins and her students are conducting important hands-on research that could influence future decisions on everything from water rationing to conservation policy.

Jenkins, an assistant professor of environmental studies, and several students spent the summer studying the hydrology of Lodgepole Meadow in Big Bear to predict the effects of the current drought on California. Another student worked in conjunction with the School of Business to study the economic impact of the drought on agriculture in the state. While many participated through the Science Student Research program, others are continuing their work during the academic year.

Jenkins has always been interested in patterns of precipitation and is a paleoclimatologist studying climates of the past. In Big Bear, the team used tree rings to reconstruct the drought. When a ring has a narrow width, that was a low water year; when there’s more water, the rings are much thicker. “You can look at these year-to-year variations in tree rings and see what has happened in the past,” she says.

Mountain meadows serve as important hydrologic reservoirs, and knowing some meadows are dying means forests are going to suffer as well, says Jenkins. Emma Romack ’16 worked closely on the project with Jenkins, developing the research plan and measuring change in depth of the meadow’s groundwater levels over time. Using Excel and GIS, she built a computer model and plugged in multiple variables to predict the future health of the meadow. She found the subject and research so fascinating that she turned it into her senior capstone project.

“This is new and groundbreaking, something we’ve never seen before,” Romack says. “At no time in recorded climatic history do we see temperatures rising so fast while precipitation is decreasing so quickly. We are jumping into unknown territory, and being the people who get to glimpse into the future because of this research is exciting.”

Moving forward, the team will put together a meadow assessment and restoration plan for the National Forest Service that will recommend what to do to preserve the meadow ecosystem and deal with river incisement. As students graduate, the research will continue, giving new undergrads the opportunity to participate.

“This is a serious problem we have, but it does provide us with a unique opportunity to capture real time change,” Jenkins says. “There is no better way to teach students about the importance of what’s happening than having them be actively involved in researching it. It is so powerful to really give them ownership of the learning that happens through these types of research projects.”

For Romack, conducting research has been one of the most valuable experiences she’s had at Redlands.

“It allows you to get a feel for a certain field that you could go into after school,” she adds. “It also lets you apply everything you’ve learned in your classes to a real-life situation that you have total control over. It tests your abilities and knowledge accumulated throughout college, making you take complete responsibility for its success. But it’s also exciting because for the first time, you get to choose what to learn and can take your experiment any way you want to.”

Scout Dahms-May ’17 (Taylor Family Student Science Researcher), an environmental science major and Jenkins’ research assistant, has also benefited from fieldwork. She has studied the impact of air pollutants like ozone and nitrogen oxide on tree growth by examining the rings of Ponderosa pines in the San Bernardino National Forest. Dahms-May was able to determine a correlation between low tree growth and high ozone and NOx concentrations from 1981 to 1999, research that shows how vegetation is affected by human-related impacts.

“I would love to make a difference on this planet,” Dahms-May says. “By doing research and determining how we are affecting the natural environment, we have the knowledge and research to change policies and our own actions.”


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