Park Williams, a bioclimatologist whose research focuses on the climatological causes and the ecological consequences of drought, teaches climatology in the summer semester for the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy Program. ESP intern Alexandria J Nakao-Eligado interviewed Williams to learn more about his timely research.
What triggered your interest in trees and climate change?
When I was a kid, my introduction to environmental science came in the form of road trips across the western U.S. with my family. I think the best education comes from observing the world, how it changes across space or time, and attempting to explain the changes. When I was in 5th grade or so I remember hearing about how some trees can grow for thousands of years and that their annual rings can tell us about past climate. I thought it was so cool that the Earth would leave behind clues for us so that we can tell what the past was like.
Tell us about your most recent research in the field of bioclimatology and what we are seeing in the news headlines.
I have been studying how climate affects forest fire in the western United States and have found that, by far and away, the biggest contributor is the atmosphere’s demand for moisture. When it’s warm, the atmosphere can pull more moisture out of vegetation material, which is fuel for fire. When it’s warm, forests burn more. Over the past three decades, the amount of forest burned per year in the western U.S. has increased nine-fold. Each year we hear career-long firefighters saying they have never seen fires as intense as they’re seeing now. My colleagues and I have been working to figure out how much of this increase in forest fire activity can be attributed to human-caused climate change and how much can be attributed to other factors.
What is your biggest concern regarding the consequences of drought?
My biggest concerns regarding the consequences of drought are related to the unexpected loss of forests and their ecological habitats. Even in places that may experience a gradual increase in precipitation as a result of human-caused climate change, there will still be dry years and these dry years are getting warmer. Warm temperatures dry forests out faster, making them more susceptible to fires and insect attack. Tropical forests are especially concerning because they store vast amounts of carbon and host a large portion of Earth’s biodiversity. In dry years like this past one in Indonesia, people are economically incentivized to, in a matter of days, undo millions of years of ecological evolution and undermine the well being of future generations by burning our globe’s ancient tropical forests and replace them with short-term plantations.
What do you think your students need to know about sustainability that they may not already be learning in the classroom?
The Earth’s climate and ecological systems tend to work on timescales that are much longer than the ones we are generally concerned with. Ask me how I’m doing and I’ll tell you about today or maybe this year. Ask a tree and it will tell you about this decade or maybe this century. Ask the ocean and it will tell you about this millennium. What we do for our short-term gain has long-term consequences for the Earth and future generations.
What do you believe is the greatest benefit that the ESP program has to offer its students?
A key strength of Columbia’s ESP program is the access that students have to experts in any field. By necessity, New York City is home to some of the world’s leaders in sustainability and public policy. Students also have access to an unmatched expertise in environmental science at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the world’s best environmental science research institute and home to many globally renowned authorities spanning a broad spectrum of fields including seismology, climatology, oceanography, glaciology, geology, volcanology and biology.
Williams talks about the influence of climate change on drought and wildfires in this story posted earlier on State of the Planet.