Assuming you’ve thought long and hard about why you want and advanced degree in ecology and what specific sub-discipline you’ve decided to pursue, below I provide some advice on how best to approach the grad school application process.
Do not just apply to a program without first contacting potential advisors. Every year I get 1-3 students that do this and list me as their potential advisor. If I’m taking students that year, I’ve already encouraged 2-3 students to apply and will not look at your application. You may think that is harsh, but here is why I do what I do: I don’t want students to spend the time and money required to apply to our program unless I think they will be a good fit in my lab and that I think I will be a good advisor for them.
Here is what you should do. Reach out to people whose work interests you 2-4 months before the application deadline. Hopefully you’ve identified these people based on their publications. Make sure that you check their website for materials that they request of potential applicants and provide them with your initial email. I ask for a CV, a one-page description of research interests, and unofficial transcripts. I’m not looking for a ground-breaking question that you want to pursue. I’m trying to evaluate if you’ve thought through what you want to research and if you can present it in a coherent manner.
Assuming you get some interest from the potential advisor, then you need to plan for your first interaction with them beyond email. I schedule a video call with potential students so that we can each learn more about how the other operates. You need to be prepared for questions relevant to the work we do in my lab. I often ask potential students which of my papers they found most interesting and why? Your answer will help me understand why you’re interested in the work we do and what specifically about forest ecology gets you excited.
After having interviewed several students, I’ll recommend that 2-3 formally apply to our program. Sometime following your application, it is important to schedule a visit. Many programs/advisors will support your travel to visit, but even if they don’t, this is a worthy investment. This is your opportunity to get a sense of the department and the program. Most importantly, this is your opportunity to meet with your potential advisor and lab. I schedule time for potential students to meet with my current lab without me present. You need to ask current students how your potential advisor operates, what kind of support they provide, and what their expectations are. This is your opportunity to gather data about how well you think the potential advisor’s approach will work for you. You should also feel free to contact students who have graduated from the lab. They have a complete picture of the process. To make this process effective, you need the self-awareness to know what you require to be successful. Make sure you give this some thought well in advance of this process.
Remember, this process is a two-way street. The potential advisor is interviewing you, but you also need to be interviewing them.
With fires raging in multiple western states and in Canada, there is this assumption that there is a single cause for these large, hot wildfires that, in some cases, are creating their own weather. There is a tendency by different media outlets and political figures to say it’s climate change, or fire suppression has created a fuels problem, or if people just didn’t build houses in the forest there wouldn’t be a problem. The basic fact of the matter is this:
Now, I’ll unpack these three things.
Climate change influences wildfire in several ways. When vegetation is wet, it takes way more energy to get it to burn because essentially all of the water has to boil off before the vegetation will burn. This is why you don’t use wet wood to make a camp fire. As the air temperature goes up due to climate change, snow in the mountains melts out earlier in the year and increases the length of the fire season. Once the snow is gone, higher temperatures continue to make vegetation more flammable by drying it out. High air temperature means the more water is evaporating from the soil and dead vegetation and that live plants are using more water (transpiration) to photosynthesize. Human-caused climate change is responsible for approximately half of the fuel drying in the western US. So now we’ve got high temperatures making vegetation available to burn for a longer part of the year and making it more flammable by drying it out. But wait, there’s more…
The other climate change effect is that nighttime temperatures are remaining high. This is important for fire behavior and firefighting. When the temperature drops at night and the relative humidity increases, fire behavior tends to calm down. This is typically when much progress is made by wildland firefighters in containing the fire. With high nighttime temperatures, we are now seeing fires spread faster at night.
There are some forests that used to burn every few years to decades before we started putting fires out. This has increased fuels in these forest types and in some cases harvesting smaller trees to reduce the chance that fire burns through the forest canopy will reduce the chance of a large, hot fire. However, we also have to return more frequent fires to these forest types. If all we do is cut down smaller trees, we’re putting a band-aid on the situation because fuels will just build back up.
There are other forest types, like lodgepole pine forests, that are supposed to burn infrequently and when they do, they burn hot. The 1988 Yellowstone fires are a classic example. When these forests burn every 100-300 years, that is natural. Fire suppression has not drastically altered these forests and thinning to reduce the chance of a large, hot wildfire is not appropriate.
Human behavior creates three main problems when it comes to wildfire. The first is that humans cause many wildfires. We have increased the number of ignitions and because of the timing of the ignitions, increased the length of the fire season. The second problem that we’ve created is that we like to build houses in flammable environments and don’t take responsibility for managing the risks around our properties by building with non-flammable material and maintaining a fuel buffer around our homes and communities. This map shows where the wildland urban interface is located in the continental US. We like to live in beautiful places and that puts us at risk. The third problem is that we don’t want to have a bunch of smoke in the air from fires. Now, that’s like buying a house next to a freeway and getting pissed off when you hear traffic noise. Estimates of area burned in California before the 1800s suggest most of the state is quite flammable. If 6,900 square miles were burning each year, California was probably a pretty smokey place. For comparison, there are roughly 1015 square miles burning in California today (8/13/2018) and the smoke analysis looks like this:
The basic facts of the matter is that we are facing a challenge that we have created through human-caused climate change, fire suppression, and not thinking through our actions. Any solution that we develop will require addressing all three of these factors if it is going to be successful.
Note: This was originally submitted to the LA Times and rejected.
Unfortunately, “A wildfire plan that makes things worse” has misrepresented a number of the findings from the scientific community that provide the basis for the Forest Carbon Plan and Governor Brown’s proposal.
Governor Brown’s May 10 proposal represents a forward-looking policy response to the challenges facing California’s forests and communities. The forests of the Sierra Nevada are facing a number of challenges including hotter temperatures, drought, insect outbreaks, and uncharacteristic wildfire. Numerous scientific studies in the Sierra Nevada have documented that mid- and low-elevation forests were historically maintained by frequent surface and mixed-severity fires that killed individual or small groups of trees. The forests we have today are the result of a century of fire suppression. The large wildfires burning today are uncharacteristic for these forests because they kill large patches of trees. Large, hot wildfires negatively impact wildlife habitat for some species like the California spotted owl and Pacific fisher, they kill the vegetation on steep slopes that stabilizes soil and protects water quality, and they decrease the amount of carbon that these forests remove from the atmosphere and store. Large patches of fire-killed trees can be a source of carbon to the atmosphere for decades, contributing to climate change. Studies across the western US show that as global warming has increased, the fire season has gotten longer. More large wildfires are occurring across the west and in California. With continued warming, we expect this trend to continue.
Many studies have demonstrated that we can reduce the risk of large, tree-killing wildfires by using a combination of thinning and prescribed fire. In some locations, such as adjacent to communities thinning prior to burning is required to reduce fire hazard. In other locations, fire alone can do the necessary work to restore these forests. Thinning can in fact remove many trees, but the type of thinning the Governor’s proposal includes is focused on small trees. This is an important point because large trees remove more carbon from the atmosphere and store more carbon than small trees. Further, trees compete for resources and when there is a drought and large trees are competing with small trees for water, they become stressed and more susceptible to insects and death. California’s most recent drought demonstrated this fact, with 102 million dead trees in the Sierra.
Hanson and Miller also misrepresent our scientific understanding of forests, fire, and carbon. While true that only a small fraction of a live tree killed by wildfire is combusted during the fire, they do not acknowledge the basic fact that live trees remove carbon from the atmosphere and dead trees emit carbon to the atmosphere.
My research group has conducted studies at both the watershed scale and for the entire Sierra Nevada to evaluate the influence of these treatment options on the ability of the forest to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it. Our results show that thinning and burning treatments do reduce the amount of carbon stored in the forest in the near-term. However, over time a more natural forest condition stores much more carbon than the overly-dense forests we currently have. The two determining factors are the proportion of trees killed by wildfire and the size of harvested trees.
When we reduce tree density and restore surface and mixed-severity fire, we significantly reduce the chance of a large, tree-killing wildfire. When wildfire burns through treated forest, many more trees survive the fire and continue helping to regulate the climate by removing carbon from the atmosphere. Our research demonstrates that because we expect more wildfire with more climate change, implementing these treatments over a larger area at a faster pace leads to lower total wildfire emissions and more carbon stored in Sierran forests.
Investing in reducing the risk of large, tree-killing wildfires in the Sierra Nevada carries both ecological and societal benefits. The scientific community has done the research to identify management options that will benefit forests.
Governor Brown’s proposal is based on decades of scientific research. It acknowledges that the climate is changing and that California’s forests will be significantly challenged by continued warming. The proposal also recognizes the role of California’s forests in regulating the climate and that forest management based on scientific evidence can help sustain these forests and the services that they provide to society.