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When Looking Forward Requires Looking Back: Historical Ecology at the San Francisco Estuary Institute

Aug 10 2016

Image: Cattails at dawn in Big Break Park. Taken on a photo assignment in the San Joaquin Delta earlier this summer.
 

By Kate Roberts
B.S., Earth Systems, 2017
Resilient Landscapes Intern at the San Francisco Estuary Institute

The pages feel fragile in my hands, browned and brittle with age, as I carefully leaf through them. Flyers from the Sebastopol Apple Festival, postcards from Santa Rosa, newspapers from Petaluma, each carefully inspected and skimmed before moving onto the next. Every once in a while, something will grab my eye, a sentence about flooding, soil, or irrigation, and I’ll snap a picture of the page, before moving on to the next piece of history. It’s my third day at the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI), and I already feel deeply immersed in the history of the Petaluma River, buried deep in the stacks of Sonoma State University.

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I’m working with SFEI’s Resilient Landscapes Program this summer on a number of projects. In order to restore a landscape or ecosystem, scientists need to know what a “restored” ecosystem would look like, and how it would function. One way that SFEI decided do this is through Historical Ecology (Check out more info in this this New York Times article). It involves digging through dozens of archives and historical documents. Sentences here and there are compiled with maps and other pieces of data to create an image of both how the landscape looked, and also of the important ecosystem functions that could help this region adapt to climate change. One such project is the Petaluma River, and I’ve been working on collecting data from archives, book searches and online databases on everything from the river itself to its tributaries and marshes.

The program also works with many other organizations to combine modern data with advanced tools and cultural knowledge to reshape other landscapes around the bay. One such project is a plan to plant Oak trees in Santa Clara County, once a vast Oak Savannah, now a bustling city. I’ve been helping collect and compile data on the species that would be impacted by bringing the Oaks back. Oaks are incredibly important for biodiversity, hosting hundreds of native species from birds to mammals to butterflies. I’ve been using online databases like GBIF and Vertnet to find data to map how the species’ populations have shifted over the past years. Later on, we will use GIS to create visual maps of the species’ shifts, to better inform the planting of the Oaks. My typical day here varies from data analysis, transcribing and finding historical data, managing images for an upcoming report, getting lost in different libraries and archives, and sitting in on meetings with all sorts of different organizations around the bay. One day I even got to go out and take pictures for hours throughout the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta (see picture above)!

As an environmental scientist, I’ve found that I’m constantly looking ahead, thinking about climate change, development, invasive species, sea level rise, etc. But at SFEI, they’ve realized that sometimes the best way of preparing for the future is by studying the past. This is a totally different approach than I’ve ever thought about taking, and each day I feel like I’m learning more and more how important understanding the past is for making important environmental change for the future.

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