Throughout my experience as an undergraduate, I studied environmental change and spent a great deal of time learning about what the future on earth might look like – at least according to the predictions of modern science. Whether it’s the climate, wildlife populations or hurricane activity, modeling the future is a crucial component of contemporary earth and environmental science. Models help us understand how our planet is likely to respond to continued anthropogenic alterations and how to prioritize our response to these environmental changes. They directly inform the course of policy, management, and stewardship decisions, which collectively contribute to the environment’s well-being.
While I may already be familiar with the concept of forward-looking models, prior to this summer I hadn’t deeply considered the value of historical environmental information. As I’ve learned since becoming an intern with the San Francisco Estuary Institute’s (SFEI) Resilient Landscapes Program, uncovering an area’s environmental history allows scientists to holistically understand environmental change and in turn, to contribute to incredibly meaningful conservation initiatives.
My time with SFEI seems like it just begun, but I’ve been exposed to an array of projects that the organization is currently taking on. A hallmark of the Resilient Landscapes Program’s work is a kind of research known as “historical ecology.” Historical ecology is a powerful tool that provides a framework to investigate the characteristics of particular landscapes and ecosystems prior to significant modification by humans. A number of methods play a role in piecing together an area’s historical ecology – from digging through archives of historical photos, newspapers, and maps to analysis of aerial imagery dating back decades – the process of reconstructing an ecosystem’s appearance and function before human modification is a tall order.
I have contributed to a historical ecology study funded by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The project is looking at the land under the jurisdiction of the SFPUC just west of the I-280 corridor, encompassing the Crystal Springs and San Andreas Reservoirs. To facilitate an assessment of landscape change dating back to the mid 1800’s, I have utilized GIS, a spatial mapping program, to pinpoint the locations where historical photos of the area were taken from. I scrutinize each image, scanning for distinctive features in the photo, perhaps the peak of a mountain, an exposed rock formation or a road cut. I then review any additional information available such a written description of the landscape from photographer. Finally, I cross reference historical aerial imagery and Google Earth before placing a point into GIS representing my best guess on the photographer’s vantage point. Why go through this process? Ultimately, the goal is to rephotograph these same areas to facilitate side-by-side analysis of the historical and contemporary landscapes, a task that I am really looking forward to.
I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to better understand how historical information fits into modern conservation and stewardship. My experience in the short time that I’ve been with the organization thus far has redefined my sense of what underlies effective environmental conservation and provided new perspectives on what it’s like to work for a scientific non-profit. I am incredibly excited to see what the rest of the summer at SFEI has in store!
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