Michigan Tech researcher forges ahead with global warming research

Using a project called TRACE, Molly Cavaleri studies the effects that climate changes are likely to have on tropical forests worldwide.
A couple handfuls of tree species exist in these parts--sugar maples, white pines, red pines and aspen all sound familiar, right?

But you may have never heard of the kapoks, durians, mangroves or tualang trees--a small example of the species growing in tropical forests across the world.

"There is so much diversity among them," says Molly Cavaleri. "There are literally hundreds of different species growing in the tropical forests."

Cavaleri, of Michigan Technological University's School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, is an ecophysiologist who spends her life's work examining the ways ecosystems respond to climate change.

Since Cavaleri was a small child, trees have fascinated her.

"I climbed them all the time and have always liked to be around trees. Now I get to do that for a living."

She's part of a team that, thanks to a three-year $960,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and additional support from the U.S. Forest Service, gets to do so in the Tropical Response to Altered Climate Experiment (TRACE), located within the 28,000-acre El Yunque Rain Forest. El Yunque is a cool, mountainous, subtropical rainforest located on the eastern side of the Luquillo Mountains in Puerto Rico.

If this project sounds like a big deal, well, it is.

"This is the first field experiment of its kind ever done in a tropical forest," she says.  "We will be manipulating the environment, warming the leaves and branches of the canopy as well as the smaller plants on the forest floor, not just observing."

The rest of her scientific team consists of other research ecologists to head the study. They are Tana Wood, of the Puerto Rico Conservation Foundation and adjunct scientist with the U.S. Forest Service International Institute of Tropical Forestry, and Sasha Reed from the U.S. Geological Survey. Eoin Brodie of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will collaborate to help the three work together with their graduate students and conducting research.

"It's unusual for three early-career women to be spearheading a project of this size and significance," says Cavaleri, who is 39.

Michigan Tech graduate student Alida Mau is already in Puerto Rico, taking measurements in the forest. Cavaleri and her colleagues, when they make the trip again, will heat the soil and small trees on the forest floor with infrared lamps. They'll string warming cables under the leaves of the canopy of full-grown trees, to collect data they'll use to measure the responses of leaves, roots, and soil to the warming that she feels is happening at an alarming rate.

Once they have warmed the trees and measured the changes, the teams will use the data to help develop better predictive models of the effects of climate change on tropical forests, an effort funded by the USGS Powell Center.

"The data will help us understand what is happening globally and what is likely to happen in the future," Cavaleri says.

"Michigan Tech's School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science is doing quite a bit of research on the impacts of climate change, but her work in the rain forests is unique," says Jennifer Donovan, director of news and media relations at Tech.. "Michigan Tech is working hard to recruit outstanding women to our faculty, and Dr. Cavaleri is a perfect example of the kind of woman we want teaching and doing research at Michigan Tech."

Kelle Barr is a Michigan-based freelance reporter who can be reached at Kellebarr@gmail.com or on Twitter at @BarrKelle.
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