[National Geographic] It's not often an ecologist gets to play sleuth in so adventurous a fashion—picking through musty papers in the Midwest for 100-year-old hand-drawn maps that lead through dense Alaskan underbrush populated by wolves and brown bears. But that's how scientist Brian Buma tracked down the work of a legend—a godfather of modern ecology so prominent in his field that the Ecological Society of America has an award named after him.
Buma, a University of Alaska, Southeast, assistant professor, was hunting for nine tiny patches of land in the enormous wilderness of Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park. These square-meter-sized plots first mapped in 1916 by botanist William Skinner Cooper were central to one of the longest-running natural experiments in science, and to our understanding one of the most-studied and dynamic places in the country.
Cooper knew the rich history of Glacier Bay, had read the expedition diaries of Capt. George Vancouver from the 18th century, had followed naturalist John Muir's canoe trips, when Muir compared its geology to Yosemite Valley's. Cooper even had led the charge to have the region declared a national monument, 55 years before it became a national park in 1980.
But the hidden patches where Cooper had done groundbreaking work that still makes it into college textbooks somehow had been lost to time. Buma aimed to find it.
"I grew up with Indiana Jones and I've always liked discovery and finding old things, chasing down forgotten places, pushing the boundaries," Buma says. "This had it all."
So, last summer, a century after Cooper began, Buma carted historical photos, a metal detector, and bear mace, and, funded by a National Geographic grant, he uncovered Cooper's worksites. Now he's using them to reframe our thinking about the surprising ways plant communities may shift with climate change. In a paper published Thursday by the Ecological Society of America, he showed, as Cooper before him, that as glacial ice in the bay recedes faster than almost anywhere on Earth, new shrubs and forests are springing up, just not as simply and uniformly as one might expect. Read More