Professor Christine O'Connell

Christine O’Connell, Environmental Studies

I’m an ecosystem ecologist. I study how nutrients, carbon, water, and energy move around ecosystems. My lab looks at two big questions. Broadly, we’re interested in how a changing climate is pushing terrestrial ecosystems and shifting them, and how human changes to ecosystems interact with the climate system.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, I had hired several students who were planning on spending the summer in Puerto Rico working on a really exciting, internationally known project called TRACE (Tacking Real-Time Atmospheric Carbon Emissions). The core research question being, if the planet is warming, what does that mean for how these forests work? Is that going to feed back into the climate system?

Because of the pandemic, that trip wasn’t safe or advisable. Instead, my students tackled some of those questions through data sets or asked questions about our local environment. 

I had two students who asked about landscaping at Macalester and whether or not our landscape can be shifted to take up more carbon. They asked questions about land management and Macalester, whether or not there’s an opportunity to advance our institutional mission about combating climate change.

Another student studied the fallout from Hurricane Maria. She used public data and data that we have from previous experiments to ask some core questions about how a major hurricane disturbance shifted this ecosystem and what that might mean for climate. 

We know that Hurricane Maria should have been a once-in-50-years hurricane. But we also know that because of climate change, hurricanes are becoming potentially more severe and also potentially more frequent. So what does that mean for ecosystems? And relatedly, what does that mean for human well-being? 

We’re not ready to publish the findings, but I would say our initial results indicate that Hurricane Maria and other similar and large hurricanes shift the carbon cycle dramatically.

September 16 2020

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