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Undergraduate research scholars tackle issues relevant to Great Lakes communities

As participants in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Undergraduate Research Scholars (URS) program know, it’s never too soon to gain exposure to the kind of research that goes on at a large university.

The URS program is designed as a two-semester course aimed at first- and second-year students. Participants take a weekly seminar and are paired with a research mentor who guides them as they conduct an original research project. Near the conclusion of the academic year, students present their research at a symposium.

While the COVID-19 pandemic meant that students finished out this spring semester at their permanent homes rather than on campus—and that the typical in-person symposium was replaced by virtual presentations—it still proved to be a valuable experience for two students mentored by Wisconsin Sea Grant Assistant Director for Extension David Hart.

Rykia Amos of Washington, D.C., and Celeste Gunderson of Milwaukee each zeroed in on challenging topics. We checked in with both to hear about their experiences.

Rykia Amos

Topic: A process to prioritize where to plant trees to decrease future stream temperatures to protect brook trout in the Black Earth Creek watershed

Rykia Amos (Submitted photo)

A wildlife ecology major, Amos went into her trout project as someone more focused on mammals. Yet, she said, “I realized I was a lot more interested in looking at fish than I expected.”

Trout fishing is a popular activity that also carries significant economic value in Wisconsin. Yet climate change projections and warming streams are worrisome. Said Amos, “They’re (brook trout) a very vulnerable species because most of them currently live in cold-water conditions.”

If the climate continues to warm as current scientific projections say, what will that mean for fish like the brook trout and brown trout?

Amos focused on the role played by tree cover and whether that can help mitigate warming temperatures in certain stream segments, to the benefit of the fish. “Data shows that tree planting is a cost-efficient and effective way to help temperatures decrease,” said Amos.

She used data from a U.S. Geological Survey program called FishVis to populate a spreadsheet of stream segments in the Black Earth Creek watershed, located west of Madison. She looked at both present conditions and projected conditions for the period 2046-2065.

Important variables that she considered were where the stream was projected to change from a colder to warmer temperature regime and where brook trout populations were being replaced by brown trout, which can tolerate warmer temperatures. She concluded by assessing the existing tree canopy and developing a formula to prioritize the variables.

At semester’s end, Amos presented her research first to Hart and Sea Grant Fisheries Specialist Titus Seilheimer. She then gave a separate presentation to Matt Mitro, a research scientist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Mitro had given input earlier in the semester, suggesting to Amos that she compare brook and brown trout.

Even though she’d prefer to focus on hands-on fieldwork in the future, Amos said, the computer modeling she undertook for her research gave her a window into a real-life challenge posed by climate change in our region. This work has relevance for the protection of ecosystems as well as the recreational fishing that many Wisconsinites love.

Said Hart, “I think there’s a lot of promise for this prioritization of the areas where you could plant tree cover and it would make a difference to decrease stream temperatures. As far as methods went, it was a great proof of concept.”

Going forward, this work could be expanded upon by adding more variables to the modeling, such as land ownership (which could impact the feasibility of tree planting). Hart has begun to look into a tool for constructing 3D tree canopy models from LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data and thinking about how that could come into play. “I wouldn’t have thought of this if I hadn’t worked with Rykia on this project,” he said.

Celeste Gunderson

Topic: Geodesign to guide green infrastructure practices for stormwater management in a changing climate

Celeste Gunderson (Submitted photo)

Gunderson, a resident of Milwaukee’s east side, examined an issue that is literally close to home for her: the impacts of climate change on residents of Great Lakes communities, and how increased precipitation events and severe weather affect lives and property.

It’s an issue her family faced in 2008, when Milwaukee endured widespread flooding caused by heavy precipitation. “It had a lot of effects on the foundation of our house,” said Gunderson, “and we had to get construction done… We’ve already felt the effects of increased precipitation and severe weather events.”

Gunderson is double majoring in environmental studies and people-environment geography. She explored mitigation strategies using a tool called GeoPlanner for ArcGIS, a geographic information systems product that allows users to create and analyze various planning scenarios.

With guidance from Hart and graduate project assistant Kayla Wandsnider, said Gunderson, “We looked at how geodesign—which is a process using GIS technology to look at different planning scenarios—could be used to then guide green infrastructure practices for stormwater management” in the part of the UW-Madison campus that drains to Willow Creek, specifically with an increase in precipitation.

She gave her stakeholder presentation to UW-Madison’s Rhonda James, a senior landscape architect, and Aaron Williams, an assistant planner and zoning coordinator. Both are with the campus Division of Facilities Planning and Management.

Gunderson will continue working on this topic over the summer as a Wisconsin Sea Grant intern.

Said Hart, “Celeste will be a real help. She made a great connection with Kayla, and together they will be able to bounce ideas off of each other and it will also magnify Kayla’s work” as a graduate student with a double focus on urban and regional planning and water resources management. “I think that the methods developed out of this [project] will be really useful for coastal communities.”

Continuing to focus on this area will also be gratifying for the Milwaukeean. Concluded Gunderson, “Sometimes you learn the science behind climate change, and this project explores the direct impacts and ways we’re going to have to adapt in the future… It felt very relevant and important, and that made it a very fulfilling experience.”