Three decades of research, 145 publications (including two books), 15 graduate students, leadership in scientific organizations, invited talks around the world, and two collaborative entities that facilitate scientific synthesis—it’s a lot to pack into one career. But USGS research ecologist and Colorado State University senior scientist Jill Baron isn’t finished yet.
Since 1981, Dr. Baron has conducted research on the effects of atmospheric deposition (especially nitrogen deposition) on alpine lakes and surrounding ecosystems in the Loch Vale watershed in Rocky Mountain National Park. The foundation for this research is the Loch Vale long-term ecological research and monitoring program, established by Dr. Baron. While Loch Vale provides a site for in-depth, place-based research, Dr. Baron is also involved in national and international initiatives to convey the effects of reactive nitrogen on ecosystems, identify ways for public land managers to prepare for and adapt to climate change, and address the complex interactions of global changes to mountain ecosystems. She is a founding investigator of the Western Mountain Initiative, a multi-agency group of scientists who conduct research to understand and predict the responses of Western mountain ecosystems to climatic variability and change. As a member of the USGS Science Strategy Team, she helped create and now co-directs the John Wesley Powell Center for Earth System Science Analysis and Synthesis. She talks to scientists worldwide as well as school kids and hiking clubs, and provides interviews to scientific and popular media via print, radio, and film. She seems never to stop. But to her, it’s not just about conducting the science and producing data; it’s also about communicating the findings in a way that inspires action and generates solutions. “Being a scientist is both a privilege and a responsibility,” she says. "Scientific knowledge drives us to seek solutions and promote better stewardship of our natural resources.”
Her work has not gone unnoticed. The U.S. Department of the Interior honored Dr. Baron with the Meritorious Service Award in 2002, the second highest Departmental award that can be granted to a career employee. The award recognized her long-term ecosystem studies in Loch Vale, which “encompassed complex ecological questions with implications that are regional and national in scope. This effort has generated [many publications], advanced-degree student projects, and interdisciplinary collaborations.”
In early 2012, Dr. Baron was honored with two National Park Service (NPS) awards. She is recipient of the 2012 NPS Intermountain Region Regional Director's Natural Resource Award for “research in air quality, nutrient cycling and climate change that applies locally to internationally, work that has been instrumental in applying research findings to challenges in NPS management.” Dr. Baron also received the 2011 Rocky Mountain National Park Stewardship Award “for cooperative efforts advancing the long-term protection of Rocky Mountain National Park.” Looking forward, Dr. Baron was recently elected President of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), the world’s largest professional society for the science of ecology. Her three-year tenure on the Governing Board begins in August 2012.
Where did all this achievement come from?
From Acid Rain to Melting Glaciers: Interactions of Ecosystem Drivers
Inspired by her high school biology teacher, Dr. Baron’s initial “professional” goal was to “work in nice places and use science to help protect them.” She has done that, and much more.
Baron began volunteering for the NPS at Great Smoky Mountains National Park while a student at Cornell University. She pursued a Master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin in land resources, conducting her thesis work at Gulf Islands National Seashore. In 1981, as a full-time employee with the NPS Air and Water Quality Division, she moved to its Water Resources Research Laboratory at Colorado State University (CSU) in Fort Collins, Colo., and began to study acid rain effects in Rocky Mountain National Park. The work evolved into investigating alpine and subalpine ecosystem responses to global change, using the Loch Vale watershed as a long-term study site.
Dr. Baron’s Ph.D. dissertation described the first ten years of Loch Vale watershed research and was published by Springer-Verlag as a book in 1992. Since then, she and her students and collaborators have documented how atmospheric nitrogen deposition is affecting the Park’s physical and living resources, causing changes that are on a trajectory leading to acidification. These papers and her quantification in 2006 of nitrogen “critical loads” (thresholds below which ecosystem changes are unlikely to occur) led to a memorandum of understanding between the NPS, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and the Environmental Protection Agency to set target loads for reducing nitrogen emissions to improve ecological conditions. This was the first application of a critical load to protect a national park environment.
Beyond Rocky Mountain National Park, recent collaborations have helped to set empirical critical loads for ecosystems all over the United States. And theoretical work using ecosystem models suggests that climate change interacts with nitrogen deposition in different ways, depending on location and historical land use. In Loch Vale, glaciers and other ice features retreat in response to summer warming in some years. In addition to more water flowing downstream, glacier decline has been accompanied by a large increase in lake and stream nitrogen that is not directly related to atmospheric nitrogen deposition. This phenomenon, a topic of continuing study, adds nitrogen to already nitrogen-rich systems, but also complicates scientists’ ability to determine the effectiveness of nitrogen deposition reduction efforts as part of the Colorado Nitrogen Deposition Reduction Plan.
As an ecosystem ecologist, Dr. Baron views processes as the interactions between multiple forces and multiple physical, chemical, and biological responses. People are clearly in the mix, as society both creates environmental change and responds to it. In this vein, Dr. Baron co-authored Global change and the world’s mountains: Research needs and emerging themes for sustainable development. The paper summarizes the results of the Global Change and the World’s Mountains 2010 conference in Scotland to determine (1) the state of the science, (2) emerging themes as directions for future research, and (3) the contribution of mountain research to sustainable development globally.
And here we arrive at a key motivating force for Dr. Baron: using science to foster sustainable human societal–environmental interactions.
It’s About the People
One overarching concern for Dr. Baron is that science be applied in seeking solutions that will both “enhance ecosystem resilience and provide for and sustain the world’s population.” To do this requires interactions across geographic boundaries as well as scientific disciplines.
In a recent interview with Dr. Connie Millar of Mountain Views (pp. 34-35), the newsletter of the Consortium for Integrated Climate Research in Western Mountains (CIRMOUNT), Dr. Baron stated, “As an ecosystem ecologist I know the complex issues facing society can only be addressed through collaboration. The synthesis of ideas from many disciplines and experiences allows us to learn from each other, to develop a kind of collective intelligence that I think leads to faster breakthroughs in understanding. I have the most fun pulling together great teams so we can do that.”
This she has demonstrated in myriad ways, including co-founding two collaborative settings, the Western Mountain Initiative and the USGS John Wesley Powell Center for Earth System Science Analysis and Synthesis. The Western Mountain Initiative is a collaborative effort of USGS, U.S. Forest Service, and university researchers who work together to understand and predict the effects of climate change on mountain ecosystems over space and time. Mountain regions cover about 25 percent of Earth’s surface and provide important goods and services to society, including 30–40 percent of all fresh water, hotspots of biodiversity, forest products, protected areas for recreation and habitat, and a sink for terrestrial carbon.
“Because of their high sensitivity to environmental and socioeconomic drivers, mountains make excellent laboratories for discerning the early effects of ecosystem changes,” she explains. “This has certainly been the case in the Loch Vale watershed. The rapid, and sometimes irreversible, changes we observe in mountains can be used to highlight the urgency for better stewardship, but also the successes we can achieve if we put our knowledge to good use.”
Dr. Baron also is the founder and co-director of the USGS John Wesley Powell Center for Earth System Science Analysis and Synthesis. Housed at FORT, the Powell Center catalyzes innovative thinking by supporting collaborative scientific Working Groups that address large-scale, complex problems. The idea is to “spark interactions that turn mature information into understanding.” Since the first call for proposals in February 2010, the Powell Center has reviewed 63 proposals and supported 15 Working Groups. High-profile papers in journals such as Nature Climate Change are among the early products. Working Groups address issues as diverse as ecosystem resilience, mercury cycling, effects of hydraulic fracturing on water resources, effects of climate change on avian breeding success, and global croplands and their water use in relation to food security.
Turning Knowledge into Action
Dr. Baron’s scientific reputation has resulted in many invitations to speak nationally and internationally. In every venue, her presentations convey the science behind a nitrogen or climate change phenomenon as well as the observed or possible consequences. In December 2010, she moderated an international panel of experts describing "Options for Including Nitrogen Management in Climate Policy Development," at the United Nations Climate Change Convention in Copenhagen (COP10). She has also given testimony to Congress on western acid rain issues and briefings to congressional staff members on effects of climate change on western water resources. Other presentations have centered around adaptation options that help build capacity in preparing for the unanticipated effects that climate change will impose on natural systems.
Regardless of the topic, she maintains: “You have to have the big picture in mind to know where you’re going. But to achieve that, you also need to be able to see the parts and choose those that will get you where you’re trying to go.”
As ESA President, Dr. Baron will be able to take advantage of opportunities to communicate the importance of bringing science to bear on ecological problems that affect nature and society alike. She writes, “The Ecological Society of America is a tremendously effective vehicle for discharging our [scientific] responsibility to society…. Ecologists explore the organisms and processes that make up the living world, but we also evaluate the environmental and societal consequences of human activities. For many of us, this knowledge drives us to seek solutions and promote better stewardship of our natural resources. [Along with] the funding that supports our science comes the expectation that we will give back to the public that subsidizes us.”
Dr. Baron edited a second book, Rocky Mountain Futures, published in 2002. Ten years later she and the other contributing scientists acknowledge the hubris of forecasting: then, land-use change was identified as the greatest threat to natural ecosystems in the Rocky Mountains. Now, increasingly rapid climate change, extensive forest mortality, economic decline, and rapid acceleration of unconventional energy development are major influences on Rocky Mountain ecosystems, but these were scarcely mentioned in 2002.
“Any kind of research that predicts change is an exercise in humility, because you constantly have to revise your view of the world,” she notes. “Surprises continually happen. Surprises are intellectually exciting, but they are challenging to manage.”
She adds one more thought, this one for scientists and citizens alike:
“Our planet is finite. Individual and collective actions can make a huge difference in protecting what we have left for future generations. Margaret Mead is quoted as saying, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.’ Humans are a major driving force behind the ecological changes we are seeing on this planet. But, as individuals and as societies we can also be the drivers of reversing or mitigating those changes over time.”