|By Brandi Bernoskie,
Institute for Global Environmental Strategies
Jeff Masek does not mind a mess – whether it is dirt or data – so a career in archeology seemed like the right choice when he started college. Masek enjoyed the history that archeological digs turned up. Archeologists and historians, after all, have to sort through a lot of complicated, disorganized information to find the story that weaves it together.
To help prepare for fieldwork, Masek took a course in geology. There, he discovered that humans were not the only subjects of stories: the Earth had a rich, dynamic history as well. “It was astonishing how events millions of years ago could be reconstructed from geologic observations, and how the physical and chemical processes of the Earth ultimately controlled the evolution of life itself,” Masek remembers. “After that I was hooked on geology.”
Over time, Masek has found that he is still working on history. “I’m constantly looking back in time to see how landscapes have changed,” Masek says.
However, his research has taken a direction, shifting away from plate tectonics to mapping vegetation dynamics using satellite data.
Jeff Masek traveled to Siberia in 2006, where he and others measured tree heights. Credit: NASA
Understanding how plants change due to an increase in carbon in the atmosphere may help scientists more accurately understand what our Earth may look like under future climate change. Plants play a key role in the carbon cycle, taking in and transforming carbon. “By understanding how vegetation is being affected by a warming climate,” Masek says, “we can prepare for a very different Earth than we are used to.”
One of Masek’s recent projects had him examining the effects of warming temperatures on vegetation patterns in northern Quebec. For this, he used time series images from Landsat, a NASA mission that uses satellites to study the Earth from space; Landsat recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. The team Masek was part of showed that vegetated leaf area has expanded dramatically as the climate has warmed. Ecosystems usually change very slowly, so to find such a rapid response to long-term changes was unusual. “Dealing with real data is messy,” Masek says, “so it’s great when you get such a clear signal of ecosystem change, and can readily ascribe it to a single origin.”
Accomplishments like finding the meaning behind complicated data or learning something new about the Earth that no one has measured before are the ones Masek enjoys most. “Those sorts of “A-ha” moments are really rare,” Masek says, “but extremely rewarding.”
While Masek knows the importance of history, he is more excited about adding new content to mankind’s body of knowledge. “I always enjoyed doing my own research much more,” he says. Some science classes may be more fun than others, but science’s real reward is that anyone can contribute to our understanding of the world. Students need to build strong foundations in sciences and humanities, but they should also challenge themselves to discover new stories that the Earth and its inhabitants have to tell.