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Ph.D. Candidate Molly H. Polk Receives National Science Foundation Grant for Peru Research

Posted: September 9, 2013
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We are proud to announce that Molly H. Polk, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography and the Environment, is the recipient of a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant. Under the supervision of Professor Kenneth R. Young, Molly is focusing on the changing spatial and temporal dynamics of unique wetlands inside Peru’s Huascarán National Park. Using a mixed method approach never before applied to high altitude peatlands, the project explores how high mountain landscapes are impacted by glacier recession. Molly is collaborating with botanist Asunción Cano of the Museo de Historia Natural at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima. Molly and Asunción recently returned from extensive vegetation and soil sampling in Huascarán National Park at elevations over 4,000 meters. This summer she led a field training module on mountain mire ecology in the Park as part of the Glacial Flooding and Disaster Risk Management Knowledge Exchange and Field Training workshop organized by the High Mountain Glacial Watershed Program and funded by USAID and The Mountain Institute. The workshop was attended by scientists from the United States as well as Peru, Nepal, Bhutan, Tajikistan, Krgyzstan, Japan, Bolivia, and Switzerland.

 Award Abstract:

 This doctoral dissertation research project will examine the changing spatial and temporal dynamics of tropical high-elevation peatlands. A unique type of wetland, peatlands store large volumes of water and carbon. Because of these ecosystem functions, understanding the role of peatlands in the context of global environmental change is increasingly important. In the Andes Mountains of South America, high-elevation peatlands are experiencing hydrological change caused by climate-induced glacier recession. This doctoral dissertation research project aims to address two research objectives in Peru's Cordillera Blanca. First, the doctoral student will characterize the extent of temporal and spatial peatland change from 1987 to 2011. Second, she will identify the environmental variables that explain patterns of peatland vegetation composition. The project will be accomplished by bridging in situ vegetation sampling with remote sensing and geographical information science techniques. These methods will demonstrate the relationship and impact of glacier recession on a tropical mountain ecosystem. By describing the ecology and critical environmental variables that explain peatland vegetation, the project will answer scientific calls to fill a knowledge gap regarding an ecosystem type that is directly experiencing the effects of global environmental change.

The intellectual merit of this project is that it will integrate mountain geography and wetland science to investigate the ecology and spatio-temporal dynamics of tropical high-elevation peatlands thereby advancing scientific knowledge about a unique and important ecosystem. Using a mixed-methods approach not previously used to study high-elevation peatlands, this project will produce findings relevant to peatlands globally, and it will demonstrate how high mountain landscapes can be impacted by global environmental change. The expected significant scientific findings of this study will be relevant to many other wetland ecosystems that are spatially and temporally linked to glaciers, such as peatlands in the mountains of east Africa, the Himalayas, and in boreal latitudes. The project will facilitate collaborations between U.S. and Peruvian researchers, distribution of findings in English and Spanish, and workshops with stakeholders. Wetland mapping results will be shared with Peru's environmental ministry for inclusion in the national wetland inventory. Research products and will be permanently stored and accessible to the public through the University of Texas Library Digital Repository. As a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement award, this project will provide support to enable a promising student to establish an independent research career.

NSF Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, Geography and Spatial Sciences

Award Number 1333141

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