Wildfire driven landscape change
With a Bachelors degree in English, a Masters in Public Health, another Masters in Environmental Science, a PhD in Geography, and a post doc in both forest and wildlife ecology and biology, Dr. Alexandra Syphard, Senior Research Scientist at CBI, is well suited to study the inter-connected and diverse issues related to global and landscape change.
In fact, even her graduate studies demonstrated the inter-play between issues. Her initial focus of wetlands and the vegetation changes that occur from both beavers and development, sparked an interest in landscape change overall, especially driven by wildfire, the research she’s most well known for.
“Fire, “ Syphard said, “is just one thing that changes landscapes.”
Syphard, also an adjunct professor at San Diego State University, delved deeply into fire research when she moved to San Diego, California from Virginia and fell in love with the ecology and ecosystems of California.
“If you care about California ecology, you have to care about fire,” Syphard said.
Syphard’s fire science research and publications, often California focused, are featured frequently in the news. She’s been interviewed for newspapers, radio and TV, and was recently quoted in Wired’s article “The West is on Fire. Blame the Housing Crisis”. In June 2017 she was invited to speak at a House of Representatives wildfire science briefing, and will return to speak to the Senate in October. Her presentation, “The growing interface between people and wildfires. How do we keep communities safe?” can be watched here.
She’s also received invitations to present her research internationally and collaborate with international scientists. In January 2017, she traveled to Spain, a country whose Mediterranean climate and ecology resembles that of California, to present at the XIV MEDECOS & XII AEET international conference in Seville, Spain. Her presentation was titled “Are fire risk reduction and biodiversity conservation competing or compatible objectives in fire-prone landscapes?” In June 2017, Syphard returned to Spain as one of 20 scientists from around the world invited to attend a workshop regarding fire and biodiversity modeling in Solsona, Spain. This workshop, funded by The University of Melbourne, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions and the Forest Sciences Centre of Catalonia, brought together scientists and researchers from nearly 10 different countries to share insights into the relationship between fire and biodiversity and how fire is being studied. Though the scientists represent different countries, they face similar challenges surround scientific methods, access to science and science communications. As a result of the workshop, the group is putting together several synthesis papers, global in scope, to highlight those challenges and make recommendations. Syphard hopes there will be on-going collaboration among the international scientists moving forward.
2017 has been called a global fire phenomenon with many parts of the world facing their worst fire season in years. Wildfire news, from Portgual to Greenland to British Colombia, has made headlines. Syphard says we have a lot to learn from other countries. Their problems may be different than ours, but some of the solutions, like smarter land use planning, are similar.
Though Syphard is a well- known fire scientist, she doesn’t draw satisfaction from the prestige associated with people recognizing her or being familiar with her work. To her, it’s about making an impact scientifically and on the ground, to help decision-makers make choices that lead to healthier ecosystems and safer communities. “What really drives me is the hope that what I’m doing has a reach. It’s crunching numbers and looking at the data and thinking, ‘Wow, I have new information here to share that is really important.’”