Student Stories: Forest Science major helps with forest fire, carbon research

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State student Celine Colbert spent last summer in the West assisting with research that may help to prevent severe wildfires.

Wildfires are a major worry these days after a recent series of vast fires in Yosemite, Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain national parks. Colbert, a senior majoring in forest science (management option), has been learning about the devastating effects of these disasters and ways to prevent them.

Colbert's passion for making a difference in the environment led her to work with a professor of forest resources in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences on projects that dealt with fire management impacts on carbon storage.

"Carbon levels in the atmosphere are reaching all time highs," the Pittsburgh native said. "We're looking at ways to sustainably manage them." Many scientists blame atmospheric carbon for global climate change.

Last summer, Colbert was assigned a project that involved using a computer model called the Forest Vegetation Simulator that allowed her to show what would happen if she thinned, control-burned or combined both treatments in a ponderosa pine forest outside of Camp Navajo, Ariz.

"The forests surrounding Camp Navajo are fire-dependent ecosystems that have been fire-suppressed through management technique for the past 100 years," she explained. "I simulated different management prescriptions to see the results on carbon storage and predicted out 100 years what would happen to the carbon in the forest."

In addition to her lab work, she also spent two weeks in California sampling soils for macroparticles of charcoal following a prescribed fire. According to Colbert, charcoal is a long-term way to store carbon, so these samples were crucial to the research.

"We were looking at the charcoal in soils surrounding burned logs compared to logs lying on the ground that had not been burned in prescribed fires," she said. "The soil samples we collected are now in the lab, and we are picking out the charcoal to measure it and analyze how much carbon is present."

Colbert's role in the research has inspired her to move her career in the direction of studying wildfires. She hopes to continue to learn how to prevent them and contribute to future research.

Learn about the Forest Ecosystem Management major at Penn State.
 

Contacts: 
Last Updated June 19, 2014