2023 Daffodil Lecture Examines Environmental Systems in a Warming Arctic
By Caelyn Nordman / Photos by Rob Skinner
Rebecca Hewitt, assistant professor of environmental studies at Amherst College, was the speaker for the Commonwealth Honors College’s annual Daffodil Lecture on Sustainability and the Environment. Hewitt’s research focuses on the environment hidden to the naked eye, meaning the ecology of interactions between below ground soils, microbes, and plant roots. Given the rapidly changing environments of the northern boreal and tundra ecosystems present in Alaska and Siberia, Hewitt focuses her research there, specifically on the mechanisms behind the advancing tree line in Alaska and forest regeneration in eastern Russia.
Before diving into the content of Hewitt’s lecture, dean Mari Castañeda explained the important history surrounding the Daffodil Lecture.
What is the Daffodil Lecture?
“The late dean Priscilla Clarkson was a strong advocate for sustainability, climate science, and the stewardship of Mother Earth, and it was she who began the tradition of planting daffodils in the community. We hold this lecture to honor her memory and her important role in overseeing the college during the time that the Commonwealth Honors College Residential Community was being built,” said Castañeda.
Why do we celebrate it at this time of year?
“Each year, we hold the Daffodil Lecture in the early spring around the time that the daffodils were planted by the Honors College Community slowly reappear, signifying the beginning of spring,” she explained.
Following this introduction, Hewitt took to the stage to present her talk.
The Ecological Lens: Harnessing Systems Knowledge to Steward Our Planet
Hewitt focused her lecture on the concept of systems thinking, a type of analysis that takes local context into account when using the scientific method to understand complex ecological problems.
“Systems thinking is referring to the cognitive paradigm that involves this implicit tendency of seeing connectedness between components of the Earth’s system, and it's through this interconnected relationship between humans and the natural world and economic structures that we really need to evaluate issues of concern and can actually look at those relationships as a means for taking a step forward.”
After that brief explanation, Hewitt then discussed the real world impact of her research and the implications of the rapid changing ecosystems existing in her terrain of interest.
"The importance of the greening of the Arctic is that it can actually increase the carbon storage capacity of the environment. As plants grow, they suck up carbon dioxide while they photosynthesize and can store that carbon in their plant blossoms, and part of this greening process is actually observed as a migration of tree species from the boreal forest into the tundra."
“Warming climates enable trees to migrate into light colored tundra in the summer months, and then the light colored tundra is easily covered up by snow in the winter months. The snow and light vegetation are really good at reflecting light back into space, whereas the dark vegetation absorbs heat and therefore can cause more amplified warming,” she added.
To wrap up her lecture, Hewitt reminded the audience of the importance of collaboration and connection, especially when attempting to tackle some of the world’s most complex problems.
“I want to emphasize the point that ecosystem science can illuminate system processes using connections, but within specific contexts, it's really important that local knowledge holders are contributing to the understanding of processes and connections, and also that the impacts that are being seen and playing an important role in management plans. It's really important to have good partnerships with people who can apply this knowledge on the ground and add to that knowledge base as well.”
The lecture was followed by a question and answer session for audience members.
Question and Answer session
What inspired you to enter this particular area of research and study?
“I learned about how important they are to things like carbon and nitrogen and it reinforced that idea that there are really important parts of the world system, they still are invisible. And so I wanted to see those I wanted to be able to just understand”
How do you maintain hope for the future?
“The smartest, most inspiring people that I know are working on this, and so I have a lot of hope in our ability to understand this problem more in the complexity of it and to come up with solutions just in a way because of the people that I know that are working on it."
“People are entering fields like environmental science and environmentalist policy with very different motivations,” she added.
Not only was Hewitt able to capture the attention of every young scientist in the audience, but she also inspired compassion in all with her deep appreciation for environments and ecosystems. She left her listeners with encouraging parting words.
"I want to end by saying, I really think it's important to take those pieces that energize you, and that can really be your means to contributing to a better understanding of the system and the context that we're living in."