Nature is dynamic.
Ecosystems across the globe are defined by their disturbance regimes — disturbances that can be caused by storms, floods, fire and species interactions. On September 1, an EF2 tornado spawned by Hurricane Ida proved to be a massive and devastating disturbance to Temple University Ambler.
"Disturbances can reset an entire ecosystem. Understanding resilience to disturbance is a cornerstone of contemporary ecology," said Dr. Amy Freestone, Director of the Temple Ambler Field Station. "As climate change alters the frequency and severity of storms and other natural events, disturbance regimes are changing. Understanding these dynamics can help predict and mitigate future impacts."
The aftermath of the tornado has also opened up a variety of research and educational opportunities, including new undergraduate and graduate Disturbance Ecology courses — Biology 3380 and Biology 5466 — that will be offered for the first time at Temple Ambler during the second half of the spring 2022 semester.
Offered by the Temple Biology Department in the College of Science and Technology, in association with the Temple Ambler Field Station, Disturbance Ecology focuses on "the conceptual foundations of disturbance ecology, while giving students hands-on opportunities to study disturbance dynamics in the field," said Dr. Mariana Bonfim, Research Assistant Professor with the Temple Ambler Field Station and the Department of Biology, who will be teaching the courses. Training in field methods and data analysis will be provided, she said.
"The Ambler Campus is uniquely positioned to provide these opportunities for real world study," she said. "This course will be taught at the Temple Ambler Field Station, within the natural areas that recently incurred damage from the tornado. Students should expect to be outdoors regularly, learning about ecological disturbance and recovery as it unfolds in these environments in real time."
According to Freestone, a disturbance is "anything in an ecosystem that removes or kills some of the biomass, the living material in an ecosystem."
"That's clearly what we have here in the aftermath of the tornado. We lost a lot of the tree biomass in the Temple Forest Observatory. Other disturbances are fire, which has been heavily studied, also floods, and insect outbreaks — invasive species like the emerald ash borer," she said. "Understanding disturbances is a core concept in ecology because disturbances are ubiquitous in ecosystems. The tornado, of course, was a very dramatic disturbance. It gives us a rare glimpse into a different type of disturbance than we would normally see in this section of the country."
The goal of the course, said Freestone "is to have students understand the conceptual foundations for disturbance ecology, how disturbance can play an important role in ecological systems and how ecosystems can recover, or not recover, from those disturbances."
"We want to give students a hands-on experience in the forest. Students will be collecting data and ultimately working with those data, working on class projects that enable them to experience the scientific process," she said. "I think this is a really unique opportunity to have a course that's infused with field experiences — not just working with abstract concepts but truly being able to see it in the field. Students will be with us when spring arrives and we get to see that initial regrowth in the forest — it will be a discovery experience for all of us. The students will share in that valuable experience in real time."
Freestone said students certainly don't need to be a biology major to take the courses. They are open to any student that is interested in this topic.
"We're excited to have students from different majors, different colleges working together," she said. "I think that will enrich the experience."
Bonfim said the Field Station want students to understand disturbance ecology concepts as they relate to both what has taken place on campus but also within the larger context of climate change.
"Disturbances are an important process for these natural communities. As these disturbances occur, it helps to redistribute resources, so certain things can thrive in that environment while others are still developing", she said. "While disturbances are a natural process, climate change is also driving changes in these natural disturbances regimes. What do those changes mean to these ecological communities? The campus serves not only as an example of how destructive these disturbances can be but is also a laboratory to test these questions."
Disturbances can reshape "what we see as a stable community," said Bonfim.
"It's important for us to study disturbance ecology to gain a greater understanding of what's going on right now," she said. "Climate change will cause these disturbances to become more frequent, more intense, more magnified in time with widespread impacts. Putting it in context, disturbances can affect the economy, social structures, building construction — you're going to have to rethink urban planning. Everything is connected."
During the Disturbance Ecology course, students will learn the basic concepts related to disturbance ecology and place it in an applied context, said Bonfim.
"Students will be making observations and collecting and analyzing data. They are going to be looking at what's going on right now in systems that were impacted by the tornado and study what we can do in the future to mitigate how devastating these disturbances can be," she said. "By understanding these systems, it will be easier for us to make changes for the future. This is a great opportunity to provide a unique field training experiences to our students — just being out there, learning to apply basic field methods, collecting data, learning how to organize and analyze those data, and discovering what kind of research questions can be answered with this kind of experience."