Things are Connected: PDRF Studies Broad Impacts of Climate Change

Ryan Choi Utah State University

It’s the interconnectedness of species and environments that captures the attention of ecologist and outdoor enthusiast Ryan Choi. The Presidential Research Fellow at Utah State University finds excitement in the understanding of how things interact with one another, and how systems work together.

Ryan likens the idea to long-distance hiking — the connectivity of landscapes, the ability to travel from Mexico to Canada on foot, or navigating complex terrain. He would know, considering he hiked the infamous Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail after completing his Master’s degree.

“You’re able to tease apart these complex interactions between species or understand how species affect one another, or how species are affected by something else completely, thousands of miles away,” he said. “You’re breaking things down and asking questions to understand how things fit together and how they’re interrelated.”

Working with Karen Beard in the S.J. & Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources, Ryan studies the impacts of climate change on the ecosystem function in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Alaska. He’s researching the phenology of sub-arctic tundra and the seasonal arrival of the Pacific black brant, a migratory bird. His long-term warming experiment is looking at the impacts of global warming on the way the birds interact with Hoppner’s Sedge, a plant scientifically known as carex subspathacea.

Ryan studies changes in the plants’ biomass and how much carbon is stored and released as the climate changes, and how nitrogen breaks down and cycles at different rates due to the warming and grazing interaction with the birds.

“Things are happening in the arctic and subarctic much more rapidly than they are at other latitudes, so we’re seeing these really pronounced changes and effects,” he said.

But this research has much broader impacts; similar studies are conducted around the world to determine how global warming is changing ecological relationships.

“The arctic is an amazing place,” Ryan said. “I enjoy working in remote places and this is a really cool opportunity to be able to look at how climate change is affecting this remote part of Alaska, with broader implications for the rest of the arctic region.”

Ryan enjoys working in the cold, dry conditions of the Yukon Delta, so Utah’s desert climate is what drew him here 10 years ago.

“[The environment] played a huge factor; southern Utah is one of my favorite places…and I’ve spent a lot of my time exploring and working down there,” he said. “But I also enjoy the mountains, so having the proximity of both the Colorado Plateau and the Wasatch Front is a very complimentary combination for me.”

Ryan said, at this point, his future is uncertain. Whatever he’s doing in the future, he hopes he’s doing it outside.

“[When] I think long term, big picture, I think I’m most interested in working for the feds, either the SGS or the National Park Service, doing long-term monitoring and incorporating climate change and the changing west. Those are the research questions I’m interested in, especially [in the] parks and federal lands in the West or Alaska.”