How will Minnesota tree species respond to a warming climate?
Forests provide extremely valuable resources and ecosystem services, such as clean water, carbon storage, and wildlife habitat – but how will rising global temperatures affect trees? Ph.D. student Artur Stefanski is researching how boreal and temperate trees respond to changing climate factors, such as elevated temperatures and drought. He also works to understand how environmental cues affect the timing in plants' seasonal changes, and if the behavior of stomata, openings in leaves that allow plants to breathe, might change under higher temperatures and drought.
To answer his dissertation questions, Stefanski is currently conducting research based on a large manipulative experiment in northern Minnesota, where conditions are controlled to emulate global warming for ten common boreal-temperate tree species. He hopes his work will improve our understanding of global warming's effects on plants and help refine how scientists model and predict climate.
So far, they have found that climate warming reduces the competitive ability of currently dominant northern Minnesota southern boreal species, while temperature species in southern parts of Minnesota and the Midwest perform better under warmer temperatures. The physiological performance of plants changes under elevated temperatures, with temperate species responding more positively than boreal species. They've also learned that warming allows plants to stay green for longer, promotes a longer carbon assimilation period, and extends the growing season. However, in mid-summer, plants are under stress due to less water availability because of higher temperatures and less rain.
A lifelong journey of learning
Stefanski calls education a "journey," and his lifelong passion for learning is evident in his work. Growing up in Poland on his family's farm, Stefanski's curiosity about living organisms, animals and plants sprouted at an early age and led to his fascination with forestry, ecology, and plant ecophysiology. His thesis during high school won an outstanding student award in a competition. Bolstered by the recognition for his hard work, Stefanski studied at August Cieszkowski Life Sciences University in Poznan, Poland.
"It was on my journey through college when I truly realized that my life path is to be not only a forester a professional, but also a scientist and teacher," he says. At the university, he worked in Dr. Jacek Oleksyn's ecophysiology lab for three years, and received his first master's degree in forestry in 2005. Under Oleksyn's guidance, Stefanski was trained as both a scientist and a forester, and was introduced to scientists from around the world. "This collaboration significantly increased my experience and gave me a direction," he says.
He realized that his education was just beginning, and found a new mentor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Dr. Tali Lee. At UMD, he also practiced teaching, for which he received a recognition award from the biology department. In 2009, he received another master's degree, this time in integrated biosciences.
B4WarmED: Boreal Forest Warming at an Ecotone in Danger
While working towards his master's, Stefanski began working on a project, B4WarmED (Boreal Forest Warming of an Ecotone in Danger), with Dr. Peter Reich, Dr. Rebecca Montgomery, Dr. Sarah Hobbie, and Dr. Roy Rich. The project investigates the effects of climate change, particularly the impact of higher temperatures and drought on plants.
Through the project, Stefanski learned new techniques, supervised undergraduate researchers, and worked with other scientists. After enrolling in the University's Ph.D. program in Natural Resources Science and Management in 2012, he continues to work on B4WarmED and has managed the project for the past eight years. "This job created a great opportunity for me to work and interact with principal investigators, graduate students, and interns," he says. Dr. Reich, Dr. Montgomery, and Dr. Hobbie are now his Ph.D. mentors and dissertation advisors.
In his personal research, Stefanski is interested in comparing how resource availability, compared to human impact, affects the ecophysiological performance of plants. He hopes to evaluate the role that resources like nitrogen and carbon play in the life cycle of plants and how plants interact with each other.
He also wants to explore the mechanisms behind the processes responsible for plants' responses to changing biotic and abiotic conditions, such as climate warming. "The processes that underlie plant responses may lead to changes that will have an effect on single plants, species, and whole communities," he says.
Igniting a passion for knowledge
Stefanski has shared his work at local and national conferences, lectures, and public events, including K-12 outreach events that teach students about the environment and biology, and has co-authored peer-reviewed research papers and posters. Outside of academia, he temporarily served as an interim forest manager at the Cloquet Forestry Center.
After receiving his Ph.D., Stefanski hopes to continue teaching and ignite a passion in students for science and knowledge, particularly in forestry, biology, ecology and plant physiology. "I would like to work in academia, where I will be able to continue exploring my research interests and keep contributing to a better understanding of the surrounding world," he says. "The feeling of self-satisfaction in accomplishing my goals and the ability to share this with others is the best 'pay' for my work."