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Cathy Whitlock

Cathy Whitlock, professor of geology and director of the Institute on Ecosystems at Montana State University, right, inspects a soil sample from a lake bed with graduate student Mio Alt, in 2017. 

BOZEMAN — Cathy Whitlock, Montana State University’s newest Regents Professor, will discuss the path and people that have shaped her career as a paleoecologist during a free public lecture set for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 15, at the Museum of the Rockies’ Hager Auditorium.

Whitlock will present “Looking backward, thinking forward: Perspectives of a paleoecologist.” Paleoecology is a discipline that looks at the past to understand how ecosystems have evolved in the face of changing climate, natural disturbances and human activity.

In her lecture, Whitlock will describe the approaches she and her team developed during the 1988 Yellowstone fires that are now used to inform resource management decisions and conservation efforts around the world and her team’s discoveries about the history of fire, people and climate in both hemispheres.

She will also share her thoughts on the tough question of whether — given projected climate change — knowledge of the past is still relevant for understanding the future in places like Montana.

“I was drawn to the field of paleoecology 40 years ago because each new discovery gave us a better picture of the past, and that detective work was exciting,” Whitlock said. “Now, beyond satisfying my curiosity, knowledge of the past has become one of the best tools for understanding how ecosystems will adjust to future climate change. This realization has brought new meaning to my responsibilities as a scientist.”

Whitlock joined the MSU faculty in 2004 and established the MSU Paleoecology Lab, which focuses on reconstructing vegetation, fire and climate histories to understand how past ecosystems responded to climate change in order to better understand how ecosystems may respond to future climate change. The lab supports post-doctorate, graduate and undergraduate students and visiting scientists from around the world.

At MSU, Whitlock served as founding director of the Montana Institute on Ecosystems from 2011 to 2017. She was lead author of the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment, a report released by the IoE that details climate trends and their consequences for Montana’s water, forests and agriculture. The first in a planned series, the assessment is the result of more than two years of research conducted in collaboration with the Montana Climate Office, Montana Water Center and Montana State University Extension.

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