My Master’s Thesis: Agricultural Adaptation

I graduated from the University of Montana this spring! Below, you can watch my thesis defense on adaptation in agriculture.

Apologies for no human faces, I thought Zoom would save at least my own!

Thesis Abstract

In Montana, climate change is projected to increase interannual variability and the severity of weather events like drought. To sustain agricultural production, farmers must adapt to climate change within a complex decision-making process responsive to a range of climate and non-climate stressors.

This study explores how Montana farmers approach proactive and long-term adaptation, two types of adaptation which are not well studied, but are expected to be increasingly important for adapting to the impacts of climate change. To understand Montana farmers’ approaches to adaptation, I conducted 30 in-depth interviews with crop farmers across the state.

Farmers explained how unpredictability in weather and markets fostered a lack of agency and the sense that proactive decisions were gambles. When asked about the utility of two forms of climate information designed to help make proactive decisions, three-month forecasts and mid-century projections, most farmers thought they lacked reliability and relevance. Instead, to buffer against short-term fluctuations and overcome a lack of agency, farmers prioritized long-term adaptations with short-term benefits. These findings suggest that improvements in climate information and agricultural policy could support farmers in pursuing proactive, long-term adaptations.

An Ode to Gulls

Before I arrived on Great Duck Island, a few people asked me “why on earth would you want to study sea gulls? There are so many of them. They’re like rats.”

I usually answered with a version of “…it is important to study every aspect of an ecological community. Gulls influence many other species…” But such a vague, abstract answer always fell on deaf ears.

People’s distaste for gulls had me thinking: how can ordinary people begin care about gulls; how can people come to feel the same love for this bird that comes naturally to field researchers who witness the majesty, grace, and care these bird exhibit daily?

juvenile black-backed gull
A juvenile greater black-backed gull.

After much thought, the answer came to me in three parts.

1. Poems.

2. Pictures.

3. Realizing that gulls are more human than you might think.

An Ode to Gulls

Flying Rats

Why do psychologists study people?

There are so many.

They are like rats.

 

Why do we study gulls?

They are so varied.

They are like people.

Immature gull.

Eyes Bigger than Your Stomach

My grandmother has a saying,

“Your eyes were bigger than your stomach.”

It is reserved for the occasion

When you couldn’t finish all

Of a hefting meal where you took too much meatloaf.

 

I’ve seen herring gull chicks

With eyes bigger than themselves.

Trying to swallow whole fish:

Head, tail, bones, scales,

A hefting meal larger than the weeks-old ball of down.

herring gull chick
A young herring gull chick sitting on its haunches (probably after a large meal).

Migration

Some people live

In the same town their entire life.

 

Other people can’t stay in the same town

For more than a few years.

 

Some gulls live

In the same state, from winter to summer.

Frequenting local sand bars,

Exploring the inland scene,

And always flying back to the island to nest each summer.

 

Other gulls live

In many states, from winter to summer.

Frequent fliers visiting distant shores,

Exploring more tropical lands and seas,

And always flying back to the island to nest each summer.

Sparing herring gull.
A herring gull soars over the colony.

Parentage

Like a human child,

Young gulls mature in stages.

 

Baby chicks stay near the nest,

Adolescent chicks wander,

Teenage chicks explore—

Until the island’s berms give way to a boundless world,

As their young wings form their first flights.

 

But like a human child,

Young gulls always know where to beg for food.

Adult and chick
A herring gull parent with its chick.

Carl the Gull

Villages band together,

For safety.

 

Gulls nest together,

For safety.

When a predator nears the colony,

You hear it before you see it.

But you don’t hear the eagle,

You hear the sound of hundreds of birds,

That always have each others’ backs.

Gulls chasing eagle.
Herring gulls chasing a bald eagle away from the colony.

Larus Lessons

People can learn from gulls.

Learn to see themselves in others,

Learn to appreciate beauty in the usual,

Learn to stand up for themselves and each other.

herring gull bellowing
This herring gull bellows a warning.

More than Gulls

I was lucky to study gulls on Great Duck Island, but that’s not all I did.

Learn more about the island’s history, see how the landscape changed over the summer, and find photos of songbirds, puffins, and wildflowers from the island off the coast.

Time-Lapse Video of Great Duck Island

I primarily studied songbirds and seabirds as a field researcher on Great Duck Island. But I also documented the island landscape. In a series of time-lapse videos, each captured by taking hundreds of photos over the course of a few hours, the remote Maine island shines. Watch the high definition video below or on Youtube.

See more of my photographs from Great Duck Island, from puffins to plants, by following this link.