DURHAM, N.H. -- On September 23, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the recipients of its newly created Graduate Fellowship Program in the agency's Science and Technology Directorate. Among the 101 students selected from a national pool of nearly 2,500 applicants was Carolyn Girod, a master's degree candidate at the University of New Hampshire's Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space (EOS), and Department of Natural Resources. According to DHS, the fellowship program was created to support "the development and mentoring of the next generation of scientists as they study ways to prevent terrorist attacks within the U.S., reduce America's vulnerability to terrorism, and minimize the damage and recovery efforts from attacks that occur."
Girod, a native of Buffalo, New York, was pleased by her selection since her thesis work involves studying fire risk and carbon storage in plants - a topic with few ties to terrorism but quite relevant to homeland security in the broader sense.
"You don't often associate environmental issues with homeland security," Girod says. But in her application she successfully made a connection between fire risk, which endangers people and property, and carbon storage, which slows the pace of climate change - a potential threat to future generations. She observed that these issues are linked by the fact that fire suppression results in carbon storage through the buildup of woody vegetation, and stored carbon is a fuel for fires.
The agency charged with fire-related disaster relief, the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA, is now a department within DHS. Despite the long-term effectiveness of fire suppression to date, the elevated risk from fuel buildup and recent outbreaks of wildfire raise serious concerns about future fire activity. Also, the recent trend towards building homes and public buildings in more remote areas elevates the risk of losses in the event of uncontrolled fires.
Carbon storage (in trees, in the oceans, etc.) is a major topic of scientific inquiry since it may help slow the pace of climate change by reducing the buildup of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2). Scientists know that levels of atmospheric CO2 have risen 30 percent in the last 300 years. Says Girod, "Climate change may result in things such as sea level rise, changes in agricultural productivity, and risks to human health."
At the heart of Girod's work is the inherent "tension" in the coupled dynamics of carbon storage and fire management techniques. "The thing is, if you increase carbon storage by having more trees this presents greater fire risk, so planning for the long-term (carbon storage) could cause serious problems in the short-term (more fires)."
Of her research Girod says, "I plan to simulate current forest management strategies and evaluate the results in the context of our national priorities. Improving our understanding of fire risk and carbon storage dynamics will help us make better policy decisions."
"This fellowship is an impressive award for Cary and an honor for the university," says Dr. George Hurtt, Girod?s advisor and assistant professor at EOS and Department of Natural Resources. "The fact that the award is for environmental research is a good indication that the new Department of Homeland Security is proceeding in the broadest sense to protect people and property now and in the future."
Among the other New England colleges with DHS fellows are Harvard, MIT, Yale, Brown, Tufts, and Boston University.
Contact: David Sims
Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space