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Jon Wang

Vulnerable forests and the carbon budget


Jon Wang is an Earth systems scientist and recently joined the faculty of the School of Biological Sciences as an assistant professor.

Born and raised in California, Wang’s undergraduate degree took him across the country to Brown University where he studied biology and geology. “It was the major that had the most field trips,” jokes Wang. “And if I could go outside as part of school, that sounded great. It really set me down on this path of trying to understand the Earth system overall, and how biogeochemical cycles like the carbon cycle or nutrient cycles interact and form the world as we know it today.”

Wang’s current research revolves around understanding environmental changes to ecosystems in places like Canada and Alaska, where rapidly warming temperatures are re-shaping the variety of plant life that grows in those areas. “In the far north, it’s warming faster than anywhere else on the planet. And that’s causing what we call a biome shift,” explains Wang. By utilizing decades of satellite data from sources such as NASA, Wang is able to observe changes to these ecosystems over long periods of time by combining machine learning and data science to transform the satellite information into useful datasets. Having a big-picture view of these ecosystems helps inform these scientists about where, when, and why certain ecosystems have changed, and what that means for addressing climate change.

Wang recalls the course that compelled him to dive into the trove of forest and ecosystem data:  “There was one course I took at the end of my time at Brown called Environmental Remote Sensing which was focused on trying to understand how we use satellites to measure changes on the Earth’s surface. I decided that that was one of the best combinations of geology, biology, physics, and engineering. So I decided to go back to grad school and pursue a Ph.D. and try to advance this kind of research.”

With climate change at the forefront of global conversation as he began his Ph.D. at Boston University, Wang says he felt compelled to be more involved with research surrounding climate solutions. “Things were starting to feel pretty serious, and I felt like I was really outside of all of it, you know, working and trying to pay off student loans. I decided that I wanted to try to understand that whole issue a lot better. So that’s how I got connected into trying to understand forests and the role they play in the Earth system, and how they may potentially serve as a solution for the climate crisis.”

Wang began his career by researching urban heat islands and forestry in an effort to understand the role that trees play in urban ecology, carbon capture, and human health. Though there are fewer trees in cities, they play an important role in the absorption of carbon emissions. “We were working towards a better understanding of urban ecology so we can account for the urban forest part in this carbon budget, and that can in turn improve our ability to evaluate these carbon emissions programs that cities are trying to implement,” says Wang. Closer to home, Wang also studied the California wildfires and their impact on both urban and wild areas.

As he begins this new chapter as a professor, Wang is excited to teach a new generation of scientists as they explore everything Earth science has to offer. During his undergrad, Wang was a participant in the NASA Airborne Science Program (SARP) which maintains a fleet of aircraft used for studying Earth system processes, calibration/validation of space-borne observations, and prototyping instruments for possible satellite missions. After returning to the SARP program as a mentor, Wang was compelled to start teaching. “I loved that experience where I just got to meet a lot of different young minds. They don’t know what they want yet, but it’s really cool to see that they have this whole world of Earth Science open to them. It was really inspiring.”

Related to his experience with airborne data collection, Wang is planning on using unmanned aerial systems (UAS), to generate very high resolution maps of forest structure and stress for calibrating space-borne satellite data. UAS’s, commonly known as “drones,” can help measure the temperatures of leaves to understand climate-induced stress and mortality or measure greenness to track the changing of the seasons at a tree-by-tree level. “It’s fun,” he says, “because it’s like playing video games, but outside and for science!”

Catching a drone that is landing on uneven ground after imaging an alpine meadow. Banner photo above: Holding a high-precision GPS unit to support drone flight in Norway. Credits: Brian J. Enquist

As his work deals heavily with climate change, Wang is careful to remain optimistic when it comes to the future. “I think there is a big shift in the broader culture about how these systems work, and there’s a better understanding of how everything’s connected. We’re worried that this biospheric carbon sink is vulnerable to climate change, but it’s there, and there’s a capacity for the Earth to take the carbon back, to mitigate this climate change, and to give us some ability to reverse the damage. And in the meantime, there’s all this research and motivation to learn how to adapt to what’s going on. So I think there’s a lot of hope. There’s a lot of reasons to be skeptical and a lot of reasons to be concerned for sure, but despair is definitely not going to get us anywhere.”

As he begins his time in the School of Biological Sciences at the U, Wang is thrilled to be joining a community of scientists with complementary areas of research and looks forward to working closely with them to expand our understanding of our changing world. “There’s a really neat hub of carbon cycle and Earth science research that I knew I wanted to be part of. And so I feel really lucky that I have the opportunity to join this department and really plug into that whole world of research.”

Wang draws inspiration from many sources, including Utah’s beautiful mountain scenery, as well as the work of Katharine Hayhoe at the Nature Conservancy and Texas Tech and Michael Mann, a professor, and author from the University of Pennsylvania. Wang admires their pioneering public discussions of climate change and commitment to awakening the public to a more nuanced view of the issue.

When Jon Wang’s not busy looking out for the future of our planet, he enjoys Taiko, a type of athletic ensemble made up of drums called wadaiko. Known as “The Japanese Art of Drumming,” the exciting and vibrant Taiko is witnessed globally, but it is most often performed in Japan, where it originated. He also enjoys mountain biking and caring for his new puppy “Muesli.”

By Julia St. Andre
Science Writer Intern